Commentary Magazine


Topic: Bashar al-Assad

Thinking Through Our Syrian Options

On the lead-up to a likely strike against Syria by the United States, there are some things most of us can agree on.

One is that Bashar al-Assad is a malevolent figure. Two, a de minimis strike–one that 
is mostly symbolic and does nothing to alter the course of the war–is worse than doing nothing. And three, President Obama has handled the Syrian situation with staggering incompetence.

The list of mistakes by Mr. Obama includes, but is by no means limited to, declaring two years ago that Assad must go (and doing nothing to achieve that end); declaring one year ago that if Syria used chemical weapons it would be crossing a “red line” that would constitute a “game changer” (Assad crossed the “red line,” for months nothing happened, and whatever Obama does, he’s made it clear it will not constitute a “game changer”); signaling to our enemies, in advance, the details of our expected operation–thereby making a strike, if it occurs, the most telegraphed and reluctant military action in American history; doing a miserable job building a coalition to support a military strike (Obama’s “coalition of the willing” might include all of two nations); doing a miserable job building support among the American people (they are decidedly unenthusiastic about a military intervention in Syria); and signaling he was going to bypass congressional authorization for military use of force before reversing course and declaring on Saturday that he would seek authorization–but only after Congress returns from its summer recess (thereby sending the message to Congress, the American public, and the world that there’s no real urgency to a strike, despite the secretary of state saying that what Syria has done is “morally obscene”). This is Keystone Cops material. 


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On the lead-up to a likely strike against Syria by the United States, there are some things most of us can agree on.

One is that Bashar al-Assad is a malevolent figure. Two, a de minimis strike–one that 
is mostly symbolic and does nothing to alter the course of the war–is worse than doing nothing. And three, President Obama has handled the Syrian situation with staggering incompetence.

The list of mistakes by Mr. Obama includes, but is by no means limited to, declaring two years ago that Assad must go (and doing nothing to achieve that end); declaring one year ago that if Syria used chemical weapons it would be crossing a “red line” that would constitute a “game changer” (Assad crossed the “red line,” for months nothing happened, and whatever Obama does, he’s made it clear it will not constitute a “game changer”); signaling to our enemies, in advance, the details of our expected operation–thereby making a strike, if it occurs, the most telegraphed and reluctant military action in American history; doing a miserable job building a coalition to support a military strike (Obama’s “coalition of the willing” might include all of two nations); doing a miserable job building support among the American people (they are decidedly unenthusiastic about a military intervention in Syria); and signaling he was going to bypass congressional authorization for military use of force before reversing course and declaring on Saturday that he would seek authorization–but only after Congress returns from its summer recess (thereby sending the message to Congress, the American public, and the world that there’s no real urgency to a strike, despite the secretary of state saying that what Syria has done is “morally obscene”). This is Keystone Cops material. 


That said, where there is a real difference of opinion, including among conservatives, is whether an effective show of force that would alter the balance of power in Syria would be worthwhile.

Some military analysts, like (retired) General Jack Keane, believe the more moderate and secular rebel forces (like the Free Syrian Army) are in fairly strong shape and, if given the training and arms they need, could emerge as a powerful force in a post-Assad Syria. Others, like Colonel Ralph Peters, believe the rebel forces that are strongest in Syria right now and most likely to emerge as dominant in a post-Assad Syria are al-Qaeda affiliates like Jabhat al-Nusra. I will admit it’s unclear to me–and I suspect fairly unclear to almost everyone else–what would happen if Assad left the scene. Which makes knowing what to do, and what to counsel, difficult.

So what is the best outcome we can reasonable hope for? What is the worst outcome we should be most prepared for? What are the odds of each one happening? How likely, and in what ways, will Syria retaliate? How reliable is the FSA? Is Jabhat al-Nusra (an al-Qaeda affiliate) “generally acknowledged to be the most effective force fighting al-Assad,” in the words of CNN’s Peter Bergen? If the (relatively) moderate rebels did receive the aid they need, what are their chances of success? And what would success look like? Taking control of Syria (which is hardly likely)? Taking control of parts of Syria? Participating in a coalition government? Comprised of whom? 

These are just some of the difficult, and largely unknowable, questions one has to ask prior to endorsing a military strike.

There would be a significant cost to doing nothing in Syria. There could be significant benefits if we act militarily (including delivering a damaging blow to Syria’s sponsor states, Iran and Russia, as well as to Hezbollah). And it’s also possible that things could be worse–from the standpoint of America, Israel and the region–if Assad is attacked and/or overthrown and jihadists emerge in a dominant position. “The hard truth is that the fires in Syria will blaze for some time to come,” according to Ambassador Ryan Crocker. “Like a major forest fire, the most we can do is hope to contain it.”

In all of this I’m reminded of what Henry Kissinger wrote in his memoir White House Years:

Statesmanship requires above all a sense of nuance and proportion, the ability to perceive the essential among a mass of apparent facts, and an intuition as to which of many equally plausible hypotheses about the future is likely to prove true.

Barack Obama has no such perception and intuition; he has proved to be singularly inept at such presidential decision-making. But we cannot unwind what has happened. We are where we are. Syria is a nation that has been ripped apart. The window for a useful American intervention may have closed. And even if it hasn’t, it would require a strategic thinker and statesman of remarkable skill to deal with a dozen moving parts, all which need to be carefully calibrated, in order to help Syria heal; in order for a stable, non-sectarian and non-virulent regime to emerge.

It’s much clearer to me what we shouldn’t do than what we now should do. I suppose that’s sometimes where we find ourselves living in this most untidy world. And when it comes to predicting the course of events and anticipating various contingencies, especially in the Middle East, modesty is probably more appropriate than certitude.

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Obama’s Path Forward on Syria

It is hard to quarrel with the decision of any president to ask Congress for authorization to use military force. Even if such authorization is not, strictly speaking, necessary, it is always a good thing to have the legislative branch on board, if possible. In the case of President Obama, however, it is hard to escape the conclusion that his decision to wait to strike Syria until such time as Congress approves a strike–if it ever does–is a sign not of his commitment to the division of powers but, rather, of his crippling ambivalence about whether it is worth getting involved in Syria at all.

This is, after all, the president who called more than two years ago, all the way back in August 2011, for Bashar Assad to step down but then turned down the recommendation of CIA Director David Petraeus and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to arm the Syrian opposition. He also ignored the recommendations of outside analysts, including me, that he impose a “no-fly” zone, a “no-drive” zone, and “buffer zones” to help force Assad from power, back in the days when the Syrian civil war was still relatively young and it was much easier to imagine a post-Assad transition that did not involve the country fracturing apart.

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It is hard to quarrel with the decision of any president to ask Congress for authorization to use military force. Even if such authorization is not, strictly speaking, necessary, it is always a good thing to have the legislative branch on board, if possible. In the case of President Obama, however, it is hard to escape the conclusion that his decision to wait to strike Syria until such time as Congress approves a strike–if it ever does–is a sign not of his commitment to the division of powers but, rather, of his crippling ambivalence about whether it is worth getting involved in Syria at all.

This is, after all, the president who called more than two years ago, all the way back in August 2011, for Bashar Assad to step down but then turned down the recommendation of CIA Director David Petraeus and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to arm the Syrian opposition. He also ignored the recommendations of outside analysts, including me, that he impose a “no-fly” zone, a “no-drive” zone, and “buffer zones” to help force Assad from power, back in the days when the Syrian civil war was still relatively young and it was much easier to imagine a post-Assad transition that did not involve the country fracturing apart.

Instead of doing any of those things, Obama warned, ominously, that his calculations would change if and when Assad used chemical weapons. So Obama stood aside as the civil war killed more than 100,000 people–almost all of them killed with bullets and bombs and shells, not with poison gas. But finally the evidence became inescapable that Assad was using sarin gas as well, and after much hemming and hawing Obama publicly admitted as much in June. His response? Not air strikes. Instead, a pledge to arm the Syrian opposition–a pledge that has still gone unfulfilled.

This is the background to the latest flare-up, with U.S. intelligence estimating that Assad killed some 1,400 people with chemical weapons at the end of August–a claim that is not speculative, as with earlier claims about Iraqi WMD, but rests on solid evidence–to wit, corpses that bear no mark of any bullet or puncture wound. This provoked Secretary of State John Kerry, the chief advocate within the administration of strong action in Syria, into high dudgeon to denounce the “moral obscenity” that Assad had committed. Obama followed with similar, only moderately more temperate language, vowing retribution for this violation of international norms against using WMD.

But at the same time the White House leaked like crazy to make clear to the whole world that any military action would not be designed to topple Assad–it would only be a “shot across the bow” to signal American displeasure. The leaks went so far as to specify that only a few cruise missiles would be employed and that the strikes would last only a few days.

Still, there was an expectation that strikes would occur momentarily–it doesn’t take long to spin up cruise missiles from warships in the Mediterranean. Then the British House of Commons voted against authorizing action and second thoughts seemed to set in within the administration. Now President Obama has announced that he will await congressional action which, in the case of the House, won’t come until the week of Sept. 9, if at all.

Funny, he didn’t think it was necessary to ask congressional authorization before bombing Libya–but that was a cause he was committed to. Not so in the case of Syria, where Obama’s driving desire, it is plain, is to stay as far away from the conflict as humanly possible. The New York Times reporter John Harwood recently tweeted: “Ex-Obama foreign pol aide, asked if any doubt we’ll hit Syria: ‘No.’ Is administration already having 2nd thoughts? ‘Yes. Not a great combo’.”

Not a good combination, for sure–an ambivalent commander in chief thinking of launching a few missiles without any obvious strategic intent beyond signaling anger with Assad and now perhaps secretly hoping that Congress will get him off the hook by blocking action. As numerous commentators, including me, have noted, firing a few cruise missiles risks giving Assad a victory by allowing him to emerge from his bunker after the air strikes to proclaim that he stood up to the American bully. The chances of achieving any results with cruise missile strikes–already slim–decline further with the delay of weeks that congressional action will entail. This will give Assad plenty of time to disperse and harden his missile launchers and other key assets.

