Take It and Like It

Why Obama should be thrilled about the Russian chemical weapons deal.

Just when it seemed that President Obama's good intentions had trapped him in the ultimate no-win predicament, salvation has come to him -- from Moscow of all places. Despite his own over-active appointees -- including the famously interventionist ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, and a vehement Secretary of State John Kerry -- Obama should promptly accept the Russian proposal.

The no-win predicament is Obama's request for congressional authorization for the bombardment of Syria. If Congress votes no -- as Obama himself would almost certainly vote were he still a senator -- the administration's authority would  be damaged greatly. If Congress votes yes, Obama would be forced to launch the military attack on Syria that he has wisely resisted for more than two years, because of fully justified fears that Assad's enemies are potentially even more dangerous than the regime itself.

The Russian offer to identify, locate, and remove of all chemical weapons from Syria under international (read U.S.-Russian) supervision is a far better remedy than bombardment could ever be. True, the record of U.N. and other international inspectors hardly inspires confidence -- they might miss quite a few chemical warheads and bombs if they are hidden well enough. But that's no less true of any attempt to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons by bombing depots and bases -- some are bound to escape detection and destruction, not to mention the potential for a dangerous dispersal of chemical agents in a strike. 

Perhaps I am missing something, but it seems that every possible argument for the bombing of Syria is totally overturned by the Russian offer.

If the purpose is to punish the Assad regime in order to reaffirm the longstanding global prohibition of chemical warfare, it can be achieved much more powerfully by the wholesale chemical disarmament the Russians are proposing, rather than by an attack that could only destroy some of the weapons

If the purpose is to intimidate Iran into giving up its more dangerous nuclear activities, the precedent of identification and removal by Americans and Russians working jointly must be far more intimidating to Iran's ayatollahs than the threat of a unilateral U.S. air bombardment that has long been very improbable -- and which has now lost all credibility given the very public hesitation to attack Syria, a state much weaker, and much less able to retaliate in the Persian Gulf or elsewhere. By contrast, Tehran's greatest fear is American and Russian cooperation. Especially now that economic sanctions have actually been effective, Iranian leaders might finally accept real limits on their nuclear activities once they see Americans and Russians really cooperating effectively in Syria

By contrast, the political and diplomatic reasons not to bomb Assad are greatly reinforced by the Russian offer. It was already costly to slap Putin in the face by attacking Russia's only ally  -- it can retaliate by  supporting Iran at the UN ( where it has voted against Iran in the past) and with weapon deliveries --  but would be doubly so now that the Russians themselves have offered a better alternative. It was already costly for Obama politically to start another war -- it would demoralize his most fervent supporters on the left -- and much more so now that the Russian offer makes the bombing simply unnecessary.

True, the Assad regime will continue to wage war much as before -- even without the chemical weapons it has scarcely needed. Yes, the Syrian civil war will now continue its merciless grind of attrition. And yes, a bombing campaign could perhaps have weakened the Assad regime sufficiently to allow the rebels to win. But that is precisely the outcome that President Obama did not want, even before the dangerous fanaticism of many of the rebels was exposed to the world by their own videos, and by the testimony of Westerners they have captured and abused. Having tripped up on his own no-chemical weapon red line, Obama can revert to his wise policy of opposing Assad verbally while giving minimal support to the rebels in practice -- by accepting the Russian offer. With that, the destroyers can withdraw from the Eastern Mediterranean, the fighter-bombers stand down, and the administration can refocus on America and its acute economic problems -- instead of embarking on another military adventure that offers only costs, risks, and the mathematical certainty that the United States will be blamed by all sides in the aftermath.



Step Up in Syria, Mr. President

It's not just about chemical weapons -- it's about stopping a brutal dictator's war.

As the United States contemplates whether to intervene in Syria, one cannot but look back and wonder how a brutal despot managed to turn a peaceful revolution into one of the ugliest civil wars of this generation.

