Nicholas Burns

Nicholas Burns

A huge collective sigh of relief from the White House, Congress and Bashar Assad’s palace in Damascus was heard round the world this week when the Russians came to the rescue.

Since then, inconvenient facts about the Russian offer have clouded the picture. The Russians don’t want a UN agreement to be binding and can’t be pinned down on how much time Assad should have to comply.

It’s not clear which organization would take custody of the weapons.

Most importantly, Putin disagrees that the United States would have the right to use force if Syria reneges on the agreement. And Assad himself was ominously silent on whether he will give personal support to this deal.

President Obama is right to walk down the diplomatic path with Putin on Syria. If there is a chance to resolve the crisis peacefully, we should take it.

In his speech to the nation Tuesday, Obama did not specify the conditions we need for a deal because he wants to have maximum flexibility for the talks. At a minimum, the United States should insist that any agreement be binding, that Syria’s chemical weapons be turned over on a short time schedule, and that Syria follow its promise to sign and adhere to the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Most critically, the United States must retain the right in any UN Security Council Resolution to use force should Syria renege.

The United States is thus entering a version of diplomatic hand-to-hand combat against Syria and Russia with no guarantee of success. The Obama team will need to be skeptical, tough, and unyielding. And if the Syrians walk away from a deal, Obama may have to turn back to Congress and request authorization to use force that few members seemed prepared to give him when the week began.

Even if the United States is successful on chemical weapons, it won’t mean we can put Syria behind us. The civil war will continue, requiring continued American leadership.

First, the United States must mobilize much greater assistance for the millions of Syrians suffering in a calamitous refugee crisis.

Second, if we don’t intend to overthrow Assad, we should then work with Russia, Arab countries, and even Iran to force a ceasefire between the Syrian government and the disputatious rebel groups fighting it.We are the one nation that can make a difference in Syria. We have to try.

NICHOLAS BURNS is a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

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