None of this is to say that Congress should reject Obama’s request for authorization to use force. On the contrary, a rejection of the resolution would have disastrous consequences–it would signal American retreat to the world and give predators from North Korea to Iran a green light to commit greater atrocities in the future. The best we can hope for now is that an overwhelming vote of support in Congress–however unlikely it appears in the case of the increasingly isolationist House–will stiffen Obama’s spine and lead him to launch smarter strikes that will actually cripple Assad’s air force and other military forces that he is using to commit atrocities, mostly without recourse to chemical weapons.

This should be the first step in a concerted campaign, waged with cooperation from non-jihadist elements of the Syrian rebellion (which, as analyst Elizabeth O’Bagy makes clear, are more numerous than commonly supposed) to finally make good on Obama’s publicly enunciated desire to topple Assad. Anything less, at this point, will not restore the credibility that the United States desperately needs to defend its interests around the world–and most especially to stop the spread of WMD.

And however repellent to elements of his own party a strategy of regime change might be (even if it does not involve sending U.S. ground forces, which no one advocates), Obama may find that by signaling seriousness he may pick up more support from GOP “Jacksonians” who believe that, if force is to be used, it should be decisive–not symbolic.

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What Will the Syria Strikes Accomplish?

Yesterday I wrote about President Obama’s three options on Syria–light bombing designed to “send a message,” medium bombing combined with Special Operations raids to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, and heavy, sustained bombing in combination with ground action by rebel forces to topple Bashar Assad. All of the news coverage since yesterday morning makes clear that–unless the administration is engaging in strategic deception on a gigantic scale–only the lightest of light options is likely to be implemented.

News accounts suggest that the likeliest scenario is a few days of strikes employing cruise missiles fired from warships in the Mediterranean safely out of the range of Syrian retaliation. Their target list would not include the actual depots where chemical weapons are stored but “would instead be aimed at military units that have carried out chemical attacks, the headquarters overseeing the effort and the rockets and artillery that have launched the attacks.”

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Yesterday I wrote about President Obama’s three options on Syria–light bombing designed to “send a message,” medium bombing combined with Special Operations raids to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, and heavy, sustained bombing in combination with ground action by rebel forces to topple Bashar Assad. All of the news coverage since yesterday morning makes clear that–unless the administration is engaging in strategic deception on a gigantic scale–only the lightest of light options is likely to be implemented.

News accounts suggest that the likeliest scenario is a few days of strikes employing cruise missiles fired from warships in the Mediterranean safely out of the range of Syrian retaliation. Their target list would not include the actual depots where chemical weapons are stored but “would instead be aimed at military units that have carried out chemical attacks, the headquarters overseeing the effort and the rockets and artillery that have launched the attacks.”

The amount of damage that will be done, if only Tomahawk cruise missiles are used, will be strictly limited since they carry relatively small warheads of 260-370 pounds, compared with 500-pound, 1,000-pound, 2,000-pound, and even 15,000-pound bombs (the BLU-82 “Daisy Cutter”) that can be carried by aircraft. The use of airdropped munitions can make it possible to penetrate bunkers and incinerate chemical weapons stockpiles without risking the dispersion of the deadly weapons. And even if aircraft were to be employed, they would have to bomb for considerable periods to achieve any strategic effects–witness the 78 days of bombing of Kosovo in 1999 or the even longer bombing of Libya in 2011.

A few days of attacks with cruise missiles is a pinprick strike reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s attacks on al-Qaeda and Iraq in 1998. What did those strikes achieve? Precisely nothing beyond blowing up a poor pharmaceutical plant in Sudan wrongly suspected of manufacturing, ironically, chemical weapons. Actually, worse than nothing: those strikes, which Osama bin Laden survived easily, convinced him that the U.S. was a “weak horse” that could be defied with impunity.

Similar strikes would likely have a similar effect in Syria: It would convince Bashar Assad, and a lot of other people in the region, that he successfully defied the superpower. It could have, in other words, the effect of enhancing Assad’s aura of power–precisely the opposite of what Obama intends.

The U.S. goal in Syria, as enunciated by no less than the president himself, is to topple Assad and to end the suffering created by the Syrian civil war. That will not be achieved with cruise missiles. It will require months of bombing, combined with the arming, training, and coordination of rebel forces. Even a lesser goal of destroying Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles–a reasonable objective given the strategic threat posed by WMD–would require weeks of bombing combined with commando raids. A few days of cruise missile strikes, by contrast, will only make the U.S. appear to be a weak, posturing giant.

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Will the Pottery Barn Rule Save Assad?

The same vague aloofness that has served Barack Obama well at various points in his political career does not make Jay Carney’s job any easier. The White House press secretary must field questions from the media to explain the president’s position on a host of issues almost daily. When the administration’s policy is hazy, secretive, or to be determined, as is often the case, Carney stammers through his press briefing with a defeated, resigned series of non-answers.

Such is the case with the apparently imminent military attack on Bashar al-Assad’s side in the Syrian civil war. After the West could no longer ignore the use of chemical weapons, the administration sent Secretary of State John Kerry out yesterday to make a statement that danced around the subject of a military response. He then took no questions and left. But the message came through clearly enough that it is now taken for granted that action will be taken.

Carney naturally took questions on the subject today, and when pressed for specifics, he gave an answer that became the focus of several news agencies’ write-ups of the briefing: “It is not our policy to respond to this transgression with regime change.” The goal of the (presumed) strikes will not be to take out Bashar al-Assad.

The follow-up question, which elicited no further explanation, was: Why not? To elaborate: it is the opinion of the government of the United States that Assad should no longer be in control of the country, and the U.S. may now strike at Assad’s regime–but doesn’t want to depose him. That may sound incongruous, but the strange truth is that the president most likely does not want to take out Assad–and it’s not because Obama doesn’t actually want Assad out.

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The same vague aloofness that has served Barack Obama well at various points in his political career does not make Jay Carney’s job any easier. The White House press secretary must field questions from the media to explain the president’s position on a host of issues almost daily. When the administration’s policy is hazy, secretive, or to be determined, as is often the case, Carney stammers through his press briefing with a defeated, resigned series of non-answers.

Such is the case with the apparently imminent military attack on Bashar al-Assad’s side in the Syrian civil war. After the West could no longer ignore the use of chemical weapons, the administration sent Secretary of State John Kerry out yesterday to make a statement that danced around the subject of a military response. He then took no questions and left. But the message came through clearly enough that it is now taken for granted that action will be taken.

Carney naturally took questions on the subject today, and when pressed for specifics, he gave an answer that became the focus of several news agencies’ write-ups of the briefing: “It is not our policy to respond to this transgression with regime change.” The goal of the (presumed) strikes will not be to take out Bashar al-Assad.

The follow-up question, which elicited no further explanation, was: Why not? To elaborate: it is the opinion of the government of the United States that Assad should no longer be in control of the country, and the U.S. may now strike at Assad’s regime–but doesn’t want to depose him. That may sound incongruous, but the strange truth is that the president most likely does not want to take out Assad–and it’s not because Obama doesn’t actually want Assad out.

The answer to that question has a lot to do with an interesting debate among commentators on the left about the lessons and legacy of the Iraq war. Matt Yglesias argued that a humanitarian intervention should be done through explicitly humanitarian (that is, non-military) means. Jonathan Chait responded that the left would do well to stop assuming every military intervention is Iraq all over again–what about the first Gulf war or the Balkans?

Yglesias questions the idea that the Libyan intervention succeeded, and Chait disagrees. But it’s Chait’s description of Libyan success that helps explain why President Obama may not want to be responsible for ending Assad’s rule directly. Here’s Chait:

The argument for intervening in Libya was not that doing so would turn the country into a peaceful, Westernized democracy moving rapidly up the OECD rankings. It was that it would prevent an immediate, enormous massacre of civilians. Libya remains an ugly place; it would have been so regardless of whether NATO intervened. But the narrow, humanitarian goal that drove the U.S. to act was unambiguously accomplished without the larger dangers of mission creep that foes warned against. It’s telling that, rather than arguing that the overall costs exceeded the benefits, opponents are resorting to listing any bad things that have happened since.

Chait isn’t arguing that the “bad things that have happened since” didn’t actually happen or aren’t really bad. He’s saying the mission had nothing to do with preventing the descent into violent anarchy and the destabilizing spread of Islamist violence that followed the intervention. Gaddafi’s dead. Mission accomplished.

But it’s not nearly so easy for a president to make that case. It can be simultaneously true that the narrowly defined mission in Libya succeeded and that what followed was disastrous. The reason it elicits comparisons to Iraq is because of Colin Powell’s famous “Pottery Barn rule” regarding foreign intervention: “You break it, you own it.”

Western military action in Libya decapitated the Gaddafi regime, raising the specter of the Pottery Barn rule. It’s true that the administration made no promises to stay and nation-build there. But President Obama learned with the fatal attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi that he could not so easily walk away from Libya by simply saying that he held up his end of the bargain.

The Pottery Barn rule is why Iraq looms over the various humanitarian disasters created by the Arab Spring, tempting American intervention. And the “bad things that have happened since” Gaddafi’s toppling are why Libya is being raised as a cautionary tale for intervention in Syria. If Obama’s directed action takes out Assad, and that leaves a chaotic vacuum that results in more death, destruction, and the suffering of innocents, it won’t be so simple to respond to the ensuing outcry with a protestation that all he promised to do was send a message.

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Syrian War Crimes and Selective Moral Outrage

On his program last night, Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, in speaking on the subject of strikes against Syria, said, “It’s got to be done quickly. Bang, boom. And then let the chips fall where they may. But no more dead kids breathing poison gas.” It appears the White House is considering the same strategy.

I happen to disagree with Mr. O’Reilly for reasons laid out by Max Boot and Eliot Cohen. Among the worst things to do in this situation would be a limited bombing of short duration which doesn’t alter the situation on the ground. It would be a transparently token gesture, done to balm our conscience (at least we did something) but achieving nothing useful or lasting. Indeed, the kind of strike O’Reilly has in mind–“bang, boom”–would probably elevate Bashar al-Assad’s reputation in much of the world (acting unbowed in the aftermath of an American military campaign) and make America appear weaker than we now do (if such a thing is even possible at this stage).

