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The West’s Second Chance in Syria

NEW YORK – The last-minute agreement between Russia and the United States to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control gives the West, which had run out of good options, a second chance to reach what always should have been its strategic goal: peace in Syria and an end to its people’s suffering.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took advantage of Western leaders’ failure to formulate a clear central objective. Did they hope to end Syria’s civil war by forcing a military stalemate, or to bring about the demise of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime? Did they want to strengthen international law barring the use of chemical weapons, or to send Iran a signal about their determination to enforce “red lines”?

The Russian proposal forced the West to choose prohibition of chemical weapons as its immediate goal. Given that this is one of the few areas of possible agreement in the United Nations Security Council, it is a good starting point to repair badly damaged relations among the Council’s five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the US). Of course, the deal may prove to be little more than a diversion, breaking the momentum toward military action but failing to achieve its goal. Its implementation will be a test of Russia’s good faith.

For their part, Western countries must avoid the traps of the difficult negotiation process that the deal demands, without losing sight of their strategic goal of ending the conflict. The complex process of securing and destroying Syria’s chemical arsenal promises to be next to impossible in the midst of a civil war. To succeed, Western leaders must reframe their approach to the Syrian endgame, rejecting the assumptions that have shaped their policies since the beginning of the crisis.