There is every reason to doubt the seriousness of the proposal by Russia — quickly seconded by Syria — to turn over the Middle Eastern nation's chemical weapons stockpile to the international community for destruction as a way to avert possible U.S. military strikes. The turnaround for those two nations is too abrupt, and the timing too suspect, for us to put much hope into it. However, President Barack Obama is right to pursue it vigorously — not only because military action should be a last resort but also because the proposal offers the chance for a much more comprehensive response to Syrian President Bashar Assad's use of chemical weapons than cruise missile strikes could.
As recently as last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin was suggesting that if anyone used chemical weapons in Syria, it was the rebel forces, not the Assad regime. And Mr. Assad had never previously acknowledged that he had chemical weapons at all. Meanwhile, President Obama, looking increasingly unsteady in his response to the evidence that Syria had, in fact, killed 1,400 of its own people with chemical weapons, was engaged in a desperate push to convince the American public and Congress to support military strikes — an effort that was looking increasingly futile.
Mr. Putin has shown every inclination that he still views the United States as a Cold War enemy rather than as a partner. When he and Mr. Obama made opposing cases to world leaders during last week's G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg about taking military action against Syria, the Russian leader appeared to win the argument. He can read the polls and the news reports out of Washington as well as anyone, and he had to know that Mr. Obama was at risk of an embarrassing loss of face. Why he would offer the American president a lifeline — one that has allowed Mr. Obama to claim that his saber rattling had set the conditions for a diplomatic solution — is a mystery.
Nonetheless, Mr. Obama must treat the offer as serious, as he indicated he would do in his address to the nation last night. As a political matter, he has little choice. Congress would be extremely unlikely to vote to authorize force if the president failed to pursue a diplomatic option that has gotten support from the United Nations and our allies. But it's also the right course on substantive grounds. The purpose of Mr. Obama's proposed military intervention was not to topple the Assad regime or change the momentum on the battlefield; it was to reinforce a near century-old international norm against the use of chemical weapons. An admission by the Syrian government that it possesses those weapons and an agreement to turn them over to the international community, if genuine and verifiable, achieves the goal more comprehensively than a limited military engagement would. Moreover, successful diplomacy involving Russia and Syria over this issue would offer at least some hope that the international community could negotiate a global solution to the Syrian civil war.
There is, of course, the risk that this offer is nothing more than a delaying tactic to afford Mr. Assad more time to hide his chemical arsenal — and more time to continue his barbarous assault on his own people without outside interference. The Russians made clear throughout the day yesterday that their offer came with myriad limitations and caveats that cast further doubt on its motivations. But whatever was to be gained by swift action in response to Mr. Assad's chemical attack was lost nearly two weeks ago when Mr. Obama dithered and sent the question of military strikes to Congress rather than taking decisive action on his own.
As the president and Secretary of State John Kerry pursue this idea, they need to demand certain conditions, including a binding resolution from the U.N. Security Council, a strict timetable and an agreement by Syria to sign on to the international treaty banning the use of chemical weapons. Anything short of that should demonstrate to the international community, the American public and Congress just how serious the Assad regime and its Russian allies are about disarming.
Mr. Obama said last night that he has asked Congress to delay a vote while he seeks a diplomatic solution. Better is an idea being developed by a bi-partisan group of senators to enact a resolution in the coming days making clear that it authorizes force if diplomacy fails. The negotiations are far more likely to succeed if Syria and its Russian backers know that we stand ready to use force if necessary.