Editorial: A change in tone for Syria

The drums of war have been replaced by talk of a more peaceful solution.

That’s something every American should be thankful to see, because up until this week, that’s not how the U.S. response to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in its civil war was playing out.

Indeed, even with lack of support here at home and amongst many of America’s allies, President Barack Obama seemed committed to taking action because, as he said in an address to the nation Tuesday night, “Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used.”

But in that same speech, the president asked Congress to postpone a vote that would authorize air strikes against Syrian targets and instead allow another means of removing the threat of chemical weapons from Syria.

Intended or not, language used by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry created this opportunity for resolving the issue without the weapons of war.

It was Kerry — during a press conference in London — who said in response to a question about whether there was anything Assad could do to avoid a strike, responded, “Sure, he could turn over every bit of his weapons to the international community within the next week, without delay.” But, the former senator from Massachusetts added, “But he isn’t about to.”

Whether it was a throw-away remark or something more subtle when it came to heading off U.S. action, it was taken seriously by Syria and one of Assad’s main sponsors — Russia.

“We are calling on the Syrian leadership not just to agree to put chemical-weapons stores under international control, but also to their subsequent destruction, as well as fully fledged accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention,” Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. A couple of days later, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said, “I am authorized to confirm our support for the Russian initiative regarding chemical weapons in Syria in compliance with the regime of the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons ... We are ready to inform about the location of chemical weapons, halt the production of chemical weapons and also show these objects to representatives of Russia, other states and the United Nations.”

It all sounds too good to be true. And given Assad’s record, it may prove to be simply a bid to buy more time while he continues to attack his own people with conventional weapons. But now there are more stakeholders on both sidelines in the Syria conflict.

“War is what happens,” said the author Margaret Atwood, “when language fails.”

Fortunately, it would appear that an opening for the language of diplomacy to prevail in Syria still exists.

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