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What Obama must do for Syria peace talks

As he prepares for peace talks on Syria planned for November, President Obama can better help unite the anti-Assad, pro-freedom opposition with a clear vision of what the US supports.

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    Free Syrian Army are seen through a hole in a wall in Aleppo, Syria, Oct. 21.
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Just two months ago, President Obama almost launched a unilateral military attack on Syria to prevent another use of sarin gas on civilians. His goal was to uphold a “global norm” against such weapons. The threat was real enough to convince Syria to start dismantling its chemical stockpiles under international supervision.

Now the United States is working with other nations to hold talks Nov. 22 in Geneva aiming at ending the war in Syria. But what norm, or overarching vision, will Mr. Obama be seeking in these negotiations?

The answer is important for the talks to succeed. Whatever the US wants in Geneva, it will be up against two clear visions competing in Syria’s civil war. Bashar al-Assad’s regime represents the status quo of a ruthless dictatorship. Another vision comes from the increasingly powerful rebel groups associated with Al Qaeda that want to return the Middle East, not only Syria, to a 10th-century-style Islamic caliphate.

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As for a third vision, most of the other rebels, many of whom originated from the Arab Spring protests for democracy, are now scattered in their aims or at least oppose each other for leadership of the opposition.

What’s more, much of their support comes from two anti-democratic countries, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Another major supporter, Turkey, is slowly slipping toward one-party rule.

Obama himself, after declaring support for democracy worldwide in 2009, has backed off that value-driven foreign policy. Last month at the United Nations, he spoke mainly of pursuing US interests, such as defending allies and protecting oil supplies.

His secretary of State, John Kerry, has praised the regime of Mr. Assad for cooperating in ridding Syria of toxic-gas weapons. And while the US still wants Assad to go, it also seeks an orderly transition with the Assad-era institutions left in place.

Mr. Kerry does speak of the need for a “diverse and pluralistic and well-represented” Syria that is also secular (meaning non-jihadist). But he will need to be more forceful in pushing that idealism. Obama almost went to war over one global norm (nonproliferation). He can at least stand strong in demanding a democratic solution for Syria.

The best way for the US to do that is devote more resources to unifying the non-Islamic opposition, which has seen further splits in recent weeks between rebel fighters within Syria and leading figures outside the country. Simply getting most of the opposition to the negotiating table will be a major victory for the US.

A new report by the International Crisis Group warns that Western and Arab powers are contributing to Syria’s woes with their “own mixed signals, independent agendas and poor coordination.” The US can end that scattered approach with a grander vision for Syria, one that looks ahead to democracy rather than a return to autocracy or the fundamentalist theocracy of Al Qaeda.

More civilians have been killed in Syria since the uprising began in 2011 – more than 100,000 – than in Iraq after the 2003 American invasion. Obama helped end the US military role in Iraq. Now he can show similar leadership for Syria by helping the pro-US opposition unite around the goal of a free and democratic Syria. US resolve may be more potent than any US weapons as many nations prepare for next month’s peace talks.

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