But I also want to pose some moral questions surrounding the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. Secretary Kerry refers to the use of chemical weapons as a “moral obscenity” that “defies any code of morality” and that has “shocked the conscience of the world.”

I share the horror that others do when it comes to the use of chemical weapons. But what I find somewhat puzzling is the bright, bold moral demarcation that is being made between the use of chemical weapons, which killed several hundred Syrians (including women and children), and a 30-month-old civil war that has claimed more than 100,000 lives (many of them women and children). 

How is it, from a moral standpoint, that the use of chemical weapons that kills several hundred people is a far greater “moral obscenity” than prosecuting a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people? Why didn’t the civil war “shock the conscience of the world,” since the body count is so much greater?

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On his program last night, Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, in speaking on the subject of strikes against Syria, said, “It’s got to be done quickly. Bang, boom. And then let the chips fall where they may. But no more dead kids breathing poison gas.” It appears the White House is considering the same strategy.

I happen to disagree with Mr. O’Reilly for reasons laid out by Max Boot and Eliot Cohen. Among the worst things to do in this situation would be a limited bombing of short duration which doesn’t alter the situation on the ground. It would be a transparently token gesture, done to balm our conscience (at least we did something) but achieving nothing useful or lasting. Indeed, the kind of strike O’Reilly has in mind–“bang, boom”–would probably elevate Bashar al-Assad’s reputation in much of the world (acting unbowed in the aftermath of an American military campaign) and make America appear weaker than we now do (if such a thing is even possible at this stage).

But I also want to pose some moral questions surrounding the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. Secretary Kerry refers to the use of chemical weapons as a “moral obscenity” that “defies any code of morality” and that has “shocked the conscience of the world.”

I share the horror that others do when it comes to the use of chemical weapons. But what I find somewhat puzzling is the bright, bold moral demarcation that is being made between the use of chemical weapons, which killed several hundred Syrians (including women and children), and a 30-month-old civil war that has claimed more than 100,000 lives (many of them women and children). 

How is it, from a moral standpoint, that the use of chemical weapons that kills several hundred people is a far greater “moral obscenity” than prosecuting a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people? Why didn’t the civil war “shock the conscience of the world,” since the body count is so much greater?

The scale of death, then, matters. But so does something else. The Assad regime has long been guilty of war crimes. From the start of the conflict it targeted schools and hospitals. In cities like Houla, forces loyal to Assad went on systematic killing sprees, including targeting women and children. A U.N. representative reported that the victims in Houla included 49 children who were younger than 10. “The Syrian dictator is trying to restore a balance of fear, perhaps the most powerful weapon in the hands of tyrants throughout history,” according to this CNN report. “Killing children is supposed to intimidate the opposition.”

“It’s very hard for me to describe what I saw, the images were incredibly disturbing,” a Houla resident who hid in his home during a massacre told the Associated Press. “Women, children without heads, their brains or stomachs spilling out.”

So we’re dealing with a regime that routinely committed war crimes–indeed, that inflicted mass atrocities as a matter of policy. But these kinds of actions mostly escaped the attention of the world (as well as the attention of the president).

I’m not, by the way, using this argument as a pretext to get more involved in the Syrian conflict. It’s simply to argue that while I understand the abhorrence of using WMDs, the moral outrage we’re hearing over the atrocities in Syria strikes me as somewhat affected. Why now? The humanitarian slaughter was gruesome long before chemical weapons were used, and chemical weapons are no more a gruesome way to die than the other barbarous actions sanctioned by Assad. And if another 100,000 Syrians perished at the hands of the Assad regime, but without the use of chemical weapons, one suspects that not much would be said and the moral outrage meter would, for the most part, hardly register.

I understand that all of us are selective in focusing on the atrocities that most trouble our consciences. None of us are equipped to absorb the pain of this world. And I don’t blame Mr. O’Reilly or anyone else for feeling rage at what Bashar al-Assad has done in using chemical weapons. But my basic point still stands, I think. Why have Assad’s latest atrocities provoked such outrage and his previous ones such silence? Should we be more troubled by what happened last week–or by the war crimes that routinely occurred in all the weeks that came before? 

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Obama’s Three Options in Syria

A week truly is a lifetime in politics. Just a week ago–Tuesday, August 20–there was approximately zero chance that American airpower would be employed against the Assad regime in Syria. The following day, however, Assad’s henchmen employed chemical weapons to kill perhaps 1,000 people on the outskirts of Damascus. Now Secretary of State John Kerry is calling Assad’s actions a “moral obscenity” and vowing: “President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people.”

Given such remarks by America’s top diplomat, it is little wonder that the conventional wisdom in Washington is that President Obama will soon authorize air strikes in Syria. The only question is what will be the scope and intent of American action. As I see it, there are essentially three options. Call them light, medium, and heavy.

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A week truly is a lifetime in politics. Just a week ago–Tuesday, August 20–there was approximately zero chance that American airpower would be employed against the Assad regime in Syria. The following day, however, Assad’s henchmen employed chemical weapons to kill perhaps 1,000 people on the outskirts of Damascus. Now Secretary of State John Kerry is calling Assad’s actions a “moral obscenity” and vowing: “President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people.”

Given such remarks by America’s top diplomat, it is little wonder that the conventional wisdom in Washington is that President Obama will soon authorize air strikes in Syria. The only question is what will be the scope and intent of American action. As I see it, there are essentially three options. Call them light, medium, and heavy.

The light option is to employ cruise missiles fired by U.S. and allied warships and aircraft a safe distance from Syria’s shores to blow up a few chemical weapons stockpiles and other regime targets to signal the world’s displeasure with the use of chemicals–a weapon that has carried special opprobrium ever since the dark days of World War I. This would entail a few days of air strikes whose import would be largely symbolic–to “send a message” to Assad without actually trying to topple him or to get rid of all of his chemical weapons stockpiles. This option might even extend to trying to kill Assad himself, but with little likelihood of success–witness failed decapitation strikes on Saddam Hussein in 2003 and (arguably) on Muammar Gaddafi in 1986.

The medium option would to go after the chemical weapons stockpiles in a more concerted manner, employing not just airpower but also Special Operations Forces if necessary. The object of this exercise would be not only to reinforce the norm against chemical weapons use but also to ensure that Assad’s chemical weapons are never used again–either in Syria or, heaven help us, outside of it. This would largely obviate the danger of chemical weapons slipping out of Syria amid the chaos that grips the country, but it would increase the degree of difficulty and danger to U.S. forces because such a campaign could not be conducted safely from long range. Even to support limited Special Operations incursions, the Pentagon would likely demand massive conventional forces be mobilized in the vicinity of Syria to safeguard the commandos.

The heavy option would involve months of air strikes to enable rebel forces to topple the Assad regime. The obvious model here is Libya 2011, but this would also carry echoes of Kosovo 2009. In both cases U.S. airstrikes were potent because they were employed in conjunction with ground action by rebel forces.

History suggests that air strikes in isolation are likely to be indecisive. Witness Bill Clinton’s cruise missile attacks on al-Qaeda in 1998 in Sudan and Afghanistan and his Desert Fox bombing campaign of Iraq the same year. President George W. Bush later aptly summed up Clinton’s mistake when he said: “I’m not gonna fire a $2 million cruise missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt.” Of course, from Obama’s perspective, Bush made an even worse mistake–getting the U.S. embroiled in two costly wars on the ground. No one is suggesting, however, the introduction of U.S. ground forces in Syria beyond perhaps some commandos and CIA officers. Obama will be making a mistake if he is so leery of any greater U.S. involvement in the Middle East that he opts for the light option–a few symbolic air strikes that accomplish nothing beyond displaying American pique. This will not enhance American credibility. It will instead send a message of irresolution that predators around the world will sniff out all too clearly.

From a strategic if not political standpoint, I believe the real debate should be between the medium and heavy options. As someone who has been arguing for a U.S. no-fly zone and air strikes in Syria for almost two years, it might be expected that I would automatically opt for the heavy options. The problem is that in the intervening time, U.S. inaction has allowed the jihadists to become the strongest element within the opposition. U.S. action to topple Assad now, before we have properly armed and trained more moderate rebel forces, risks throwing the country into perpetual chaos or allowing jihadists to seize control of significant territory.

The medium option, on the other hand, would allow us to vastly reduce the risk of chemical weapons proliferation without toppling Assad quite yet. The problem is that this would be an option very hard to carry out–it would involve significant intelligence challenges to identify the location of Assad’s chemical weapons and it would involve significant risks for the insertion and extraction of Special Operations Forces. Otherwise, if it relies on airpower alone, this option likely would be ineffective.

So in the end I still think a strategy aimed at regime change–employing American and allied airpower in conjunction with coordinated ground action by vetted and responsible elements of the Free Syrian Army–is the best American response. But I have a lot more qualms about this option now than I had in 2011 when the Syrian civil war was still young and the country had not yet become so polarized.

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Remember Bashar the Reformer?

Bashar al-Assad is in the running for the most dangerous man in the world. There are not too many world leaders who would acquire such reserves of chemical weapons and then seek to use them against anyone, let alone civilians. While the U.S. military conducts lessons-learned exercises all the time in order to learn from their mistakes and make themselves a more effective force, I am not aware of a single time in which the State Department or senior U.S. government officials have acknowledged error and conducted a similar lessons-learned exercise to identify where they went wrong.

Let’s hope that, if they ever start, they consider how the Syrian regime pulled the wool over their eyes. Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad may have spent some time in the West, but just because Islamists and autocrats spend time in the West does not mean that they acquire Western values; instead, they learn only how to speak to Westerners and cultivate useful idiots.

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Bashar al-Assad is in the running for the most dangerous man in the world. There are not too many world leaders who would acquire such reserves of chemical weapons and then seek to use them against anyone, let alone civilians. While the U.S. military conducts lessons-learned exercises all the time in order to learn from their mistakes and make themselves a more effective force, I am not aware of a single time in which the State Department or senior U.S. government officials have acknowledged error and conducted a similar lessons-learned exercise to identify where they went wrong.

