Those opposed to a United States attack on Syria (a majority of us, according to the polls) can take comfort in Vladimir Putin's recent démarche. It averted (or at least postponed) a military action that could send America down a slippery slope to another Middle East war.
The current crisis has freed President Barack Obama from the credibility box he created for himself with his unfortunate "red line" threat. More importantly, it may soon lead to the destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons - and maybe even to the beginning of a political resolution of the ongoing civil war.
It also presents the US president with a potential opportunity. If and when the removal of Syrian chemical weapons begins in earnest, Obama could propose to take the Russian-Syrian offer to a higher level - by extending the United States' negotiations with Russia to include WMD disarmament from the entire Middle East, not just Syria. Such a process would establish America's leadership in a wider peace-building effort.
The sudden shift from military strike to diplomacy has set in motion some important preliminary actions. Although still in flux, they could serve as a promising basis for a broader geographic settlement:
Syria has publicly acknowledged its possession of chemical weapons.
Syria has ratified the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention and agreed to put its chemical weapons under international control and disposal.
Russia has begun to engage with Syria and the United States on the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons and a possible diplomatic resolution of the Syrian civil war.
The United Nations, the European Union and some Arab states support the current diplomatic effort.
Obama and Putin would gain from a negotiated settlement because they need to establish leadership credibility. Also, the United States and Russia desire a stable Middle East.
The idea for a nuclear-weapons-free zone is not new. It goes back to the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the regional nuclear-weapon-free zones (in Latin America, Southeast Asia, South Pacific, Africa and Central Asia) that followed. Continuing opposition of Israel (not an NPT member) has kept such a plan off the table for the Middle East.
In 2011, Finland offered to host a conference to lay the groundwork for the possible creation of a broader WMD-free Middle East. The conference never took place. Some observers attributed the cancellation to US and Israeli fears that the conference would call attention to Israel's unacknowledged nuclear weapons capacity. The United States and Israel have insisted that there can be no nuclear-arms-free zone in the Middle East without a broad Arab-Israeli peace and an Iranian commitment to curb its nuclear program.
Now, however, the time may be right for a major breakthrough. Iran's new president, Hasan Rouhani, has expressed his readiness to negotiate with the West about its nuclear program. In his speech to the UN General Assembly on September 24, 2013, Rouhani said his country is "prepared to engage immediately in time-bound and result-oriented talks to build mutual confidence and removal of mutual uncertainties with full transparency." Israel and the Palestinians have resumed peace talks. Thus the two cited obstacles may disappear soon.
A July 2012 paper on Syria's proliferation challenge published by the EU network of non-proliferation think tanks, part of the EU Non-Proliferation Consortium, concluded that "the prime determinant of Syria's WMD has been the perceived imperative of achieving strategic parity with Israel." The deactivation of Syria's chemical weapons might prompt Iran and Israel to consider reciprocal actions, such as participation in a regional conference on WMD elimination.
Diplomacy is now the key. A regional conference such as the Finns proposed would be a good place to start. Getting both Iran and Israel to the table will be difficult, but if the Russians push Iran and the United States takes a firm stance with Israel, it could happen.
If Syria continues to honor its chemical weapons commitments, Iran begins to negotiate on its nuclear program and the US-Russia talks remain on track, the United States should declare its support for a regional WMD-free zone. Such a policy shift would demonstrate America's foreign policy independence and a renewal of its proactive role as a regional peacemaker.