Through most of his speech from the White House last week, President Barack Obama methodically laid out the case for a limited military strike against Syria to dissuade its leader, Bashar Assad, from further use of those weapons and to tacitly boost the forces seeking to oust him.
Assad, he said, shockingly breached international law and custom last month by introducing chemical weapons into a two-year civil war that human-rights groups say has accounted for over 110,000 deaths.
Obama came to this conclusion: "If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons. As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas" and using it.
Unlike his four immediate predecessors when faced with the question of military intervention, Obama abruptly -- and for reasons still unclear -- elected to put the question of a military strike before a Congress that is partly hostile and almost wholly skeptical. That includes members on both sides of the political aisle.
The president faced a repudiation that would have predictably negative consequences, both for his own standing and credibility and that of the United States as whole. But late in his speech last week, Obama offered the possibility of removing the threat of Assad's chemical weapons without the use of force.
The proposed last-minute rescue comes from an unlikely and, frankly, suspicious source: Vladimir Putin's Russia.
The Obama administration agreed to a Russian proposal, supposedly supported by Damascus, to put Syria's chemical weapons under international control and then either destroy them in place or remove them from the country for disposal elsewhere.
The agreement apparently results from months of casual talks between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin and, more directly, between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The fact that Obama recently canceled a formal summit with Putin because of Moscow's decision to grant asylum to American defector Edward Snowden apparently has taken a back seat to a non-military solution to the crisis over Syria.
On paper, the solution is simple and straightforward. But the United States must still work with Russia and China on a United Nations resolution requiring Assad to turn over his weapons for destruction. The U.S. and U.N. must be assured that Assad gives a complete accounting, that there are no hidden stashes of poison gas. If weapons are to be destroyed elsewhere, they must be transported across a war-torn country harboring fanatical militias no doubt eager to have their own stocks of weapons of mass destruction.
What isn't stated, and probably never will be, is the quid pro quo with Putin, who isn't brokering this deal out of the goodness of his heart. What he gets in return could far outweigh whatever he forces Assad to do under his patronage. While Assad may gain assurances that the United States won't intervene on behalf of the Syrian opposition -- which might not be a bad idea, given continuing suspicions that some of Assad's foes have ties to Islamist militants -- Putin also stands to gain from the deal. American lip service about human rights in Russia is likely to be muted and former Soviet republics such as Ukraine can probably forget about joining NATO. Moscow will resume its "superpower" status.
Putin may well become the reason for "peace" in Damascus, but Nobel lauerate Obama will pay a price for it.