Let’s hope that, if they ever start, they consider how the Syrian regime pulled the wool over their eyes. Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad may have spent some time in the West, but just because Islamists and autocrats spend time in the West does not mean that they acquire Western values; instead, they learn only how to speak to Westerners and cultivate useful idiots.

At any rate, here are some blasts from the past, American officials who for ego or because of animosity toward George W. Bush did their best to end Assad’s isolation. It’s always fun to read their statements reporting Assad’s willingness to solve mutual problems.

  • Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.), who took time out to tour the markets to maximum benefit for Syrian state television.
  • Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), more John Kerry, and even more John Kerry. That second story reminds how the Obama administration once went so far as to give Syria spare parts for its planes.
  • Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who seems to have relished his defiance of Bush.
  • The late Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), at the time still a Republican, might have acted as a tour guide: His trip with Nelson and Kerry was his 16th taxpayer-funded trip to Damascus, and it was not his last.
  • Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may not have gone herself, but she used her senate colleagues’ experience meeting Assad to justify her description of him as a reformer. “There’s a different leader in Syria now,” she told CBS’s Face the Nation, explaining, “Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.”
  • Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) spent nearly $8,000 on two trips to Damascus, while Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) spent nearly twice that, according to Legistorm.
  • Gen. David Petraeus repeatedly asked President George W. Bush for permission to go tête-à-tête with Assad in Damascus; let’s be glad Bush said no, both because it saved Petraeus the embarrassment and denied Assad a propaganda coup.

Perhaps in this age of budget-cutting, it would be useful to ask Pelosi, Kerry, and Nelson—all of whom still serve publicly—about what in hindsight they see as the value of their trips to Syria, and someone might ask Clinton which is more important: the established and brutal record of dictators, or what they happen to tell her colleagues in his palace over tea and coffee.

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Obama’s Team of Bystanders

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power’s credibility is taking a bit of a hit this week. Power is a voluble proponent of the doctrine of R2P–responsibility to protect, which advocates military intervention for humanitarian purposes. Thus, when evidence mounted that the Syrian forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad were committing massacres with chemical weapons, proponents of Syria intervention expected more than a tweet from Power. They didn’t get it–not yet, at least.

In early afternoon on Wednesday, Power wrote: “Reports devastating: 100s dead in streets, including kids killed by chem weapons. UN must get there fast & if true, perps must face justice.” The responses were predictable, typified by Irish journalist Philip Boucher-Hayes, who tweeted back: “When she was a journo and an academic @AmbassadorPower was pretty clear about genocidal acts like yesterday’s in Syria. Not so much now.”

In fact, more than just being “pretty clear” about such atrocities, Power was more than happy to name and shame Americans she thought insufficiently active in propelling the U.S. government to action. Her 2001 Atlantic essay “Bystanders to Genocide,” on the Clinton administration’s dawdling during the Rwandan genocide, makes for chilling and uncomfortable reading. Her eloquence and honesty on such matters were thought by some to be reason enough to celebrate her nomination to serve as President Obama’s ambassador to the UN–a Cabinet-level post in this administration.

Yet what Power may be realizing, and what the public should have understood long ago, is that Obama’s “team of rivals” is really a team of fig leaves. Hillary Clinton was not hired as secretary of state because Obama had suddenly come around to the advisability of liberal interventionism. She was hired because Obama wanted her out of the Senate where she could challenge his agenda. Instead, she was to be tied so closely to the president’s agenda so as to make it virtually impossible for her to undermine him.

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U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power’s credibility is taking a bit of a hit this week. Power is a voluble proponent of the doctrine of R2P–responsibility to protect, which advocates military intervention for humanitarian purposes. Thus, when evidence mounted that the Syrian forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad were committing massacres with chemical weapons, proponents of Syria intervention expected more than a tweet from Power. They didn’t get it–not yet, at least.

In early afternoon on Wednesday, Power wrote: “Reports devastating: 100s dead in streets, including kids killed by chem weapons. UN must get there fast & if true, perps must face justice.” The responses were predictable, typified by Irish journalist Philip Boucher-Hayes, who tweeted back: “When she was a journo and an academic @AmbassadorPower was pretty clear about genocidal acts like yesterday’s in Syria. Not so much now.”

In fact, more than just being “pretty clear” about such atrocities, Power was more than happy to name and shame Americans she thought insufficiently active in propelling the U.S. government to action. Her 2001 Atlantic essay “Bystanders to Genocide,” on the Clinton administration’s dawdling during the Rwandan genocide, makes for chilling and uncomfortable reading. Her eloquence and honesty on such matters were thought by some to be reason enough to celebrate her nomination to serve as President Obama’s ambassador to the UN–a Cabinet-level post in this administration.

Yet what Power may be realizing, and what the public should have understood long ago, is that Obama’s “team of rivals” is really a team of fig leaves. Hillary Clinton was not hired as secretary of state because Obama had suddenly come around to the advisability of liberal interventionism. She was hired because Obama wanted her out of the Senate where she could challenge his agenda. Instead, she was to be tied so closely to the president’s agenda so as to make it virtually impossible for her to undermine him.

One of the targets of Power’s Atlantic piece was Susan Rice, who is portrayed as being nearly as cynical as her then-boss, President Bill Clinton. According to Power, Rice was more concerned about midterm elections than victims of the ongoing genocide. But Power quotes Rice declaring she learned her lesson: “I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.” As the bodies pile up in Syria, there are certainly flames–but Rice is floating high above them from her perch as Obama’s national security advisor.

It is ironic to some degree that Rice’s promotion to national security advisor cleared the way for Power to take Rice’s old job. But the two shouldn’t be compared: when Rice was at the UN, she was so impolitic that her Russian and Chinese counterparts complained about her. She wasn’t the craven diplomat that the West nowadays deploys. She called a spade a spade–and called a thug a thug.

When the UN called an emergency meeting this week on the chemical weapons reports, Power was unavailable. Yet some perspective is in order: Power has given no indication that she has Rice’s innate toughness or reflex to defend Western values and interests. As Hillary Clinton might say, had Power been at her post when the meeting was called, what difference would it have made?

And the reason for that goes beyond the issue of hypocrisy. Yes, it’s bad form for Power to make a career out of shaming her countrymen for doing what she’s doing now. It has to do with why Rice has also been generally ineffective at getting the administration to take action. Rice promised her inaction on Rwanda would forever guide her perspective on future conflicts. That made it essential for Obama to bring her into the administration–not to allow her to pursue her objectives but to co-opt her and silence her by ensuring she couldn’t criticize the administration from the outside.

The same is probably true of Power. Obama knows that Samantha Power would love nothing more than to pick up her pen and take shots at his administration for his constantly moving “red line.” But as a representative of the administration who answers to the president, all she can do is tweet from undisclosed locations while her subordinates fill in for her at the UN.

Obama prefers to centralize decision-making as much as possible. This can be most dangerous on foreign policy, where his experience, interest, and frame of reference are weakest. It’s also true that the president is petty and thin-skinned, and does not handle criticism well. Hiring his critics to shut them up was thus a tactically brilliant maneuver, all the more so because the media inexplicably believed, and happily circulated, the ruse.

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Of Chemical Weapons, Halabja, and East Ghouta

It has been just over a quarter century since Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his defense minister Ali Hassan al-Majid, better known as “Chemical Ali,” ordered and executed the chemical weapons bombardment of Halabja, an Iraqi Kurdish town in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains, along the Iran-Iraq border. At the time, Iran and Iraq were engaged in their brutal war. Many American politicians were willing to blame the fog of war and several suggested that Iran rather than Iraq could be to blame. That was nonsense in the case of Halabja at least, but demanding ever more time to investigate became a good excuse for doing nothing. Many realists argued that Iraq’s containment of Iran should effectively give Saddam Hussein a free pass and, even after the war ended, the United States and Europe did their best to take no action in the face of the chemical weapons use.

As an aside, how disappointing it is that the (Iraqi) Kurdistan Regional Government that now governs Halabja has been so silent on the chemical weapons strikes inside Syria. The ethnicity of the victim should not matter: It is the lack of response when the chemical weapons red line is crossed which lowers the threshold to the repeat of history.

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It has been just over a quarter century since Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his defense minister Ali Hassan al-Majid, better known as “Chemical Ali,” ordered and executed the chemical weapons bombardment of Halabja, an Iraqi Kurdish town in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains, along the Iran-Iraq border. At the time, Iran and Iraq were engaged in their brutal war. Many American politicians were willing to blame the fog of war and several suggested that Iran rather than Iraq could be to blame. That was nonsense in the case of Halabja at least, but demanding ever more time to investigate became a good excuse for doing nothing. Many realists argued that Iraq’s containment of Iran should effectively give Saddam Hussein a free pass and, even after the war ended, the United States and Europe did their best to take no action in the face of the chemical weapons use.

As an aside, how disappointing it is that the (Iraqi) Kurdistan Regional Government that now governs Halabja has been so silent on the chemical weapons strikes inside Syria. The ethnicity of the victim should not matter: It is the lack of response when the chemical weapons red line is crossed which lowers the threshold to the repeat of history.

Alas, when it comes to both the targeting of civilians and the lack of U.S. response, it’s déjà vu all over again. The Obama administration seems not to want to upset Russia or China in its response; after all, mightn’t that not upset diplomacy, Secretary of State John Kerry likely argues. And Ambassador Samatha Power—whose claim to fame comes from her book on genocide—has been a Twitter warrior from her seat at the United Nations, but she has not been willing to put her job or ambition on the line. Perhaps someone will someday write a sequel in which she comes off as cynical, detached, and careerist, as did the UN bureaucrats and Clinton administration officials about whom she once wrote.

The world is lucky it has taken 25 years for a madman to again target civilians on this scale with chemical munitions. This does not mean that the United States should arm the opposition or intervene directly in the conflict with boots on the ground—not only would that lead to mission creep, but the organized opposition has radicalized and is really not much better than Assad himself—but there should be symbolic action against the regime if for no other reason than to restore the credibility of red lines and make clear how unacceptable chemical weapons are. U.S. airpower might be used to target Syrian airfields and Bashar al-Assad’s palaces. If the Israelis can strike multiple times into Syria with nary an anti-aircraft battery going off inside Syria, then there is no reason why the United States might not demonstrate the same capability. One thing is certain: the cost of no response may ultimately become an invitation to increase exponentially the use of chemical weapons against civilians.

