Strikes Averted. Is There a Path to Peace in Syria?

After the U.N. confirmed chemical weapons were used, President Obama and other Western leaders seem optimistic about a diplomatic path forward.

The United Nations confirmed Monday what the U.S. and its allies have been saying for weeks: Chemical weapons containing the deadly poison sarin were used in Syria on Aug. 22.

While the U.N. report does not assign blame — they say it's a purely scientific analysis without political interpretation — it has only bolstered the Obama administration's case, as it continues to press the Assad regime to destroy its massive chemical-weapons stockpiles.

The results of the report show "overwhelming and indisputable" evidence that chemical weapons were used on a "relatively large scale," according to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

But as Western officials reacted to the latest report from the U.N. and the deal to destroy or contain all Syrian chemical weapons by the middle of 2014 — a deal which the U.S. and Russia negotiated over the weekend — they also seemed to think that this latest breakthrough leaves an opening for broader peace talks between President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition.

The larger point: If the U.S. hadn't threatened military action after Syria's chemical-weapons attack, a peaceful path forward in Syria might never have emerged.

President Obama has backed a diplomatic end to the Syrian civil war for several months, but in an interview with 60 Minutes on Sunday, he suggested that if it weren't for the threat of action "we would not be getting even ticklers like this."

"We're going to have to get the parties to arrive at some sort of settlement," he said on CBS. "But this may be the first step in what potentially could be an end to terrible bloodshed and millions of refugees throughout the region that is of deep concern to us and our allies."

Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterparts from the United Kingdom and France seemed to echo those thoughts Monday. British Foreign Minister William Hague said he remains committed to the moderate opposition and a resolution through meetings in Switzerland between the Assad regime, the opposition, Western allies, and Russia.

"Our goal remains to convene a second Geneva conference to bring all sides together to agree a political solution to the conflict, and we will work with Russia on bringing that about as soon as possible," Hague said in Paris on Monday.

Kerry's tone was strongest among his colleagues in seeing Assad's ouster:

"We make it clear that Assad has lost all legitimacy to be possible to govern this country, and we remain committed to the opposition and committed to the Geneva process, which calls for a transition government with full executive authority by mutual consent of the parties that will lay out the structure for the new Syria," he said.

But what these statements seem to complicate, however, is the involvement of the Assad regime in locating and destroying Syria's chemical-weapons stockpile. And while the weapons are being contained and the West tries to promote peace talks, the U.S. continues to funnel arms into Syria to help opposition forces in an attempt to even the fight.

Further, it's unclear whether the Assad regime will cooperate and follow through with this latest agreement. The American public seems to think not. According to a new poll released by Pew, 57 percent of Americans disagree that Syria will give up its chemical weapons in response to diplomacy, as opposed to just 26 percent who would agree. And if it doesn't work, just 37 percent of Americans think the U.S. should use airstrikes if these diplomatic efforts don't work.

So, while the U.S. and Russia seem more willing to find a solution to the conflict in Syria, that still does not distract from the stark realities on the ground: The Assad regime and fragmented opposition forces continue their bloody battles.

And the region is not immune to this fighting, either. On Monday, Turkish warplanes shot down a Syrian helicopter that violated Turkey's airspace--this is not the first time this has happened.

The situation in Syria is complex. But in announcing the results of the U.N. report, Ban said he wants to gather all parties in Geneva for peace talks, and will meet with Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later this month to discuss when this can happen.

"My hope is that this instance will serve as a wake-up call," Ban said Monday. Sure. But it also might serve as a way out of the broader conflict.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4447) }}