On the Washington Post op-ed page today, Michael Gerson, Bush’s former chief speechwriter, seconds a point I’ve been making for a while regarding the malign role of Syria and Iran in Iraq. While Iran is the bigger problem, Syria is more vulnerable to outside pressure and has fewer good options for retaliation. It is, in the words of a former Bush administration official quoted in Gerson’s article, “lower-hanging fruit.” It would make sense for either the U.S. or Israel (which has its own reasons to be aggrieved about Syrian sponsorship of terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hizballah) to apply greater pressure to the regime in Damascus. (See here and here for past articles of mine advocating this approach.)
At a minimum, we should give our special operators the freedom to strike across the Syria-Iran border, if they think that will help stop the “ratlines” over which an estimated 50 to 80 jihadis a month are entering Iraq. (I’ve talked to some of our commandos who have told me they would be eager to get just such authority, but they have been blocked not only by cautious politicos in Washington, but also by cautious generals at Central Command.)
If that doesn’t work, there are various stronger steps that could be taken. One possible idea: Hold Damascus International Airport—the entry point into Iraq for countless Arab radicals from countries such as Saudi Arabia and Algeria—hostage. We could announce that we will use our airpower to shut down the entire facility, Syria’s only international airport, until Bashar Assad cuts off the influx of terrorists into Iraq. This would be a relatively low-risk option from the American viewpoint, but it would impose considerable pain on Syria.
I realize that this idea would be met with shrieks of horror in Washington and various European capitals, where the U.S. would be accused of “escalating” the war. In fact, it is Iran and Syria that have been doing the escalating. Shutting down the airport would represent merely a belated and limited response. Moreover, despite the inevitable political and diplomatic backlash, the American people might well applaud such vigorous action against those who have been killing American troops and our allies with impunity. And it might send a salutary signal of American toughness and resolve around the Middle East, where such qualities are more respected than they are in American and European foreign policy salons.