We all know how it started. The people of the southern city of Daraa spontaneously took to the streets in March 2011, asking for retribution after their children were tortured by the regime's internal security forces. And for over six months, as demonstrations spread across the country, Syrians kept peacefully protesting for justice and systemic reforms. The regime's excessive use of force reflected its brutal nature, but Syrians were equally stubborn in seeking a life of freedom, justice, and dignity.

This did not begin as a violent uprising. As Syrians faced bullets with their bare chests in those early days, the demonstrators kept chanting "peaceful, peaceful" and "the Syrian people are one." But the atrocities of the regime and its supporting gangs, the shabiha, eventually forced the Syrian people to take up arms.

The United States now faces a critical decision about whether it will make Bashar al-Assad's regime pay for its latest atrocity -- the use of chemical weapons on a Damascus suburb, which killed hundreds of innocent people. If the United States and the international community fail to deal with the ongoing war -- and in particular the latest chemical attack -- it will send a disastrous message to tyrants across the globe that the world will stand idly by while they slaughter their citizens.

The West should do more than deal with this single attack: It needs to lead a new process to protect Syria and the broader Arab world from fragmentation. It can do so by supporting the forces of moderation, harnessing the spirit of those Syrian protesters who took to the streets early in the revolution calling for peaceful change. The current strategy has led to results directly opposed to Western interests: It has kept the Syrian regime alive and capable of wreaking havoc across the region, radicalized the opposition, and allowed larger Iranian involvement in the Middle East. It is time to change course.

There has already been international intervention in Syria -- on the side of the regime. In stark contrast to the many countries that expressed moral sympathy with the Syrian people, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah have not hesitated to bolster Assad's killing machine. They have provided financial aid, heavy weapons, and military personnel to better assist Assad in killing his own people.

Even as Assad used long-range rockets and modern fighter jets to demolish whole neighborhoods, he cynically portrayed his brutal campaign as a battle against Islamic extremists. He invited the world to choose him as the lesser of two evils, with some success. With the help of Iran and Hezbollah, he continued to deliberately transform a revolution that seeks liberation from a brutal regime into a sectarian conflict -- provoking dangerous spillover violence in a region already wracked by religious tensions, especially with the Palestinian issue still unresolved.

At the beginning of the revolution, top figures of the Syrian regime clearly threatened to burn the country to the ground in order to stay in power. More than two years later, it is clear they have made good on their promise: Over 100,000 lives have been lost, over 200,000 people have been injured and many more are imprisoned, and almost a third of the Syrian population is displaced either inside or outside the country. The number of Syrians who have sought shelter in Lebanon now constitutes a quarter of the Lebanese population. And even as Assad fulfills his promise, with the help of Iran and Hezbollah, the world simply watches.

It is inconceivable that Assad would accept the kind of political transition envisioned in the Geneva process, given this state of affairs. In fact, if the current situation is allowed to continue, there is every reason to believe that the tragedy in Syria will continue unabated.

The world -- and the West in particular -- has a great moral obligation to stop Assad's hateful campaign. In the 21st century, no government should be allowed to use such horrible weapons against its own citizens. The recent, horrific chemical weapons attack is the direct result of the impunity that the Syrian regime is enjoying. Assad has proved that he is willing to slaughter Syrians by the thousands and destroy millennia-old cities to maintain his grip on power. He is a danger to the Syrian people -- and to the entire globe.

Beyond the humanitarian case, the United States has a strategic interest in ending the conflict in Syria. The continuation of the war is breeding terrorism and leading to the expansion of Iranian hegemony in the region. These results are contrary to U.S. strategic interests, and the idea that a continuation of the war is somehow in the interests of Washington is absurd. The continuation of the war and this humanitarian tragedy is but an invitation for problems to fester and spread -- not just in Syria, but in the Middle East and beyond.

Photo: Alessio Romenzi/AFP/Getty Images