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Latest Assad Atrocity Demands Response

On August 20, 2012, President Obama said: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is: we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus; that would change my equation.”

Now comes news of another chemical-weapons attack by the Assad regime, which has killed as many as 1,000 people not far outside Damascus. Needless to say, there is no “proof” of the use of chemical weapons but the circumstantial evidence is strong: “row after row of corpses without visible injury; hospitals flooded with victims, gasping for breath, trembling and staring ahead languidly; images of a gray cloud bursting over a neighborhood.”

The Wall Street Journal quotes a “senior administration official” as saying, “There are strong indications there was a chemical weapons attack—clearly by the government.”

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On August 20, 2012, President Obama said: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is: we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus; that would change my equation.”

Now comes news of another chemical-weapons attack by the Assad regime, which has killed as many as 1,000 people not far outside Damascus. Needless to say, there is no “proof” of the use of chemical weapons but the circumstantial evidence is strong: “row after row of corpses without visible injury; hospitals flooded with victims, gasping for breath, trembling and staring ahead languidly; images of a gray cloud bursting over a neighborhood.”

The Wall Street Journal quotes a “senior administration official” as saying, “There are strong indications there was a chemical weapons attack—clearly by the government.”

The question is what, if anything, the administration plans to do about the latest transgression of its vaunted red line. Previous evidence of chemical weapons use wrung out of a visibly reluctant Obama a pledge in June to provide arms to vetted factions of the Syrian rebels. But those arms still have not arrived, apparently, and now Assad is upping the ante–employing chemical weapons again even as a UN team is visiting Damascus to investigate the previous use of chemical weapons.

Assad is flaunting his disregard for the United States and indeed for the international community. France has understandably said that force is needed in response, but there is no indication that Obama will go along. His chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, appears to be dead-set against greater intervention, thus providing an excuse for Obama to do nothing, even though it would be easy for the U.S. and its allies to launch air strikes on regime targets. It would not even require sending Western aircraft over Syria; Israel has proved how easy it is to launch missiles from outside of Syrian airspace. That could be accomplished by both Western aircraft and Western ships. Of course taking down the remnants of Assad’s air defense network, which no doubt has been degraded by military defections and loss of territory, would not be all that difficult either for the world’s most advanced air force.

A failure to act now will expose the U.S. to ridicule as an ineffectual laughing-stock, a superpower that can be defied with impunity–an impression already created by the U.S. failure to shape events from Libya (where the death of our ambassador remains unavenged) to Egypt (where the military junta defies American advice not to slaughter protesters).

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Lessons from Syria’s Chemical Weapons Use

The situation is murky, but multiple reports suggest that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on the outskirts of Damascus killing hundreds, if not more than a thousand. Peter Wehner suggests how the fecklessness of President Obama’s foreign policy has exacerbated the situation. After all, Obama made Syrian chemical weapons use a red line in a speech one year ago today, but then ignored his own pronouncements to justify inaction when reports flooded in beginning in December 2012 that the red line had been breached.

A red line ignored is effectively a green light, but the problem does not start and stop with Obama. If there is one overarching lesson to be drawn from the Syrian chemical weapons abuse it is that the red line imposed on radical and rejectionist regimes should be their acquisition of chemical weapons rather than their use. After all, Syria shows that given enough time, ideological and radical regimes will use the capabilities they have, especially when they are challenged by their own people, as they inevitably will be. No autocracy lasts forever.

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The situation is murky, but multiple reports suggest that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on the outskirts of Damascus killing hundreds, if not more than a thousand. Peter Wehner suggests how the fecklessness of President Obama’s foreign policy has exacerbated the situation. After all, Obama made Syrian chemical weapons use a red line in a speech one year ago today, but then ignored his own pronouncements to justify inaction when reports flooded in beginning in December 2012 that the red line had been breached.

A red line ignored is effectively a green light, but the problem does not start and stop with Obama. If there is one overarching lesson to be drawn from the Syrian chemical weapons abuse it is that the red line imposed on radical and rejectionist regimes should be their acquisition of chemical weapons rather than their use. After all, Syria shows that given enough time, ideological and radical regimes will use the capabilities they have, especially when they are challenged by their own people, as they inevitably will be. No autocracy lasts forever.

It has been no secret for years and, indeed, decades that Syria has had a chemical weapons capability. Here, for example, is a 2002 article dealing with Syria’s capabilities. If the Iraq war made preemption a dirty word and the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States seem destined for the rubbish bin of history, then the events in Syria should spark a reassessment. Sometimes, preempting the ability of a state to acquire the worst weapons is a paramount national and international interest. Let the world condemn Israel for striking Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981, and Syria’s secret nuclear plant in 2007, but frankly the world is much better off with those programs and facilities eradicated.

President Obama and his supporters might now reconsider what the Syria situation means for Iran: Should Iran achieve a nuclear weapons capability or outright an arsenal of nuclear weapons, then the chance exists that at some point in time, a situation could arise in which Iranian ideologues choose to use such weaponry. The debate about a supreme leader’s fatwa against nuclear weapons use should be moot, not only because the fatwa does not exist in writing in Ali Khamenei’s compiled collections of fatwas or in a consistent form, but also because Khamenei or his successor(s) can change their minds. The time to act is before rogues can equip themselves with weapons beyond the pale; not after.

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Discrediting the Muslim Brotherhood

Egypt is rarely just about Egypt. So a full conversation about whether to sustain American aid to the military government currently in power in Cairo has to include a widening of the scope to the broader Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood, which the army deposed in a coup and the recent crackdown, is not just another domestic political party, so its defeat is not just a domestic concern. The Brotherhood represents the recent ascendancy of pan-Islamism that threatens to destabilize any non-Islamist government in the region.

A perfect example of that comes today from Reuters, which reports that Hamas, the Palestinian offshoot of the Brotherhood, is foundering now that its ally next door is out of power. Hamas’s relationship with its Iranian patron was strained by the civil war in Syria, which Iran and its proxies joined on the side of Bashar al-Assad, putting them at ideological odds with Hamas. The Gaza-based terrorist group therefore had arguably the most to lose with the Brotherhood’s exit from power in Egypt.

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Egypt is rarely just about Egypt. So a full conversation about whether to sustain American aid to the military government currently in power in Cairo has to include a widening of the scope to the broader Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood, which the army deposed in a coup and the recent crackdown, is not just another domestic political party, so its defeat is not just a domestic concern. The Brotherhood represents the recent ascendancy of pan-Islamism that threatens to destabilize any non-Islamist government in the region.

A perfect example of that comes today from Reuters, which reports that Hamas, the Palestinian offshoot of the Brotherhood, is foundering now that its ally next door is out of power. Hamas’s relationship with its Iranian patron was strained by the civil war in Syria, which Iran and its proxies joined on the side of Bashar al-Assad, putting them at ideological odds with Hamas. The Gaza-based terrorist group therefore had arguably the most to lose with the Brotherhood’s exit from power in Egypt.

A weakened Brotherhood means a weakened Hamas, which means a slightly strengthened Fatah in the West Bank, which benefits the peace process and keeps American influence in the region active while Iran struggles to maintain its ability to make mischief in the Palestinian territories while simultaneously distracted in Syria. Additionally, the Reuters story notes that Hamas was relying on funding from the Qatari emir, but the emir’s heir does not seem to be nearly as interested in doling out cash to Hamas. The story also quotes an Israeli analyst arguing that Hamas will have to swallow some of its pride–and principles–to go crawling back to Iran:

Israeli analyst Yaari thought Iran would exact a price for welcoming Hamas back into the fold. “It will require them to stop opposing Assad and stop any criticism of Hezbollah’s intervention (in Syria) and Iranian support of Assad,” he said.

Even so, with the Brotherhood out of power in Egypt Hamas will have far more difficulty smuggling Iranian-funded weapons into the Gaza Strip. The next question, then, is: How much trouble is the Brotherhood in, at least in Egypt? The Washington Post argues today that it is facing “what many are describing as the worst crisis to confront Egypt’s 85-year-old Muslim Brotherhood.”

The primary reason seems to be that the Brotherhood cannot simply go back to its pre-Arab Spring role. Before the presidency of the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, the organization was an underground opposition network that offered a religious alternative to the Mubarak police state. But most importantly, it offered something to the non-Islamists as well. As the Post explains:

The Brotherhood is more than a political or religious group. It has been almost a shadow state in modern Egypt, winning over supporters over the decades with a vast network of charitable services, including dental clinics and thrift shops. It is the “mother of all Islamist movements,” in the words of Shadi Hamid, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Doha Center, having spawned dozens of related groups worldwide since its founding in 1928.

Throughout its history, the Brotherhood has repeatedly clashed with Egypt’s authoritarian governments, enduring arrests, torture and imprisonment. But what’s different now, analysts say, is that it’s battling not only a military-backed government but also the disdain of a broad swath of society. Many Egyptians are irate at Morsi for the country’s economic slide and the rise in crime during his one-year rule. Others complain that the Brotherhood tried to grab power by excluding minority political groups and trying to insulate its decisions from judicial review.

“It’s the first time to see the Muslim Brotherhood in conflict not only with the state — but with the whole of the state, [including] the bureaucracy, and the political elite, and an important part of society. It’s not a limited confrontation,” Rashwan said.

Gaining authority over the most significant and populous Arab country presented the Brotherhood with a classic high-risk, high-reward opportunity. The reward was obvious–power, influence, a certain degree of regional hegemony if not over neighboring governments then over their chief domestic opposition. The risk was that if it didn’t work out, it would not be so simple to go back to the way things were.

In Cairo, it did not work out. The Brotherhood in opposition was able to provide services to a public greatly in need of them, especially since Mubarak’s reign was marked by empty promises of economic reform. But then the Brotherhood came to power and turned its totalitarian oppression on the entire state.

