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Editorial: Success in Syria; Chemical Weapon Threat Eliminated

Before this country moves on to the next crisis, whether of the genuine or congressionally manufactured variety, may we please take note of the apparently successful resolution of a recent one — the production and use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government?

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons announced last week what few thought possible in such a short period: the elimination of the Assad regime’s capability to use chemical weapons — as it had most recently in a ghastly attack in August that killed 1,400 people, many of them civilians, in a suburb of Damascus. Although not all of the regime’s stockpiles of chemical components have been destroyed, inspectors say that Syria no longer has the equipment needed to mix those ingredients or load chemical agents into rockets and artillery shells. The international effort to neutralize Syria’s chemical threat has unfolded not only amid a brutal civil war but also with the cooperation of one of the world’s most reviled and untrustworthy governments.

It was only about three months ago that reports of the attack brought the crisis to a head. President Obama had fecklessly left his administration little room to maneuver by previously declaring in no uncertain terms that the use of chemical weapons would necessitate a serious response from this country. Carrying through on that threat via a military strike was unappealing on several levels. It wasn’t clear that it would be effective; it entailed the considerable risk of escalating the conflict or opening the door to unanticipated consequences; and it might have required proceeding without the support of Congress, which Obama had surprisingly, but rightfully, sought.

Just when it seemed unavoidable that the Obama administration was going to have to choose from a limited range of bad choices, the unexpected occurred: Russia, which had blocked all attempts by the U.N. Security Council to sanction Syria, stepped forward to play the role of mediator. Russia’s foreign minister took what was assumed to be an offhand remark by Secretary of State John Kerry — that Bashar Assad could avert an attack by surrendering all of his chemical weapons to international authorities — and used it as the basis of a solution.

There was ample reason to suspect bad faith on the part of both the Russians and Syrians, but exploring the slim chance that a ruthless dictator would surrender weapons in the midst of a stalemated civil war seemed vastly preferable to the other options. And although it’s still unclear why Assad cooperated, the fact is that he did — and the Obama administration no longer has to choose between undermining the credibility of its commitments and launching a risky military attack of questionable value. If, as some critics allege, the administration has unwittingly bolstered Assad by allowing him to play the role of reasonable dealmaker, that seems a small price to pay for averting the hazards of military action.

Did the Obama administration deftly wriggle out a mess of its own making, or was it the undeserving beneficiary of an inexplicable act of Russian goodwill? Impossible to say, but we do hope the Obama administration won’t be drawing any red lines again soon.

On the other hand, the abundance of caution that characterizes much of the Obama administration’s foreign policy — and for which it has been abundantly criticized — stood it in good stead here. We hope the White House continues to remain skeptical about the benefits of intervention — not because we don’t share the outrage about acts of inhumanity around the globe, but rather because the nation’s ability to unilaterally secure the outcomes we desire is strictly limited.