The world breathed a collective sigh of relief after President Obama's speech last night, a speech in which Obama indicated that a vote from Congress on military force in Syria would be put on hold while we once again revisited the idea of diplomacy. In fact, it's safe to say President Obama himself was breathing a sigh of relief, having averted what would have been a dramatic failure when Congress undoubtedly voted against authorizing military force. Instead, the world's attention has been turned towards Russia, who days ago unveiled their proposal for seizure of Syrian chemical weapons by the international community in place of any military action. True, this alternative satisfies the international community's need to stand up against chemical weapons and show that there are repercussions to their use, and also avoids dragging any other country's army into the conflict -- nobody will argue that these are the main stipulations for any proposal put on the negotiating table. However, the proposal is nothing more than a vapid, empty attempt by Russia and Syria to delay any international reaction of substance. President Obama may have successfully avoided an embarrassing defeat by Congress of his authority to use military force, but the time for that will ultimately come when the veil has been lifted and Russia's proposal is seen for what it really is.
Let's start with the most obvious yet weakest point on Russia's proposal, which is its inability to effectively "punish" Syria for the crimes against humanity they have recently and brazenly committed. When a man shoots his entire family with a shotgun, do we as a society reprimand him by simply asking him to surrender the shotgun so it can be destroyed? To be certain, shotguns usually quick more swiftly and, one hopes, painlessly than sarin gas; it's worth mentioning that shotguns are also not currently an international taboo banned by the vast majority of the world's nations. One of the main defenses for military action was the example it would set for other rogue nations in the future. Is the example we want to set that the only repercussion for using chemical weapons against your citizens is simply that you no longer have the privilege to possess said chemical weapons (which were illegal even before they were used to kill innocent civilians)?
Furthermore, it should be an instant red flag that Russia has remained adamant that no matter what, no military force may be used. What Russia is asking for in essence is a colossal leap of faith by the United States and the international community -- we get nothing in return and cannot follow up with stronger sanctions should Syria not hold up its end of the bargain. Russia has remained supportive of Syria throughout this entire ordeal. They have rejected every possible diplomatic sanction, military proposal, and all other methods of outside intervention in a country where they continue to be the world's second largest arms provider (although have not been exporting arms to Syria as of late). What makes this proposal any different than their previous complacency and indifference to Syria's civil war?
Finally, as The New York Times noted today, securing and subsequently destroying chemical weapons is a logistical nightmare -- and that's in a peaceful country. Syria is a horrific, war-torn maelstrom of violence that made it virtually impossible for UN chemical weapons inspectors just to come in and assess the alleged strike from several weeks ago. To assume that, even if Assad's government acquiesces, outside forces will have an uneventful time going into Syria and facilitating the destruction of chemical weapons is laughable. Perhaps on paper the notion seems appealing, but the reality is that Russia's proposal may simply be impossible to carry out, at least while the civil conflict continues in Syria.
In the spirit of optimism, yes, having the U.S. and Russia even sitting at the same negotiating table is a great step forward. And there's no reason President Obama shouldn't hear what Russia has to say, and act on good faith in reaching an agreement that avoids military action. Military action itself should not a preferred option. However, the U.S. needs to stand up for itself, and President Obama needs to remain steadfast in his approach in this: Syria must face repercussions in some fashion for their recent actions. While we wait to see how Russia's proposal develops, it's safe to say there are more than enough questions that will need to be answered in order for any type of action to be carried out.