Muscular diplomacy [Editorial]

In a little-heralded announcement earlier this week, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons declared that the Syrian government of Bashar Assad had handed over the last 1,300 tons of its declared chemical weapons stockpile to international inspectors. News reports indicate the Syrian stocks of nerve gas and other chemical agents were loaded aboard U.S. ships that will transport them out to sea where they will be destroyed.

At a time when the world's attention has been focused on the escalating sectarian conflict spilling across Syria's border into Iraq, the news was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise grim situation. Yet it should give pause to critics of the Obama administration who argue the U.S. should have attacked Syria's chemical weapons sites and military command centers last year, after Mr. Assad used the weapons in his effort to crush a violent, years-long uprising that already has claimed more than 120,000 lives.

In light of later developments, however, it's clear that the most likely outcome of such a strike would have been to make an already bad situation even worse, and that it might actually have increased the chances of such weapons being used again. Although the president's critics in Congress and elsewhere will never admit it, the course Mr. Obama ultimately took — partly by design and partly by luck — succeeded not only in preventing Syria from using chemical weapons against its own people but forced it to give up virtually its entire arsenal of such instruments of mass destruction without the U.S. firing a shot.

Mr. Obama clearly was prepared to use military force to punish the Assad regime for crossing what he called a "red line" against any use of chemical weapons by Syria, which he said would prompt a strong U.S. response. After Western intelligence agencies and the United Nations confirmed Mr. Assad had ignored that warning, Mr. Obama ordered Navy ships and aircraft to the region in preparation for a major attack on Syrian military assets and installations.

That show of force was enough to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mr. Assad's strongest international backer, that the U.S. meant business and that the American military buildup in the region had the potential to decisively weaken Mr. Assad's hold on power. Rather than see its client state fall to the country's armed opposition, Moscow brokered a last-minute deal under which Syria promised to voluntarily surrender virtually its entire chemical weapons arsenal in exchange for the U.S. agreeing to forego a planned campaign of devastating airstrikes and cruise missile attacks.

At the time, GOP lawmakers in Washington were quick to denounce Mr. Obama's decision to resolve Syria's chemical weapons threat through diplomacy rather than force, especially given that its success appeared to depend on a tacit U.S. admission that Russia had a legitimate interest in the outcome. Critics jeered that it made the U.S. look weak for Moscow to be seen as saving Mr. Obama's bacon.

In fact, both the U.S. and Russia had a compelling interest in not seeing the Assad regime collapse in a way that potentially empowered the most radical elements of the Syrian opposition, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which last week greatly expanded its control of vast swaths of territory in both countries and now threatens to establish a new cross-border state based on an extreme form of Sharia law. The group has seized weapons from government arsenals in both Syria and Iraq, and if it got its hands on Syria's chemical munitions, there's no doubt it would use them to further its goals.

There's a saying among Middle East diplomats that bad as a situation is, it can always get worse. About the only thing worse than the Assad regime using chemical weapons against its own people would be for the ISIS to overthrow him and use those weapons against everyone else. President Obama at least had the presence of mind to recognize that danger and take steps to forestall it even if it meant cooperating with Russia, and he deserves to be praised for taking advantage of an opportunity to achieve his goals peacefully, not condemned as "weak" by some macho standard that bears little relationship to the reality on the ground.

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