There are no good options for dealing with Syria. Every alternative exposes the country to a different set of risks.
The events leading up to this week began in August 2012, at which time President Barack Obama declared that the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons constitutes "a red line for us." The White House also said, "There are important international obligations that the Syrian regime must live up to in terms of the handling of their chemical weapons. And the officials who have that responsibility will be held accountable for their actions and will be held accountable for living up to those international obligations."
Fast forward a year to Aug. 21, when the Assad regime did in fact use such weapons to poison another 1,400 people, flagrantly crossing the line that the President said would lead to American action. One week later, Obama's attempt to build some sort of international coalition supporting American air strikes were seriously damaged by the British Parliament when it rejected a proposal for military action in Syria.
It seemed that Obama's alternatives were all flawed. Public opinion stood more than 2 to 1 against military action in Syria. But at the same time, if the country didn't act, our allies and enemies would both question our resolve to keep our word on international matters.
Our allies like Israel might interpret inaction as making it feel compelled to act unilaterally against what it sees as threats from Iran. Iran itself might interpret American reluctance in Syria as inability to deter it from going forward with its plans to make nuclear weapons. On the other hand, bombing Syrian military targets would surely become al-Qaeda propaganda and recruiting material. And what would become of those chemical weapons stockpiles if American attacks destabilized Syria's government?
With as complex and delicate a political calculus as this situation presented, Obama went to Congress to ask for a vote supporting his plans to attack.
This past Monday, before the vote could be held, Secretary of State John Kerry offhandedly said in an interview with the British Foreign Minister that Syria could avoid American military action by agreeing to surrender its chemical weapons and submit to international inspections, giving them one week to do so. Almost immediately, Russia, the Assad regime's sponsor, did a diplomatic about-face by saying the Syrians would happily do so. This prompted Obama to ask Congress to postpone the vote until we knew if diplomatic action could get Syria to rid itself of its chemical weapons.
There would be some advantages to the Russians getting Syria to agree to the destruction of all its chemical weapons. We would not be launching cruise missiles toward Syria. The Russians would essentially be guarantors of Syria's good behavior, and they'd have to contribute to international supervision of the weapons' destruction. And the United States could claim that the threat of military action was sufficient to move Syria when the last two years worth of diplomacy had not produced any results.
Russia would benefit by reducing the risk of these weapons winding up in Chechnyan hands. But the United States has the very difficult challenges of making sure that the Russians keep their end of the bargain and that Syria's entire 1,000-ton arsenal actually is destroyed. Vladimir Putin isn't above dragging out negotiations to buy his Syrian client time, which it could then use to strengthen itself against its internal enemies. Also, Putin believes that anything that embarrasses the United States strengthens his hand - consider Edward Snowden, for example.
Kerry was scheduled to meet with Russian foreign Minister Lavrov on Thursday. Their discussions will shape the short- and long-term future of the Middle East and the world. Let's hope they put national interests aside in favor of reducing the threat of war in the world's most explosive region.