President Obama’s 16-minute speech Tuesday on the explosive problem of Syria’s chemical weapons offered a smart way to deal with the problem presented by Bashar Assad. The question now is how it will play out.
Obama’s speech reminded the public of the awful images of children writhing on the floors of hospitals in pain from the effects of the Aug. 21 chemical attack in a Damascus suburb that killed more than 1,400, hundreds of them children.
The president strongly suggested a surgical strike on Syria, and while Assad has vehemently denied launching the attack, few can believe rebel forces had the wherewithal to do so.
Obama was ready to act, even without the support of other nations. This country might already be engaged in another military action were it not for the fortuitous – or, politically well-timed – offhand remark by Secretary of State John Kerry, who said on Monday that if Assad turned over his complete stockpile of weapons within the next week he could avoid attack from the United States. That sounded good to Syria’s ally, Russia, and even more important, to Assad.
But is this a momentary capitulation or stall tactic? The relationship between the United States and the Russian president has not been warm lately, but our countries have been working for the past 15 years in the disassembly of nuclear weapons, something unthinkable 30 years ago.
Obama, in making his case on national television, brought up the specter of chemical weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. It is an argument hard to ignore on the heels of the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on this country. It also is likely to resonate in Russia, which has had its own conflict with Islamic extremists.
Yet, if Assad falls, his chemical stockpile could fall into the hands of terrorists. The rebel forces include two powerful groups openly aligned with al-Qaida, the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Dismantling at least some of the weapons that are known, or discovered, removes a measure of that threat. But a missile attack on Syria could weaken Assad while leaving those weapons prey to al-Qaida.
Then there are other issues having to do with what it takes to dissemble the weapons. Several chemical weapons experts have expressed serious concern about executing the mission given all the variables – civil war, need for thousands of foreign troops to protect chemical inspectors and then finding all of the stockpile. Indeed, not everyone believes Assad will readily turn over his entire arsenal. In addition, there would be a need for more chemical weapons inspectors because right now the United Nations has about 110 of these individuals who are already fully employed around the world.
Obama made a case for involvement in a situation that has already cost thousands of lives. The dictatorship of Assad must be dealt with in an intelligent manner that does not put innocent civilians at risk and safeguards this country, as much as possible, from an even greater risk of terrorism by chemical weapon.
It’s a difficult needle to thread but what may, or may not have been, an offhand remark by the secretary of state appears to have allowed for a better way to deal with Assad.