AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
Secretary of State John Kerry says the Syrian government must face serious consequences if it fails to abide by an agreement to hand over its chemical weapons for destruction.

Secretary of State John Kerry says the Syrian government must face serious consequences if it fails to abide by an agreement to hand over its chemical weapons for destruction.

Note how the dialog has shifted.

Originally, President Barack Obama promised serious consequences if Syrian leader Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against his own civilians. Now, after clearly doing such a thing, Syria and its Russian allies have gotten the United States to slide the scale of impending consequences over to the violation of a new agreement.

Given the history of how cruel dictators have responded under similar situations — Moammar Gadhafi, for example, hid a stockpile of such weapons after agreeing to hand everything over, and Saddam Hussein famously gambled his power away by pretending to move around a non-existent arsenal — there is little reason to believe Assad hasn't started his own elaborate shell game. Meanwhile, he has bought time with which to continue attacking civilians and rebels with more conventional weapons.

When he released a candid report on the use of chemical weapons in Syria this week, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for accountability for those guilty of such a war crime.

Unfortunately, Ban and U.N. inspectors stopped short of assigning blame for the use of such weapons, claiming their job was only to determine whether chemical weapons had been used, not to determine who used them. It seems as if the entire world wants to avoid the messy business of holding the guilty party accountable, which of course strengthens the guilty party.

Kerry said all sides to the framework of a deal reached in recent days agreed Syria's surrender of its weapons would trigger Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which allows for the use of force as a last resort if all other means fail to achieve a result that restores "international peace and security." But CBS News reported that the framework of the agreement merely allows for a second resolution to invoke Chapter 7 if Syria doesn't comply. That would require another round of negotiations and, in any case, Russia maintains its veto power as a member of the Security Council.

Kerry correctly says Syria will "play games" if it believes the agreement cannot be enforced. He and U.S. allies are pushing for a pact that will spell out tough consequences.

And yet the victims of Assad's attacks can credibly argue that Assad now has the opportunity to escape any consequences at all for what he already has done, which is to kill what the U.S. estimates was 1,400 civilians, including many children.

Rebel leaders reportedly have refused to enter into peace negotiations unless Assad agrees to relinquish power. That would seem to be the minimum acceptable consequence for his action. Trial before an international court on charges of war crimes would be more appropriate.

Both the president, with his rash declaration of a "red line," and Congress, with its lack of leadership, have contributed to the hesitancy toward consequences by failing to make military force a believable option.

Diplomacy is always preferable to violence, but it is effective only when done from a position of strength. And a dictator who crosses the line by gassing innocent civilians should not be rewarded with a chance to avoid consequences by fulfilling the terms of a subsequent agreement to not do so again.