EDITORIAL: United States must keep pressure on Syria, but diplomatic fix is best

September 11, 2013 

The deal being discussed by President Barack Obama and Russia to have Syria relinquish control of its chemical weapons is hardly a perfect compromise. While it avoids the uncertainties of a U.S. strike and would presumably deter Bashar Assad from using chemical weapons again, it doesn't send a forceful message that use of such weapons will not be tolerated.

Even though it is an imperfect compromise, it would avoid the disastrous unintended consequences of a U.S. strike against Syria. It also would not have been possible if Obama hadn't put pressure on the international community by threatening to act on his own, with approval from Congress. Now his task will be to keep the pressure on, since it is far from clear that this deal is fully "cooked."

Syria's foreign minister said Tuesday his nation will accept the proposal from its ally Russia, while Obama spoke to key U.S. allies about how to guarantee the "verifiable and enforceable" destruction of the weapons.

France, the lone nation publicly supporting the United States in a military strike, is calling for those responsible to be referred to the International Criminal Court. That could help deter other rogue leaders from committing a similar atrocity, but that condition could also scuttle an agreement.

Much more diplomacy is needed to make this fragile deal a reality, probably through a resolution approved by the United Nations Security Council.

In a prime-time speech Tuesday from the White House, Obama sought to buttress his case that if the United States looks the other way when a dictator commits a "crime against humanity," it could lead to other tyrants and terrorists using chemical weapons. It could also weaken international rules against nuclear proliferation, biological weapons and other threats to the United States and the world. That, he said, is a clear danger to national security.

Obama said it's too early to tell whether Syria's offer will become real, but this late diplomatic flurry may have saved Obama -- and more importantly the United States -- from a devastating defeat in Congress, where it did not appear he had the votes for a resolution authorizing military force now. In part, Congress is looking at the polls, which show strong opposition to a retaliatory strike and misgivings over Obama's handling of the crisis.

The deal Syria seems willing to sign offers a peaceful way out of this immediate crisis, and could attract an international coalition. In Syria, a place where there are only bad or worse outcomes, that is progress.

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