Playing for time


LOOKING to make a virtue of necessity, President Obama has gained a delay in a congressional vote on a U.S. military strike against Syria while he pursues an international diplomatic response to the Bashar Assad regime's deadly use of chemical weapons against its own people. The President almost surely would have lost that vote.

Mr. Obama now has time to make a clearer, more coherent case to Americans, the lawmakers who represent them, and our allies for the need to punish Syria for its use of banned poison gas last month to kill 1,400 civilians — including more than 400 children — during that country's civil war. The President started to articulate that case during his speech to the nation on Tuesday night.

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Meanwhile, though, he is grasping at the slenderest of reeds: a proposal that supposedly would force Syria to surrender its chemical arsenal to U.N. inspectors. The alacrity with which Assad and his chief protector and arms supplier, Russian President Vladimir Putin, have advanced the proposal invites deep suspicion. Mr. Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and National Security Adviser Susan Rice all have expressed skepticism that the plan can work.

Assad previously denied using or even possessing chemical weapons, despite ample evidence to the contrary.

Mr. Putin has been equally brazen, wielding Russia’s veto in the U.N. Security Council to block concerted diplomatic action against Syria’s war crimes.

Even assuming Assad’s cooperation, attempting to find and secure chemical weapons stocks amid the chaos of a civil war would be an unprecedented undertaking. Still, President Obama had no choice but to test the sincerity of the Syrian and Russian leaders, if only to reduce the possibility of the weapons falling into the hands of al-Qaeda or Hezbollah.

But the President must reject Mr. Putin’s demand that the United States agree not to take military action in Syria as a prerequisite to the diplomatic talks — at least until Russia and Iran are prepared to make the same guarantee.

The President also must set a firm deadline and conditions for Assad’s compliance. Any U.N. resolution must clearly place the blame on Syria for its use of poison gas, and insist on a reckoning.

If Syria is merely stalling, that will become quickly apparent. Such defiance will strengthen the argument for a military response, not just by the United States but by a coalition of nations.

Mr. Obama must continue to explain why military action against Syria may still prove necessary, and what he expects such action to achieve. During Tuesday’s speech, he correctly observed that America’s credibility as the leading world power will be critically weakened if it acquiesces in Assad’s intolerable use of chemical weapons.

He also properly identified Assad's atrocities as an issue of U.S. national security. The deployment of chemical arms with impunity could one day threaten American troops on the battlefield.

The President has said that he does not intend to use airstrikes to help depose Assad, and that he will not commit U.S. ground troops to Syria. Short of these things, the administration must do more to train and arm moderate forces among the Syrian rebels fighting Assad, notably the Free Syrian Army.

Mr. Obama also needs to place the military and diplomatic options in a broader political and economic context aimed at achieving genuine peace in Syria. How does he expect to depose Assad — an essential condition of any settlement — without resorting to force? And once Assad goes, how will Syria avoid the violent disorder that has accompanied changes of leadership in other countries in the region, such as Egypt and Libya?

When the President can offer persuasive answers to these questions, his overall Syria strategy will be more compelling, and he will be more likely to get the support he needs from Congress, Americans, and the global community.