Russian dictator Vladimir Putin would never have proposed a compromise plan to put Syrian chemical weapons under UN control unless he had cleared it with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Inevitably, now, Syria will accept some variation of this offer. It’s an offer they can’t refuse. You can’t turn down an offer from your only friend in the world and live to tell about it. It is, after all, only a Russian veto that stops the UN from intervening with a broad international coalition of forces.
Assad likely agreed to the Putin plan because he knows that he can’t use gas now. The furor that has been ignited by the use of gas in the past has brought the US to the verge of intervention. He well knows that if he used gas now, all hell would break loose. There would be no debate. The bombs would fly.
Can we believe Assad if he agrees to Putin’s plan? We really have to give it a try. If Assad accepts Putin’s offer, we can’t attack as it is being implemented. This is not a nuclear confrontation. Reagan’s formulation of “trust but verify” applied when trusting naively could lead to a nuclear war. In this case, if Assad doesn’t surrender all his chemical weapons, he’ll get away with it as long as he doesn’t use any. If he uses them, then he can expect an immediate and overwhelming global response that will force him out of power.
Politically, Putin’s offer has let Obama off the hook. He was going to lose in Congress and might never have recovered from the defeat. Now, he can claim a victory since Assad has foresworn the use of gas and set up a mechanism to assure that he gives the weapons up. He can say that it was his credible threat of military action that caused Assad to blink and that he succeeded in vindicating the principle of no-WMDs.
So where does this leave Congress? Congressional leaders would be foolish to ask their members to cast a hypothetical vote hinged on whether Assad accepts the proposal. Some will urge Congress to vote anyway to strengthen Obama’s hand in the negotiations, but the House Republicans will be wary of any resolution that might be used for a strike should talks fail.
In a sense, Putin’s offer changes the nature of the charges against Assad. It immediately morphs the debate from one over whether to punish the Syrian dictator for using poison gas to one about whether to trust that he won’t use it again. The debate is no longer about punishment for the past, but about accountability in the future.
What if Assad says yes and then doesn’t do anything? We should not draw another red line around the inspection process. While we did attack Saddam for each violation of the UN resolutions, we had previously taken out his anti-aircraft defenses so we could attack with impunity. In Syria we would have to start from scratch and probably wouldn’t do so. But we should draw — and the UN should draw– a new red line making clear that if Assad uses gas again that we will attack. And this time, we’d mean it.
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