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Editorial: Obama, Congress must keep up pressure on Syria

Published: Tuesday, Sep. 10, 2013 - 7:19 pm
Last Modified: Friday, Sep. 13, 2013 - 2:00 pm

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. Nor does it punish him for gassing his own people on Aug. 21, an attack the White House says killed more than 1,400 people, more than 400 children among them.

All that said, even this imperfect compromise would have been a pipe dream 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 that 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.

Given the unknowns, the U.S. must retain a credible threat of military action until Syria fully complies with any agreement. That means Congress still needs to grant the president the power to order a strike – in case the deal falls apart.

Nor does this potential diplomatic solution free Obama from more clearly laying out to a very skeptical public what precisely the path forward on Syria is and why it is in our national interest to see it through.

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.

“This is not a world we should accept. This is what’s at stake,” he said. It was timely that he spoke on the eve of 9/11 since the next attack on the homeland could be with chemical or biological weapons.

The president said it’s too early to tell whether Syria’s offer will become real, but he’s willing to take some time to find out. If diplomacy fails and military action becomes necessary, Obama tried to reassure Americans that he won’t put the country into another war, and that a limited strike would be effective.

Yet 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.

Without an imminent and direct threat to U.S. citizens or national security, it would have been very difficult for Obama to order an attack in the absence of congressional permission or backing from the U.N., NATO or the Arab League.

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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