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Column: A Syria gift Obama must use wisely

By David Rohde

By all accounts, Secretary of State John Kerry's proposal on Monday to place Syria's chemical weapons under international control was just Kerry being Kerry. The loquacious former Massachusetts senator was making a rhetorical point — not a carefully crafted peace proposal.

Whatever Kerry's intent, Russia blinked for the first time in two years of obstinance in Syria. That's a gift for President Barack Obama and a chance for the United Nations system to work as is desperately needed.

Turning Syria's chemical weapons over to international control will not end the conflict in Syria, but it is a major step forward. For Syrians, it will decrease the likelihood that chemical weapons will be once more used against civilians. For Americans, it will reduce the chance of chemical weapons falling into the hands of jihadists.

Yes, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is unlikely to turn over his entire chemical weapons arsenal — but destroying most of the stockpile is a deterrent against future use by Assad and other authoritarian rulers. If the Syrian autocrat dares use a hidden cache to carry out a chemical attack in the future, it will only harden international resolve against him.

Looking back at the last three weeks, lessons abound of Obama and Americans.

Obama had created a self-imposed foreign policy disaster. Two years of telling Americans that we could have it both ways Syria — claim we had "red lines" in Syria but not act — blew up when Assad called Obama's bluff.

The administration's response to the August 21 chemical weapons attack was a textbook example of how not to conduct foreign policy. Its decision-making, message and engagement with Congress were muddled.

A hawkish Kerry repeatedly stretched the truth at congressional hearings, while making the case for strikes. At the same time, the president delivered half-hearted speeches and golfed. More than anything, the last three weeks exposed the abject failure of the administration's halting, ad hoc approach to a roiling post-Arab Spring Middle East.

The Oval Office address on Tuesday night is an opportunity for Obama to change course and announce a review of American policy in the region. Obama should acknowledge the public's overwhelming opposition to military intervention in the Middle East. But he must also be realistic and say that the region's stability remains strategically vital to the United States.

From Assad's chemical weapons attack, to Egypt's coup, to Israel's rising tensions with Iran, events have shown, over and over, that the administration's "pivot to Asia" is a fantasy. The world economy's reliance on Middle Eastern oil, the United States' alliance with Israel and the threat of terrorism from the region requires the United States to engage, not walk away.

Washington needs to carefully assess which events in the Middle East matter strategically to the United States; whether Washington can influence them, and then develop realistic, long-term plans to do so without automatically resorting to military force.

As I've argued before, there are moderates in the region and we must do a better job of supporting them.

Three forces are engaged in a historic struggle for the control of the Middle East: moderates who embrace modernity; autocrats with unrealistic hopes of returning to the past, and jihadists who threaten us all. The best long-term American approach is to strengthen moderates by embracing economic growth, accountable government and engagement

Yes, power struggles in Syria, Egypt and Libya have devolved to the point where there is little Washington can do. But Tunisia, Jordan, Turkey, the Palestinian territories and some Gulf states represent places where private sector investment, trade, diplomacy, education, access to technology and security force training can play a stabilizing role. Engaging now can help prevent us from ending up in the no-win situation we faced in Syria.

The fact that Assad and his Russian backers blinked this week also offers a lesson to Americans who oppose the use of military force. The credible threat of military force produced a diplomatic breakthrough in Syria. The threat of lethal recourse is part of diplomacy — not anathema to it. Assad would never have made this concession if the administration had simply turned a blind eye to his horrific chemical attack.

In the months ahead in Syria, the United States should use the chemical weapons breakthrough as a way to pursue negotiations with Russia, Iran and moderate Alawites.

The collapse of the Syrian state is in no one's interest. Coordinated pressure from both sides' foreign supporters could cause moderate Alawites and Sunnis to agree to a U.N.-backed power sharing agreement and peacekeeping mission. Past U.N. missions show how enormously difficult such missions can be — but this is the vital role that the world body must play.

At the same time, the administration should continue quietly arming Syria's rebels. As we saw in Bosnia, changing the military balance on the ground can aid diplomacy. Supporting moderate Sunnis will also create a counter-weight to the Sunni jihadists whom Washington, Moscow, Tehran and Alawites all fear.

Most of all, Obama should not think his Middle East challenges are over. The region will challenge him again and again throughout the remainder of his term. Now is the time for the Unites States to embrace a more economic and less militarily focused approach to the region.

The lesson of Syria is disengagement will come back to haunt us.

(David Rohde is a Reuters columnist. Opinions are his own)

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