It may be too soon to predict how the Syria crisis will be resolved, but it must be recognized that President Obama was handed a huge gift this week by his often-annoying counterpart in Moscow, Vladimir Putin.
On Tuesday, the Russian leader told his ally, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, he should give up his arsenal of chemical weapons. Although it appears Obama and Putin had once discussed this idea informally in the recent past, the development appeared to catch nearly everyone by surprise.
What was even more surprising is that Assad embraced Putin’s proposal, given the fact that the Syrian dictator had frequently denied he even had any chemical weapons, despite abundant evidence suggesting he had been responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1,400 Syrians (including about 400 children) in a vicious chemical-weapons attack on Aug. 21.
Tuesday’s developments forced Obama to make significant changes in the speech he delivered to the American people that night. And they gave those who are genuinely opposed to the country’s involvement in Syria a reason for at least cautious optimism.
In his speech, Obama still tried to explain the reasoning behind his plan to ask a skeptical Congress (and an equally skeptical American public) to support a military strike to punish Assad for his use of chemical weapons, but the developments forced him to rewrite his address and in effect to call “time out.”
That was the smart thing to do. Had he gone ahead with his original plan, he might have earned grudging respect for having given a hostile Congress a voice in the decision — he wasn’t required to do that — but his credibility, here and abroad, could have been seriously damaged in the meantime.
Now the White House has to quickly find the answers to some difficult questions. For example, how practical is Putin’s proposal? That is, how would his plan be implemented, how long would it take, and would it produce the desired results? In other words, can Assad be trusted to fully comply with the plan?
Some Americans, either out of loyalty to the president or for more practical reasons, supported the plan for a military strike at Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal, and even they must have felt a sense of relief when Putin’s proposal was so quickly embraced by Assad.
But that embrace also had the effect of confirming the administration’s insistence that it had proof that, despite all his denials, the Syrian leader did indeed have an arsenal of these awful weapons. He was shown to be the liar we all suspected he was.
For now, though, the carnage continues. Thousands of lives — many of them women and children — have been lost, and many more Syrians have fled into Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, creating unprecedented human rights crises in all these neighboring countries.
Assad didn’t start the Syrian civil war (although the nature of his dictatorship practically invited it), but he is responsible for how his regime responded to it. In a more ideal world, the one we can only dream of, he’d be on his way to the International Court of Justice to face trial.
But if he keeps his promise and, in a timely manner, indeed relinquishes all his chemical weapons (while accepting the international ban on such weapons), the civil war may actually be confined to Syria and, to a lesser extent, its neighbors. In addition, war-weary Americans will have avoided yet another war, and the focus can return to pressing domestic matters.
And the rest of the world will breathe easier — until the next crisis.