So far, at least, President Obama’s maneuvering on Syria – we’re attacking … no, Congress has to decide … we’re not attacking – seems to be bearing fruit. According to both American and Russian officials, the Syrian government is cooperating, so far, with the job of disposing of its supply of chemical weapons.
Obama’s critics notwithstanding, this is a far better outcome than for the United States to have launched yet another military attack on yet another Middle Eastern country. Syria is in the midst of a civil war and it would be dangerous to involve ourselves directly in that fight.
Yet, it was also dangerous to allow Bashar Assad to continue using chemical weapons against his own people without any response from the international community, and, perhaps worse still, to leave those weapons intact, available for later use by rebels that include elements of al-Qaida.
Obama appeared to be – and maybe was – all over the map in responding to Assad’s use of chemical weapons. But either accidentally or by design, the threat of launching a military strike led to the proposal for Assad to give up those weapons. Encouraged by his Russian ally, he readily agreed.
This is the only way that everyone wins – everyone, at least, but al-Qaida. The terrorists who could end up taking over Syria would have benefited because they would be willing to use chemical weapons. No one else – not Assad, not the rebels, not Syrian civilians, not the world community – will be better off if those weapons remain intact and available.
The issues now are timing, thoroughness and continued cooperation. Secretary of State John Kerry praised Assad’s cooperation to this point, but made clear that he needed to follow through with his pledge to turn over all of his weapons.
International inspectors on Sunday began to destroy Syria’s stockpile, estimated at 1,000 tons. Their deadline to destroy Assad’s ability to produce those weapons is Nov. 1, hardly three weeks away. The deadline to do away with the existing weapons is mid-2014, an ambitious schedule, given that such a task normally requires years, not months.
This will require the continued compliance of Assad and his government and that, in itself, demands close monitoring of a man who is desperate, unreliable and devoted to bloodshed. It also requires brave inspectors, who are working in a war zone.
Still, one can only imagine where matters would stand today if the United States had launched its threatened military attack on Syria, further destabilizing a precarious government and leaving tons of chemical weapons to be used by Assad and perhaps others even worse than he is.
This was a good move.