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Editorial: Endgame under way for Syria's Assad

Syrian President Bashar Assad delivers a speech in

Syrian President Bashar Assad delivers a speech in Damascus, Syria, at Damascus University. Photo Credit: AP, 2011

The opposition bomb that took the lives of three top regime officials in Syria on Wednesday didn't kill President Bashar Assad. Yet it likely finished him nonetheless.

That's good news for freedom-loving people everywhere, but it poses ample challenges for U.S. policy-makers and the international community. The attack may well have amplified Assad's desperation, which could bring ever more brutal measures to suppress the rebellion. A widening civil war in Syria could destabilize its volatile region, posing hazards to American interests there and driving up oil prices.

And while almost anyone would be better than Assad, it's not clear whether the opposition is sufficiently organized or democratic to produce the kind of government the United States can get comfortable with. As in Egypt, the State Department should exert every effort to reach out to any new rulers who take power in Syria.

Then there's the matter of chemical weapons. Syria is widely believed to have stockpiles of these -- real ones, rather than the chimerical variety that drew America into Iraq -- which must be secured and, ideally, destroyed by some subsequent custodian. Meanwhile, it's vital for the United States to communicate to what's left of the tattered Syrian regime that using these weapons is completely unacceptable.

None of these hazards should be allowed to obscure the good news that Assad's days are numbered. The tragedy is that the violence in Syria, which has already claimed more than 15,000 lives, will go on awhile longer because the country's murderous dictator couldn't read the handwriting on the wall long ago. By now, moreover, Assad has shed so much blood that a graceful exit has become highly improbable.

Some of this blood is surely on the hands of Syria's steadfast UN allies, Russia and China, who might have facilitated such an exit, and who might still have enough influence to bring about a political transition that ends the killing.

No such luck. On Thursday Russia and China shamefully vetoed yet another UN resolution, this one threatening further sanctions if Assad didn't stop using heavy weapons and withdraw troops from population centers. Moscow and Beijing have their reasons for backing Assad -- both capitals are allergic to international anti-dictatorship measures -- but they will pay a price in prestige and influence for doing so, even if it's not nearly as heavy as the price paid by the Syrian people.

Unfortunately, at this point it seems unlikely that anything other than brute force will pry Assad loose; indeed, he seems likely to leave office feet first. While the United States has an important diplomatic and advisory role to play in the Syrian conflict, it's hard to see what we could reliably accomplish through military intervention. There's a chance that such action would save lives, but also a chance that it would cost many more, some of them American.

So our focus should remain on staying in close touch with the opposition and using all the nonmilitary tools at our disposal to bring peace and democracy to the latest nation whose Arab Spring has proved tragically stormy. The Syrians will take care of getting rid of Assad, one way or another.