If an Egyptian considered himself an atheist and a socialist, but only had access to dental care because of the Brotherhood, he was likely to still consider the Brotherhood an acceptable, and possibly preferable, alternative to the Egyptian state. That is no longer the case, and it explains why the Brotherhood, whose defeat would greatly benefit the West, is on the ropes.

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Obama’s “Red Line” a Year Later

It was a year ago today that President Obama said Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad should step down and that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime against rebel forces would constitute crossing a “red line.”

Today President Assad is more powerful than he was a year ago and Sky News is reporting that according to Syria’s main opposition group, the National Coalition, more than 1,300 people have been killed in a chemical weapons attack near Damascus. (For the record the government says the claims are “totally false” and the international news organizations reporting them are “implicated in the shedding of Syrian blood and support terrorism.”)

A nurse at the Douma Emergency Collection facility, Bayan Baker, told Reuters the death toll collated from medical centers was at least 213. “Many of the casualties are women and children. They arrived with their pupils constricted, cold limbs and foam in their mouths. The doctors say these are typical symptoms of nerve gas victims,” the nurse said. (Exposure to sarin gas causes pupils in the eyes to shrink to pinpoint sizes and foaming at the lips.)

Allegations of these latest attacks come in the wake of our allies having informed the United Nations that there was credible evidence that Syria has used chemical weapons on more than one occasion since December 2012–a finding the Obama administration belatedly and reluctantly concurred with.

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It was a year ago today that President Obama said Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad should step down and that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime against rebel forces would constitute crossing a “red line.”

Today President Assad is more powerful than he was a year ago and Sky News is reporting that according to Syria’s main opposition group, the National Coalition, more than 1,300 people have been killed in a chemical weapons attack near Damascus. (For the record the government says the claims are “totally false” and the international news organizations reporting them are “implicated in the shedding of Syrian blood and support terrorism.”)

A nurse at the Douma Emergency Collection facility, Bayan Baker, told Reuters the death toll collated from medical centers was at least 213. “Many of the casualties are women and children. They arrived with their pupils constricted, cold limbs and foam in their mouths. The doctors say these are typical symptoms of nerve gas victims,” the nurse said. (Exposure to sarin gas causes pupils in the eyes to shrink to pinpoint sizes and foaming at the lips.)

Allegations of these latest attacks come in the wake of our allies having informed the United Nations that there was credible evidence that Syria has used chemical weapons on more than one occasion since December 2012–a finding the Obama administration belatedly and reluctantly concurred with.

Set aside for a moment the horrors of the Syrian civil war, in which more than 100,000 people have been killed. Think instead of the damage done to American credibility for Obama to declare that if the Assad regime used chemical weapons it would be crossing a “red line” and that it would constitute a “game changer.” What that means, in the language of international affairs, is that if Assad used chemical weapons, the United States would retaliate with military force. The president said what he said because, as an Obama official told the Washington Post last August, “there’s a deterrent effect in making clear how seriously we take the use of chemical weapons or giving them to some proxy force.”

Except that the deterrent effect didn’t work. Chemical weapons have been used. The man who sternly assured us us “as president of the United States, I don’t bluff” was, in fact, bluffing. The entire world knows it. And our allies and our adversaries, each in their own way, are adjusting accordingly.

This is just the latest example of an administration whose foreign policy is feckless, incoherent, and inept. The Middle East is undergoing convulsive changes. Chaos, disorder, and violence are spreading. And the words of the president of the United States have been rendered nugatory. It is an astonishing thing to behold; and a depressing one, too. 

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The Difference Between Syria and Egypt

For many, the Egyptian army’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood is reminiscent of both Muammar Gaddafi’s savagery in Libya and of the start of the civil war in Egypt. It is neither. While the Egyptian government—and the Muslim Brotherhood—have used live ammunition against each other in the streets with predictable consequences, the fighting remains largely confined to public spaces where the two sides meet in battle. There is not as yet, thankfully, evidence of the death squads which go through villages and disappear or simply execute those suspected of backing the other side.

There are major differences between the conflict in Egypt and that in Syria:

For many, the Egyptian army’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood is reminiscent of both Muammar Gaddafi’s savagery in Libya and of the start of the civil war in Egypt. It is neither. While the Egyptian government—and the Muslim Brotherhood—have used live ammunition against each other in the streets with predictable consequences, the fighting remains largely confined to public spaces where the two sides meet in battle. There is not as yet, thankfully, evidence of the death squads which go through villages and disappear or simply execute those suspected of backing the other side.

There are major differences between the conflict in Egypt and that in Syria:

  • In neither country has the violence been random. Syrian forces—both government and opposition—have readily engaged in ethnic and sectarian cleansing to carve out cantons for themselves. That is not the case in Egypt, where the two sides have fought openly in the streets. The closest Egypt comes is to the Muslim Brotherhood’s targeting of Christians for no other reasons than sheer religious and ideological spite.
  • While the Egyptian security forces have cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood in the streets and at demonstrations, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime sought to crush dissent by targeting children. The case of Hamza Alial-Khateeb really was the point of no return: The regime thought that it could curtail political opposition among parents if it targeted their children; instead, it crossed the point of no return. Syrians are likely to take far more seriously the videos of Hamza’s brutalized body rather than Secretary of State John Kerry’s calls for compromise. The Egyptian military, to its credit, has not hunted down and killed children for the sake of killing children.

Egypt may face an insurgency for years to come, but they should no more compromise with the Muslim Brotherhood than should the United States compromise with Hamas, Hezbollah, or al-Qaeda. What is happening in Egypt is tragic, but this conflict has been brewing for quite some time and facile demands for diplomacy or compromise can do more harm than good. Tahrir is not Tiananmen, and Egypt is not Syria. Journalists too often look for analogies, but they should do so with care. Picking the wrong analogy can lead to dangerously flawed policy.

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Thanks to Syria, Timing of Looming Iran Crisis Is Fortuitous

As I noted yesterday, the coming months will be decisive with regard to Iran’s nuclear program. This is an issue on which everyone would prefer if crunch time were never reached. But if a showdown must come, the timing couldn’t be more fortuitous–because it’s impossible to imagine a better geostrategic moment for military action against Iran than now.

One of the biggest concerns that opponents of military action in both Israel and America have always raised is the havoc Iran could wreak in response an attack. For Israelis, the main fear is massive missile attacks by both Iran and its allies; for Washington, the main concern is Iran’s ability to disrupt oil trade from the Gulf and attack American allies in that region.

But thanks to the Syrian civil war, the threat of Iranian retaliation has been dramatically reduced. Partly, of course, that’s because two of Iran’s principal allies, Syria and Hezbollah, are too preoccupied with that war to be able to mount serious reprisals against anyone. But even more importantly, the tremendous importance Iran attaches to Syria gives both Israel and America a powerful lever with which to restrain any Iranian reprisals.

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As I noted yesterday, the coming months will be decisive with regard to Iran’s nuclear program. This is an issue on which everyone would prefer if crunch time were never reached. But if a showdown must come, the timing couldn’t be more fortuitous–because it’s impossible to imagine a better geostrategic moment for military action against Iran than now.

One of the biggest concerns that opponents of military action in both Israel and America have always raised is the havoc Iran could wreak in response an attack. For Israelis, the main fear is massive missile attacks by both Iran and its allies; for Washington, the main concern is Iran’s ability to disrupt oil trade from the Gulf and attack American allies in that region.

But thanks to the Syrian civil war, the threat of Iranian retaliation has been dramatically reduced. Partly, of course, that’s because two of Iran’s principal allies, Syria and Hezbollah, are too preoccupied with that war to be able to mount serious reprisals against anyone. But even more importantly, the tremendous importance Iran attaches to Syria gives both Israel and America a powerful lever with which to restrain any Iranian reprisals.

Iran has poured billions of dollars and thousands of crack fighters–from Hezbollah, Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, and its own Revolutionary Guards Corps–into propping up Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, because it deems Assad’s survival strategically vital. As one senior Iranian cleric explained in February, “Syria is the 35th province [of Iran] and a strategic province for us. If the enemy attacks us and wants to take either Syria or Khuzestan [in western Iran], the priority for us is to keep Syria….If we keep Syria, we can get Khuzestan back too, but if we lose Syria, we cannot keep Tehran.”

And so far, the effort seems to be working. Assad’s forces have dealt the Syrian rebels several serious blows recently; they retook the strategic town of Qusair in June and made significant gains this week in the rebel stronghold of Homs. Whether the current constellation of forces opposing Assad can reverse this tide on their own is an open question.

But there are two players who have thus far chosen to sit out the game who are definitely capable of swinging the war in the rebels’ favor: America and Israel. Both have the capacity to mount airstrikes that would destroy Assad’s air force and tanks, which have hitherto given him a huge advantage over the rebels. And both could make it clear to Iran that they would do so if its reprisals crossed any red lines.

Though America has the military might to threaten Iran directly, Syria is a much easier target, with the added bonus that any such operation would be immensely popular with its Arab allies. Hence for Washington, the ability to threaten Syria lowers the cost of deterring Iran. Israel, in contrast, lacks the military capacity to threaten Iran directly with anything bigger than a targeted operation against its military facilities. Thus for Jerusalem, the ability to threaten Syria is the difference between having almost no deterrence against Iranian reprisals and having very substantial deterrence.

That Syria’s civil war erupted when it did was pure serendipity. But knowing how to take advantage of serendipity has always been a crucial element of statesmanship.

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No, Hezbollah Isn’t a “Stabilizing” Force

Although last year’s terrorist attack in Bulgaria against Jewish tourists served to renew the pressure on the European Union to list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, the civil war in Syria seemed all along to be a more significant catalyst for EU action. European countries had been pressing the U.S. for more assistance to the Syrian rebels while the U.S. had been pressing European officials to blacklist Hezbollah. Both efforts had some success: the EU blacklisted Hezbollah’s “military wing,” while the Obama administration has signaled it will increase help to the rebels.

