President Obama should consider diplomatic solutions with Syria

“We’re not sure that anything happened,” said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to CBS News’ Charlie Rose in response to allegations of chemical attacks. Surely a troubling reply as the United States attempts to gather both Americans’ and Congress’ support to carry out a limited airstrike. A recent survey conducted by Pew Research Center and USA Today found that 45 percent of Americans, 70 percent of Republicans and 53 percent of Democrats oppose an airstrike in Syria.

This past Sunday, Rose sat down with Assad in the country’s capital, Damascus, to discuss face-to-face the allegations against Assad’s regime and the possibility of retaliation. That person, however, should have been President Obama or another high-ranking U.S. official sitting across the table from Assad.

So what happened? Well, aside from expressing doubt that chemical weapons were even used (in fact, stating that it was his soldiers who were attacked with chemical weapons), Assad also claimed that the U.S. does not have “a single shred of evidence” to support its claims that his regime used chemical weapons on its own citizens.

Assad has been relatively closed off to western media since he became his father’s successor in 2000. But now with his regime facing a possible military strike, he’s addressing America head-on. He’s addressing videos depicting half-dressed men flailing around the floor and foaming from their mouths and children unable to control their shaking as bystanders watch. He’s addressing his regime, who Assad claims were the actual victims in the Aug. 21 chemical attack. And perhaps most importantly, he’s addressing Obama’s plan to take imminent action, pending Congressional approval.

The U.S. Senate has set Wednesday as the day when its members will hold a preliminary vote on military action. But the threats of a looming strike – and the high likelihood of retaliation, according to Assad – could have been avoided.

Now, Assad’s government, prompted by Russian support, says the country would be open to relinquishing its chemical weapons to an international body. It’s a confluence of hopes and expectations from the American side, but it’s not in any way a relief to the hundreds that have been killed and injured. The damage is already done.

Instead of rushing to a military attack, what the U.S. needs to do is consider more diplomatic solutions. The U.S. needs to set a clear standard, such as a deadline, for Syrian officials to surrender their chemical weapons. Even if that option comes to fruition, the crisis in Syria would not be averted. Headlines and stories won’t merely disappear. But what it would represent is a significant step toward diplomatic relations between the two countries.

At this point, a meeting — whether between Obama and Assad or their respective foreign officials — is highly unlikely after contentious comments. Now, the calling to Syria to lay down its chemical weapons is the latest maneuver in a last-minute effort to get the embattled country to abide by de facto standards before the U.S. intervenes.

If no further action is taken by Assad and his regime, then we shouldn’t expect American officials to carry on with this back-and-forth spat. Instead, expect Congress to side with Obama, who will ultimately order a physical message. Yet many of us can’t deny Assad’s confidence in his rebuttal to the possibility of an American airstrike: “You should expect everything.”