'Any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments'

Chicago Tribune EditorialSeptember 12, 2013 

In the four days from the moment President Barack Obama announced he would address the nation to the moment he stepped to the lectern Tuesday night, the dynamics of the Syrian crisis went through dizzying and mysterious changes.

Obama lost this country -- his bid to persuade the American public and majorities of the U.S. House and Senate to back his bid for a military strike grew all but hopeless. But he might, just might, have found audiences in the most unlikely of places: Damascus and Moscow. Yes, you should still greet that last sentence with skepticism.

If Obama's speech sounded like it emerged from still unfolding events in a three, two, one countdown before delivery, well, that would make sense. This situation has evolved hour by hour, and we suspect none of us knows the half of it.

On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry made the seemingly offhand suggestion that Syria could avoid a showdown by giving up its chemical weapons. President Bashar Assad jumped at the idea. The Kremlin proposed that Syria turn over its stockpile to Russian and international safeguarding. World leaders saw an opening. Obama warily embraced it as a potentially "significant breakthrough."

The president Tuesday night made his most cogent argument to date for a "targeted strike" to deter Assad's atrocities and degrade his military. But the news was Obama's confirmation that he has asked Congress to postpone any vote authorizing use of force and will give the diplomats a chance to resolve this.

"It's too early to tell whether this offer will succeed," Obama said, "and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments, but this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force."

The upshot: Congress won't be voting anytime soon, no doubt to Obama's great relief because he was going to be embarrassed. Obama won't pursue a military strike before he exhausts the avenue of a voluntary chemical weapons disarmament by the Assad regime, overseen by the United Nations.

Obama doesn't know -- no one does -- if this Russian diplomatic offer is real or a head feint to buy time, but deciphering that shouldn't take long. If the Russians and their Syrian client put a serious proposal on the table, then this could end with an army of international inspectors invading Syria and taking control of Assad's weapons of mass destruction. Syria's civil war would, unfortunately, rage on. Assad, unfortunately, would still be ensconced in Damascus, still capable of killing his people through conventional means.

There was already word of a possible unraveling even before Obama addressed the nation. Russia and France were said to be sparring over the international role in disarmament and the prospect that Syria's failure to act in good faith could trigger a military response.

If the U.N. gets tied up for weeks or months in finely calibrating the wording of a resolution, then Assad will have successfully played everyone for chumps.

A strike by the U.S. alone now looks like a remote possibility. That's fortunate, given the enormous resistance of the American public, the administration's inability to muster international support and its odd assurances that a strike would be, in Kerry's words, "incredibly small."

If Assad and Russian boss Vladimir Putin do play the world as their chump and walk away from disarmament, it's possible Obama would have a chance at building the international coalition he didn't attempt in the first place.

Even if Assad loses his chemical weapons, he still will be in charge and have a powerful military arsenal. Obama can do one thing as the diplomats do their diplomat-thing: He can finally fulfill his pledge to arm selected groups of rebels so they have a better chance of toppling Assad. Obama made that promise months ago but -- another mystery -- those weapons haven't materialized in rebel hands.

The only safe prediction: Just as this crisis dramatically changed in the last four days, it will be dramatically different four days from now.

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