Hezbollah has been fighting on the side of Bashar al-Assad, and the West’s desire to see the fall of the house of Assad convinced both the EU and the U.S. to take steps toward that end. But in an essay at Foreign Policy’s website, RAND analyst Julie Taylor makes an unconventional–and, in the end, terribly unconvincing–argument: leave Hezbollah alone, because you won’t like them when they’re angry. Taylor’s case rests on the idea that Hezbollah is showing restraint and maintaining a precarious, mostly nonviolent, state of affairs within Lebanon. Push them too far, and they’ll be tempted to show their strength, Hezbollah-style:

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Although last year’s terrorist attack in Bulgaria against Jewish tourists served to renew the pressure on the European Union to list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, the civil war in Syria seemed all along to be a more significant catalyst for EU action. European countries had been pressing the U.S. for more assistance to the Syrian rebels while the U.S. had been pressing European officials to blacklist Hezbollah. Both efforts had some success: the EU blacklisted Hezbollah’s “military wing,” while the Obama administration has signaled it will increase help to the rebels.

Hezbollah has been fighting on the side of Bashar al-Assad, and the West’s desire to see the fall of the house of Assad convinced both the EU and the U.S. to take steps toward that end. But in an essay at Foreign Policy’s website, RAND analyst Julie Taylor makes an unconventional–and, in the end, terribly unconvincing–argument: leave Hezbollah alone, because you won’t like them when they’re angry. Taylor’s case rests on the idea that Hezbollah is showing restraint and maintaining a precarious, mostly nonviolent, state of affairs within Lebanon. Push them too far, and they’ll be tempted to show their strength, Hezbollah-style:

Between the continued bloodshed in Syria and the military takeover in Egypt, it might be easy to overlook recent events in Lebanon. But Middle East watchers need to keep a sharp eye on the current turmoil in Lebanon because spillover from Syria could cause the security situation to flame up quickly into a full-scale sectarian civil war. Several stabilizing factors have kept the situation in Lebanon from escalating out of control, one of these being Hezbollah’s resistance to being drawn into conflict with other Lebanese. However, recent attacks on Hezbollah interests, coupled with the EU’s decision this week to blacklist the organization, are backing Hezbollah into a corner. Feeling its position in Lebanon to be under threat, the organization may change course, and decide to take up the fight against its domestic rivals. 

It should be clear why Taylor’s argument is at a disadvantage right off the bat. Taylor’s line of reasoning is based on speculation of what Hezbollah might do, while the U.S. and EU have based their actions against Hezbollah on what the terror group has already done. It doesn’t make much sense to fret that Hezbollah might get violent when this entire scenario is plausible because of the violence Hezbollah has recently been engaged in.

It’s not like Hezbollah is the victim of a witch hunt in Europe. The group has been implicated in terrorist attacks on the continent, and the EU is simply attempting to take modest steps to defend its soil. Of course, Taylor is specifically concerned with Hezbollah lashing out in Lebanon if pushed out of Europe. But the Europeans can hardly be expected to defenselessly accept and absorb Hezbollah’s murderous pursuits in the hopes that the terror group gets it out of their system by killing Europeans and feels no need to kill (more) Lebanese.

And Hezbollah, as Taylor concedes in the article, is not exactly a bystander to violence in the region right now. Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian civil war on behalf of Assad’s forces is widely credited with helping Assad’s forces turn the tide and gain back the momentum by winning crucial battles. Hezbollah is therefore doing its part to keep the war in Syria going and to help Assad believe he doesn’t need to surrender or accept a negotiated exit. It is that violence that is spilling over the border into Lebanon, and it is violence that is fueled by Hezbollah itself.

As Taylor writes:

Lebanese territory is increasingly becoming an extension of the Syrian battle zone: the Syrian army is firing on villages along the border and the FSA is firing rockets into Shiite areas, including Hezbollah’s stronghold in southern Beirut. There are inter-communal kidnappings both for profit and revenge for actions occurring in Syria. Assassinations, especially of Hezbollah members and Assad supporters, have become commonplace.

Need it even be said that the EU’s watered-down blacklisting is not to blame for this? Elsewhere, Taylor says that the war could provoke renewed fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. But Israel has already blacklisted Hezbollah, and that certainly didn’t stop the terror group from touching off the Second Lebanon War against Israel in 2006. The plain fact is, Hezbollah commits terrorism because it is a terrorist group. It will always attempt to justify its actions, and Western countries should not fall into the easy trap of pretending Hezbollah won’t find a casus belli if it decides it needs one.

Finally, there is another benefit of the EU’s decision to restrict Hezbollah’s operations in Europe. As Herb Keinon reports in the Jerusalem Post, in order to enforce its blacklisting of Hezbollah, European countries are now receiving the necessary intelligence briefings from Israel. That means countries such as Germany, France, and Spain are now improving their antiterrorism capabilities. Though Britain already worked with Israel in that capacity, any weak link in the EU would threaten the rest of the continent. They are now better prepared to protect their citizens thanks to “backing Hezbollah into a corner,” where they belong.

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Keeping Friends Close, Frenemies Closer?

It can be confusing enough to make policy according to the creed “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But what happens when the enemy of your enemy is also the enemy of your friend? Or when an entity starts out as your enemy but then becomes the enemy of your enemy? Is there such a thing as a frenemy in international relations? (It does have its own entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, after all.)

Those are, thanks to the Levant’s general descent into violent chaos, not hypothetical questions. As Emanuele Ottolenghi wrote earlier today, the European Union has finally designated as a terrorist organization Hezbollah’s “military wing.” Though this was a modest–and, quite possibly, ineffectual–step, it was the culmination of years of prodding from countries that already ban Hezbollah, such as the United States. The U.S. considers Hezbollah our enemy. But last week, the lines blurred a bit, as McClatchy reported:

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It can be confusing enough to make policy according to the creed “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But what happens when the enemy of your enemy is also the enemy of your friend? Or when an entity starts out as your enemy but then becomes the enemy of your enemy? Is there such a thing as a frenemy in international relations? (It does have its own entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, after all.)

Those are, thanks to the Levant’s general descent into violent chaos, not hypothetical questions. As Emanuele Ottolenghi wrote earlier today, the European Union has finally designated as a terrorist organization Hezbollah’s “military wing.” Though this was a modest–and, quite possibly, ineffectual–step, it was the culmination of years of prodding from countries that already ban Hezbollah, such as the United States. The U.S. considers Hezbollah our enemy. But last week, the lines blurred a bit, as McClatchy reported:

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency warned Lebanese officials last week that al Qaida-linked groups are planning a campaign of bombings that will target Beirut’s Hezbollah-dominated southern suburbs as well as other political targets associated with the group or its allies in Syria, Lebanese officials said Monday.

The unusual warning – U.S. government officials are barred from directly contacting Hezbollah, which the U.S. has designated an international terrorist organization – was passed from the CIA’s Beirut station chief to several Lebanese security and intelligence officials in a meeting late last week with the understanding that it would be passed to Hezbollah, Lebanese officials said. …

The U.S. Embassy declined to comment or to allow the CIA station chief for Lebanon to be interviewed. A CIA official in the United States said the agency would have no comment. Conveying such a warning to the Lebanese government when civilian lives might be at risk would be a normal procedure, people familiar with CIA procedures said.

Hezbollah is our enemy–but so are al-Qaeda and its affiliates. But al-Qaeda and its affiliates are also friends of our friends, and enemies of our enemies, inside Syria. Al-Qaeda has also been known to cooperate with Hezbollah, which would make them the friend of our enemy. Context is everything, I suppose.

The argument that can and has been made is that the U.S. is nervous about the spillover from Syria and the spread of sectarian violence into Lebanon. Fair enough. But the McClatchy report (if correct) notes that the CIA not only sent warnings to Hezbollah but also “other political targets associated with the group or its allies in Syria.” Wouldn’t that include, quite prominently, the Syrian regime and forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad? Isn’t that Hezbollah’s most notable ally in Syria?

Additionally, when the president initially chose to aid the rebels in Syria, the administration did so through Qatari and Saudi intermediaries, who then empowered the more radical Islamist elements. What does it say about the attempt to help the anti-Assad forces that it ended up empowering figures we now consider to be worse than Hezbollah? Entrusting Qatar turned out to have been something of a bad bet. At this point, it very well might be too late to help the moderates take control of rebel forces. But according to Sunday’s New York Times, intelligence officials aren’t so sure:

The comments by David R. Shedd, the deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, were one of the strongest public warnings about how the civil war in Syria has deteriorated, and he seemed to imply that the response from the United States and its allies had so far been lacking.

Mr. Shedd suggested that in addition to strengthening the more secular groups of the fractious Syrian opposition — which the Obama administration has promised to arm with weapons and ammunition — the West would have to directly confront more radical Islamist elements. But he did not say how that could be accomplished.

He did not say how it could be accomplished most likely because no one has any idea how it could be accomplished. “Directly confront more radical Islamist elements” is euphemistic language. What it means is: defeat the more radical Islamist elements. A sustained effort to do so inside Syria would probably have us simultaneously supporting the “good” rebels while fighting the “bad” rebels who are fighting against our other enemy, the Assad regime, and a third enemy, Hezbollah.

We would then be protecting Hezbollah from the “bad” rebels while trying to protect other groups, especially in Lebanon, from Hezbollah, all the while working in Europe to blacklist Hezbollah, whom we’re protecting from the friends of our friends in Syria. I admire the optimism, if not the good sense, of anyone who thinks this sounds like something the Obama foreign policy triumvirate of John Kerry, Joe Biden, and Chuck Hagel can pull off.

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Is Obama Committed to Assad’s Defeat?

Last month President Obama seemingly put aside two years of hesitancy and indecision over what to do about Syria. He announced that, in response to Bashar Assad’s violation of the “red line” over the use of chemical weapons, he would be sending weapons to the Syrian opposition. But the president’s lack of comfort with this decision–announced by a lowly White House spokesman while the president was off attending to more important matters–was palpable and it has continued to affect the speed and force with which his executive decision is being implemented.

The New York Times reports that the weapons deliveries–limited to light weapons–still have not arrived and will not for weeks to come, at best. Nor has the training of the rebels in their use started. As the Times notes: “The cautious approach reflects the continued ambivalence and internal divisions of an administration that still has little appetite for intervention in Syria, but has been backed into a corner after American and European spy agencies concluded that Syrian government troops had used chemical weapons against the rebels.”

