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Originally published Saturday, September 14, 2013 at 4:05 PM

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Threatening to threaten Syria is messy and confusing

Russians and Syrians have no incentive to move after the messy and confusing talk from the U.S., writes syndicated columnist Thomas Friedman.

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If you’re an average American and are confused and worried about our getting embroiled in a no-win Syrian civil war, you’re right to be concerned. It means you’re paying attention.

But if you’re a member of Congress or a senator who’s still wondering whether to grant President Obama the authority to use force to deter Syrian President Bashar Assad from again murdering hundreds of his people with poison gas, it now makes sense to take a timeout.

A new situation has been created by the Russian offer — embraced by Obama, all of our major allies and China, but still only vaguely accepted by Syria — for Syria to turn over its stockpiles of poison gas to international control.

Let’s have no illusion. There’s still a real possibility that the Russians and Syrians are just stalling and will fudge in the end.

Part of me wonders: Has anyone really thought all this through?

But part of me also has to acknowledge that if such a Syrian surrender of poison gas were implemented, it would be a decent end to this near-term crisis. The global taboo on poison gas would be upheld, and America would not have to get embroiled in a shooting war in Syria.

In that context, I think it is worth Obama and Congress threatening to schedule a vote to endorse Obama’s threat of force — if the Syrians and Russians don’t act in good faith — but not schedule a vote right now.

If all of this sounds incredibly messy and confusing, it is. And while Obama and his team have contributed to this mess by way too much loose talk, in fairness, there is also a deep structural reason for it. Obama is dealing with an Arab world that no modern president has had to confront.

Until 2010, the Arab Middle East had been relatively stable for 35 years. But the convergence in the 2010s of Arab population explosions, joblessness, environmental degradation, water scarcity, falling oil revenues and the information revolution blew apart governments that once seemed solid — Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, Libya and Yemen — forcing us now to confront some new and very uncomfortable questions.

One is this: Are some things true even if George W. Bush believed them? No one, hawk or dove, wants to see U.S. boots on the ground in Syria, under any conditions. Count me among them.

The only problem is that it is impossible to imagine a solution to the conflict in Syria without some outside force putting boots on the ground. Therefore, you need either a midwife or a Mandela or a trusted military to referee the transition to a new order.

Well, here is a question we need to start posing: There are reportedly thousands of Arab and Muslim youths who have come from as far away as Australia to join the jihadist militias in Syria fighting to create a Sunni Islamist state there.

But how many Arab and Muslim youth have flocked to Syria to fight with the decent elements of the Free Syrian Army for a multisectarian, pluralistic, democratic Syria — that is, the kind of Syria we hope for and envisage? I have not read of any.

I am glad that Arab Gulf leaders are supporting us publicly — most of them are moderates in the Middle East context — but everyone knows that mosques and charities in those same countries are financing the jihadists.

So give Obama credit for standing up for an important principle in a chaotic region. But also give the American people some credit. They’re telling our leaders something important: It’s hard to keep facing down Middle East Hitlers when there are no Churchills on the other side.

, New York Times News Service

Thomas L. Friedman is a regular columnist for The New York Times.

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