This, or something like it, is a very good idea, wholly independent of whether you can get Russian agreement and participation. Much better to make a reasonable demand of Assad—such as verifiably destroy your chemical weapons, and/or sign the CWC —and then strike if he doesn’t comply than to just jump to a punitive spanking. If he says Ok and complies, then Obama will have achieved the goal of stopping further use of chemical weapons in Syria and also of upholding and furthering a global norm against their use. If Assad says No or says Yes and then goes ahead and carries out more gas attacks, then it is much easier to make the case and probably get more domestic and international support for a punitive strike.
Administration officials are reportedly worried about whether this could work because it would be hard to verify compliance:
“If Assad said he was turning this stuff over, how would we know if he has really complied?” asked the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence issues.
You wouldn’t know if he had turned it all over, but you would be able tell if he or his minions carried out more major gas attacks. It would be great if you could get an outcome where he actually doesn’t have any chemical weapons, but that’s not even what the punitive strikes already envisioned were supposed to bring about. The point was to lower the likelihood that they would continue to be used (and/or deter others …). So verifying compliance on that crucial question shouldn’t be any more of an issue than it already was.
The use of military force is costly and risky for both sides, usually, and this means that there should be deals both sides would prefer to rolling the iron dice (I wrote about this here, gated though). In some cases, one or both sides has no interest in trying to find such a deal because it anticipates that the adversary would subsequently be in a position to renege on the deal without significant consequence. For example, the George W. Bush administration didn’t want to try to cut a deal with Saddam Hussein because they didn’t think Saddam could be trusted not to use an end of the sanctions regime, etc, to re-arm and get a nuclear weapons program going again. Roosevelt and Churchill made unconditional surrender their war aim because they didn’t think any deal with Hitler would be stable in the long run. When these are the concerns, you get wars of regime change. Here, by contrast, making the deal doesn’t increase Assad’s capability to break it and get away with it in the future. So it’s a different sort of situation and one where a bargain should be feasible. But a bargain requires a proposal.
[By the way: In the International Relations literature, Andrew Coe has an interesting account of the 2003 Iraq war that stresses how commitment problems made bargaining beside the point for the Bush administration. Alex Weisiger’s new book Logics of War: Explanations for Limited and Unlimited Conflicts argues that big, destructive wars are usually wars of regime change driven by commitment problems like those just mentioned. The situation is different here both because it’s not clear that the administration would want the Assad regime to disappear if the only route was total collapse, and because what they want him to do (stop using chemical weapons) doesn’t involve the sort of commitment problem that drives wars of regime change.]