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Last month President Obama seemingly put aside two years of hesitancy and indecision over what to do about Syria. He announced that, in response to Bashar Assad’s violation of the “red line” over the use of chemical weapons, he would be sending weapons to the Syrian opposition. But the president’s lack of comfort with this decision–announced by a lowly White House spokesman while the president was off attending to more important matters–was palpable and it has continued to affect the speed and force with which his executive decision is being implemented.

The New York Times reports that the weapons deliveries–limited to light weapons–still have not arrived and will not for weeks to come, at best. Nor has the training of the rebels in their use started. As the Times notes: “The cautious approach reflects the continued ambivalence and internal divisions of an administration that still has little appetite for intervention in Syria, but has been backed into a corner after American and European spy agencies concluded that Syrian government troops had used chemical weapons against the rebels.”

The current excuse for inaction is the fear that the weapons could fall “into the wrong hands.” But the “wrong hands”–that is, the jihadists–are already well armed; a few more deliveries of weapons aren’t going to make much of a difference to them, but it could be huge for the more moderate rebel factions.

Concerns about legalisms have also slowed the administration’s aid program. The Wall Street Journal reports how a group of administration lawyers has used concerns about international law to stymie plans to ship weapons. Would this be the same international law, one wonders, that Hezbollah and Tehran and Moscow violate on a recurring basis to arm Bashar Assad to carry out horrific human rights violations?

Apparently administration lawyers have tied themselves up into knots worrying about Bashar Assad retaliating against the U.S. for weapons shipments–yet somehow the Reagan administration managed to undertake much larger weapons shipments to the Afghan mujahideen, who were fighting an enemy far more powerful than the Syrian state. One suspects that the difference between then and now is that President Reagan was personally committed to fighting the Soviet Union. Obama, by contrast, is, as usual, paralyzed by indecision. He is willing to make heavily hedged statements calling for Assad’s removal but he is not willing to follow up with decisive action. Thus the bloodletting in Syria drags on, and the Assad regime continues to regain lost ground with the aid of Hezbollah and Iranian operatives, while the U.S. and our allies increasingly lose out.

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Is Obama Trying to Start Israel-Syria War?

Is the Obama administration trying to start a war between Israel and Syria? Because intentionally or not, it’s certainly doing its darnedest to provoke one.

This weekend, three anonymous American officials told CNN that Israel was behind an explosion in the Syrian port of Latakia on July 5. The explosion, they said, resulted from an airstrike targeting Russian-made Yakhont anti-ship missiles. If this report is true, this is the second time U.S. officials have blown Israel’s cover in Syria: They also told the media that a mysterious explosion in Syria this April was Israel’s work, even as Israel was scrupulously keeping mum–just as it did about the Latakia incident.

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Is the Obama administration trying to start a war between Israel and Syria? Because intentionally or not, it’s certainly doing its darnedest to provoke one.

This weekend, three anonymous American officials told CNN that Israel was behind an explosion in the Syrian port of Latakia on July 5. The explosion, they said, resulted from an airstrike targeting Russian-made Yakhont anti-ship missiles. If this report is true, this is the second time U.S. officials have blown Israel’s cover in Syria: They also told the media that a mysterious explosion in Syria this April was Israel’s work, even as Israel was scrupulously keeping mum–just as it did about the Latakia incident.

This isn’t a minor issue, as anyone who knows anything about the Middle East knows: In a region where preserving face is considered crucial, publicly humiliating Syrian President Bashar Assad is the surest way to make him feel he has no choice but to respond, even though war with Israel is the last thing he needs while embroiled in a civil war at home.

This truth was amply demonstrated in April, after three airstrikes attributed to Israel hit Syria within a few weeks. After the first two, Israel kept mum while Assad blamed the rebels; face was preserved, and everyone was happy. But then, the Obama administration told the media that Israel was behind the second strike–and when the third strike hit two days later, Assad could no longer ignore it: He vociferously threatened retaliation should Israel dare strike again.

The Latakia attack also initially adhered to Israel’s time-tested method for avoiding retaliation: Israel kept mum, Assad blamed the rebels, face was preserved, and everyone was happy. But the Obama administration apparently couldn’t stand it–and a week later, it once again leaked claims of Israeli responsibility to the media.

At best, this means the administration simply didn’t understand the potential consequences, demonstrating an appalling ignorance of Middle East realities. A worse possibility is that it deliberately placed its own political advantage above the safety of Israeli citizens: Facing increasing criticism for its inaction in Syria, but reluctant to significantly increase its own involvement and unable even to secure congressional approval for the limited steps it has approved, perhaps it hoped revealing that at least an American ally was doing something would ease the political heat–even at the cost of provoking a Syrian retaliation that claims Israeli lives.

The worst possibility of all, however, is that the administration knows exactly what it’s doing, and is deliberately trying to spark an Israeli-Syrian war as a way out of its own dilemma: It wants Assad gone, but doesn’t want to do the work itself. Starting an Israeli-Syrian war would force Israel to destroy Assad’s air force, thereby greatly increasing the chances of a rebel victory.

Whatever the truth, these leaks damage American as well as Israeli interests, because one of Washington’s consistent demands of its ally is that Israel not surprise it with military action. Hitherto, Israel has honored that request: Though it doesn’t seek America’s permission for action it deems essential, it does scrupulously provide advance notice. But if Obama administration officials can’t be trusted to keep their mouths shut, Israel will have to rethink this policy: It can’t risk getting embroiled in a war with Syria just to ease Obama’s political problems.

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Arming Syrian Rebels Is Strategic Suicide

There is growing frustration among many on the right—many of my colleagues both here on the pages of COMMENTARY and at the American Enterprise Institute included—about President Barack Obama’s incoherent policy and strategy with regard to Syria.

Certainly, the frustration is warranted. Over the past two years, tens of thousands of Syrians have been killed, and almost as many have “disappeared.” It’s a safe bet that those who have gone missing are not going to reemerge. Violence has forced additional hundreds of thousands of Syrians into refugee camps in neighboring countries. Wrong is the realist who claims that this may be an emotional, human rights concern but is not relevant to U.S. national security: When refugees flood into a country, competition for space and resources sends prices up and can further erode popular support for U.S. allies like King Abdullah II in Jordan.

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There is growing frustration among many on the right—many of my colleagues both here on the pages of COMMENTARY and at the American Enterprise Institute included—about President Barack Obama’s incoherent policy and strategy with regard to Syria.

Certainly, the frustration is warranted. Over the past two years, tens of thousands of Syrians have been killed, and almost as many have “disappeared.” It’s a safe bet that those who have gone missing are not going to reemerge. Violence has forced additional hundreds of thousands of Syrians into refugee camps in neighboring countries. Wrong is the realist who claims that this may be an emotional, human rights concern but is not relevant to U.S. national security: When refugees flood into a country, competition for space and resources sends prices up and can further erode popular support for U.S. allies like King Abdullah II in Jordan.

Obama seems to be blind to the strategic implications of Bashar al-Assad’s downfall. The Syrian regime is a long-time terror sponsor responsible for the deaths of dozens of Americans. Wrong are those who say Bashar al-Assad and his father brought quiet to the border with Israel: The Syria-Israel border was quiet, but only because the Assads used Lebanon as their proxy battleground. Syria also provides the crucial link between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon. The fall of the Syrian regime would roll back Iranian influence away from the strategically important Eastern Mediterranean.

That said, arming the Syrian rebels is wrong and would gravely undercut U.S. national security. I travel to Iraq a couple times each year—without the sponsorship, let alone knowledge, of the State Department or Pentagon—and have been in Iraq for the past two weeks or so. I began my trip in Basra and worked my way north through Baghdad to Kirkuk as well as areas controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government. Syria was a topic of frequent conversation, both among ordinary Iraqis and government officials. The evolution of Iraqi attitudes toward Syria has been interesting. In 2007, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki regularly condemned the Syrian regime for its role facilitating the infiltration of suicide bombers into Iraq. However, when I visited Iraq last October, many Iraqi Shi’ites warned against any support for the Syrian opposition, claiming they were more radical than the Americans realized. Such complaints from Iraqi Shi’ites might be easy to dismiss. After all, sectarianism overshadows the Middle East. Assad’s Alawis represent an offshoot of Shi’ism while the majority of the Syrian opposition is Sunni.

This trip, however, has been a wake-up call: Not only Iraqi Shi’ites, but also Iraqi Christians, Iraqi Kurds, and even many Iraqi Sunnis oppose American provision of arms to the Syrian rebels on the grounds that the Syrian rebels are either more radical than the Americans realize, or that nothing will prevent the so-called moderates whom the United States arms from selling or losing the weaponry to the radicals. There is a real sense of urgency, here, as Iraqis believe they will be the first victims of Sunni radicalism in neighboring Syria. Indeed, while here in Iraq, I have been within earshot of two car bombings, and Iraq has moved past its deadliest month in years. Regardless of ethnicity and sectarian preference, a consensus is emerging in Iraq about the character of the Syrian opposition. With all due respect to congressmen and some advocates for arming the Syrian rebels, those in the region are better able to vet Syrian rebels than U.S. officials 6,000 miles away. As tempting as it may be to think otherwise, and just as it remains with the Mujahedin al-Khalq and the Islamic Republic, the enemy of one’s enemy is not always one’s friend.

Does this mean we should abandon hopes for regime change in Syria? Absolutely not. The United States does maintain strategic interests in Syria: Eliminating WMD stores; preventing smuggling of weaponry to Hezbollah; preventing al-Qaeda groups from utilizing the Syrian vacuum to plan attacks against the West; and preventing both Assad and his opponents from destabilizing neighboring states. An Assad victory would embolden both Tehran and Moscow and ensure the spread of conflict to areas far more important to the United States. Perhaps the safest way to support Assad’s removal, however, is not to give weaponry to the Syrian rebels—a move that would make the “Fast and Furious” scandal seem positively benevolent—but rather to use American air power to prevent any aspect of the conflict perpetrated by either side which could undercut American security.

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