A complicated issue
United Nations inspectors confirmed unequivocally Monday that a sarin attack occurred Aug. 21 in a Damascus suburb, eliminating any lingering doubt. Inspectors did not assign blame for the attack, but their findings strongly bolster the American case that Bashar al-Assad's regime was responsible.
The finding also bolsters the U.S.-Russia agreement to ensure that Syria turns over its weapons under international supervision.
That agreement is far from perfect. It does not provide for punishment of Assad, who clearly is a war criminal. The identification, confiscation, transportation and destruction of the weapons pose a host of challenges in their own right. And the agreement likely will not lead to the end of the exceptionally bloody Syrian civil war itself.
Still, for the United States, the resolution of the chemical weapons issue is a far better result than involvement in yet another Middle East war.
In the run-up to the agreement struck over the weekend, the question of war had been posed largely in terms of whether there would be "boots on the ground," meaning troops in combat. But that is a false standard. Engagement of U.S. power, even from afar with missiles, is an act of war. It would have far broader implications than in Syria alone, where the various tribal and religious factions also are fighting yet another proxy battle in the age-old Sunni-Shiite conflict that underlies so much of the instability in the region.
The United States must maintain the threat of force and be ready to use it, since that is the only leverage to implement the diplomatic solution regarding chemical weapons.
Some critics complain that the Syrian episode has increased the legitimacy of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the international arena, but the bottom line is that it was only the valid threat of U.S. force that gave him the opportunity.
Most Americans clearly aren't interested in driving "regime change" in Syria even if they are rooting for it, especially as they look at the debris of Iraq and the unsettled political landscape of Afghanistan. While the critics characterize the Syria matter as a retreat for the U.S., it is more a realization that U.S. force cannot resolve matters in a region at war with itself.