Free Syrian Army militant in Aleppo. Wikimedia Commons

Five Things Obama Should Say About the Syria Deal

The deal with Russia to secure Syrian chemical weapons is appealing. Here’s how President Obama can sell it

Pres. Obama’s deal with Vladimir Putin over Syria is headed to the U.N. Security Council, which could stay American strikes in favor of a Russia-mediated effort to secure chemical weapons stockpiles. Whatever the outcome, one thing seems clear: the credible threat of force pushed Russia to the negotiating table.

The deal with Russia, however, is far from certain. The stockpiles still need to be secured; Russia still needs to consent to it in the UNSC; Congress needs to be on board; and the U.S. needs to credibly believe that those weapons are being managed and controlled appropriately. There is still the possibility that it can fall apart and Obama should plan for that. With that in mind, here is what Obama needs to tell the American people.

  1. This deal will actually secure chemical weapons. There is a very real chance that neither Russia nor Syria will fully cooperate with any sort of international effort to secure the entirety of Bashar Al Assad’s chemical weapons — leaving the possibility that they could still be used by a party to the conflict. Obama needs to be forceful that this deal actually will secure the weapons.
  2. This deal will materially improve conditions in the war. One of the strangest moral arguments about striking over chemical weapons, but not wide-scale civilian death, is the comparative scale of each atrocity. Yes, chemical weapons are a very big deal, but this is hardly the first time they’ve been used in a war (even a recent war).But normal combat operations have killed 6,800 percent more people than chemical weapons — without doing anything to address the far deadlier conventional methods of death in Syria, securing some sarin gas won’t change very much.Obama needs to explain either why that is still a win or how it might lessen the war’s impact on civilians.
  3. This deal will enhance American credibility on Syria. Before Tuesday morning, Obama was facing a defeat in Congress, open Russian opposition, a skeptical press, and a resistant international community. But now this deal has sidestepped many policy objections to strikes, bolstered America’s position under international law and even assuaged some of the concerns in the international community. It is also a clear victory for Russian statecraft — something Congress will not be comfortable with. Obama needs to explain how America wins just as much as Russia does through jointly securing Assad’s chemicals.
  4. This deal will lay the groundwork for an eventual political settlement. A common refrain during John Kerry’s sales pitch to Congress last week was that the war in Syria can only be resolved politically. It was never clear that military strikes would bring about a political solution. A negotiated settlement that includes Russia and Assad, however, has far more potential to bring together the major parties to the conflict — something widely considered impossible just last week. Obama needs to make the case that this will improve the political context of the war, showing a light at the end of the tunnel.
  5. This deal will not fall apart should either Russia or Syria demonstrate bad faith. The critical weakness of a joint push with Russia, along with Assad’s tentative consent, is that it could just be a ruse. Assad has lied about scaling back his combat operations before and Moscow is never above lying to advance its own standing or even to gain a temporary edge against Washington. Obama needs to explain why this deal is not a house of cards, but rather the settled course of the international community moving forward.

Of course, there is every possibility that Obama will do none of these things, and instead continue his administration’s frustratingly muddled messaging.The White House has not exactly had a consistent line on the conflict, and that has seriously hurt his credibility both abroad and here at home. He has an uphill battle, in other words. But if Obama can sell this deal to the American public, his fortunes will probably reverse.