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Belated Action on Syria Won’t Deter Iran

Yesterday’s decision by the Obama administration to arm Syrian rebels ended years of American dithering while more than 90,000 people were slaughtered by the Assad regime. But coming as it did after a month of victories in the field by Assad and his Iranian-backed Hezbollah auxiliaries, the idea that this belated measure will have much of an impact on the fighting seems wildly optimistic. After weeks of indecision about whether the president should make good on his promise to act should Bashar Assad cross the “red line” of using chemical weapons, the announcement seemed aimed more at redeeming Obama’s good name than its impact on the ground. Should the rebel stronghold of Aleppo fall to government attacks in the coming weeks, Obama’s belated move will be seen for what it is: a half-hearted gesture aimed more at silencing critics (such as former President Bill Clinton) than the result of a strategy aimed at protecting U.S. interests or saving lives. As our Max Boot wrote, there is good reason to believe nothing said or done by the U.S. at this point will stop the government offensive.

But the real problem with an administration response that is too little and too late to probably do any good is not so much the disaster that is unfolding in Syria as its impact on the looming U.S. confrontation with Iran. Some may hope the president’s long ratiocination about Syria portends an American willingness to translate the president’s tough rhetoric about stopping Iranian nukes into action. But it’s hard to argue how Tehran could interpret recent events in any manner other than one that will encourage them to think that they needn’t worry about Washington acting in time to stop them from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Iran is, after all, a key player in the Syrian mess. It was their decision to intervene in the civil war there and to send “volunteers” as well as its Hezbollah terrorist auxiliaries into the fray that stabilized Bashar Assad’s position when it appeared that he would fall as easily as President Obama predicted he would. While Obama talked about the fighting in Syria for two years before he lifted a finger to try to topple a dictator murdering tens of thousands of his own people, the Iranians jumped in with both feet and turned the tide of battle. While two years ago the announcement of American military aid to the rebels might have put a fork in Assad, it’s not clear the U.S. move will even slow Assad’s advance.

The primary focus of American foreign policy in the Middle East in the last two years has shifted from a futile attempt to convince the Palestinians to make peace to diplomacy aimed at convincing the Iranians to stand down on the nuclear question. But the lessons the Iranians are drawing from Syria will convince them to continue to stall negotiations and continue trying to run out the clock until their bomb becomes a reality.

Bolstered by their seeming victory in Syria and secure in the knowledge that their hegemony over a swath of the Middle East stretching from Tehran to Beirut is not going to be shaken, the ayatollahs see no reason to compromise with the West on the nuclear question. Driven by antagonism toward the West and genocidal fury at Israel, it’s unlikely that anything short of the use of force could deter Iran from going nuclear. But the proxy war that has unfolded in Syria has convinced them Obama is bluffing.

With the Syrian rebels divided between more presentable forces and al-Qaeda-linked terrorists, it’s difficult to argue with Americans who demand to know why aiding such a mixed bag of cutthroats is in the country’s interests. But the president’s belated decision is right because the alternative of letting Iran win in Syria without the West taking action is simply unacceptable. Were the U.S. to act now in such a manner as to deal the Iranians and Hezbollah a staggering blow, it might be argued that doing so would give Tehran reason to worry about what Obama would do about the nuclear question. But this minimalistic signal of U.S. displeasure with Assad will do nothing to scare Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Though some may hope this week is the harbinger of decisive action on Iran, all it will probably accomplish is to make the Iranians a bit more confident that Obama will do nothing to stop them from going nuclear.