Commentary Magazine


Topic: Syria Civil War

More Dangerous Administration Leaks

There is nothing particularly shocking or surprising about the content of the story published today by the New York Times about Israeli attacks on missile sites in Syria. The fact that Israel has launched air strikes on targets in Syria containing weapons that could be used to strike the Jewish state, such as the Russian-made cruise missiles said to be in a warehouse that was hit in Latakia earlier this month, is not a big secret. That some of those weapons might have survived Israeli attacks and that its air force is certain to keep at it until it is sure they are destroyed rather than passed into the hands of Hezbollah seems logical. But the fact that this report was based on detailed classified information that was leaked by people the Times identifies as “American intelligence analysts” and U.S. government “officials” is both shocking and surprising.

The leak from what must be senior officials raises serious questions that beg for answers especially at a time when the administration has been on a jihad against leakers. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this story is either the work of anti-Israel figures working in the Pentagon or has been orchestrated by the administration in order to deter Israel from continuing its efforts to prevent weapon transfers to terrorists and, as Haaretz speculated today, to, in effect, warn the Syrians and let them prepare in advance for subsequent strikes. Either way, this has made an already dangerous situation even more troubling.

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There is nothing particularly shocking or surprising about the content of the story published today by the New York Times about Israeli attacks on missile sites in Syria. The fact that Israel has launched air strikes on targets in Syria containing weapons that could be used to strike the Jewish state, such as the Russian-made cruise missiles said to be in a warehouse that was hit in Latakia earlier this month, is not a big secret. That some of those weapons might have survived Israeli attacks and that its air force is certain to keep at it until it is sure they are destroyed rather than passed into the hands of Hezbollah seems logical. But the fact that this report was based on detailed classified information that was leaked by people the Times identifies as “American intelligence analysts” and U.S. government “officials” is both shocking and surprising.

The leak from what must be senior officials raises serious questions that beg for answers especially at a time when the administration has been on a jihad against leakers. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this story is either the work of anti-Israel figures working in the Pentagon or has been orchestrated by the administration in order to deter Israel from continuing its efforts to prevent weapon transfers to terrorists and, as Haaretz speculated today, to, in effect, warn the Syrians and let them prepare in advance for subsequent strikes. Either way, this has made an already dangerous situation even more troubling.

This is not the first time official American sources were used by the Times to report on Israeli efforts to deal with the chaos in Syria. Nevertheless, the administration seemed to condone Israel’s actions. Indeed, it has appeared at times as if Washington was quite happy to let the Israel Defense Forces do its dirty work for it as the U.S. preferred to keep “leading from behind” while others dealt with the mess that American indifference helped create.

Israel has no clear vested interest in either side winning the Syrian civil war. The Assad regime kept the cease-fire with Israel but if it survives, as it looks as if it will, it will be even more indebted to its Iranian allies. From the frame of reference of the Jewish state, there’s not much to choose from between a dangerous dictator aligned with Iran and Hezbollah and an alliance of rebels that includes al-Qaeda elements. But it does have a clear interest in preventing Russian weapons from being transferred to the Hezbollah mercenaries who are winning the war for Assad.

If, as might reasonably be inferred from this latest Times story, the Obama administration has shifted from a position of tacit support for Israeli efforts to keep Russian weapons away from Hezbollah to one of active opposition to Israeli strikes, then it is worth asking why they’ve changed their minds.

One possible motive for this decision is a desire to avoid any sort of confrontation involving the Russians. Given the insulting and provocative way Russia has been treating the United States lately—of which the Edward Snowden affair is just the latest—an American effort to spare Vladimir Putin’s feelings at a time when his policy seems aimed at prolonging the war in Syria is, to say the least, curious.

It would be just as curious if a U.S. shift against Israel on this issue were the result of Secretary of State John Kerry’s concerns about upsetting the peace negotiations with the Palestinians that he has convened. One would think assuring the Israelis that America has their back on security issues would be the way to help persuade the Netanyahu government to be more accommodating in the talks. But perhaps the administration thinks any act of self-defense on Israel’s part while the Palestinian Authority is trying to think of an excuse to weasel out of the negotiations would be unhelpful.

Nor does it make much sense to think that Israel’s surgical strikes will have any real impact on the outcome of the fighting in Syria, assuming that the U.S. has actually arrived at a coherent position on what it wants to happen there.

But no matter the reason for the leaking, it needs to be understood that this sort of behavior on the part of the United States is nothing short of outrageous. If the administration is serious about supporting Israeli security, this is not the time to playing games on the question of Russian missiles falling into the hands of terrorists. Israel has every right to keep that from happening and will be justified in continuing air strikes or any other measure that might accomplish this goal. Appeasing Russia in this matter won’t give Obama the “reset” of relations with Moscow he’s always wanted. American efforts to deter or prevent it from acting aren’t merely unhelpful; they are part of a dangerous game that could, if Israel is unable to stop the transfers, result in a situation that could cost both Israeli and American lives.

Lastly, we have a right to ask why an administration that is prepared to spy on the press in order to close up classified leaks it doesn’t like still appears to be a sieve when it comes to leaks that might serve the president’s policy preferences. Hypocrisy isn’t strong enough a word to describe such a dangerous and irresponsible course of action.

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Obama’s Multiplying Foreign Policy Failures

On April 23, 2007, then-Senator and future presidential candidate Barack Obama gave a speech in which he said this:

Until we change our approach in Iraq, it will be increasingly difficult to refocus our efforts on the challenges in the wider region – on the conflict in the Middle East, where Hamas and Hezbollah feel emboldened and Israel’s prospects for a secure peace seem uncertain; on Iran, which has been strengthened by the war in Iraq; and on Afghanistan, where more American forces are needed to battle al Qaeda, track down Osama bin Laden, and stop that country from backsliding toward instability… Now it’s our moment to lead – our generation’s time to tell another great American story. So someday we can tell our children that this was the time when we helped forge peace in the Middle East.

It hasn’t quite turned out that way, has it?

Just yesterday the Obama administration admitted what our allies have long said – that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against opposition forces. At least 80,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict, there are almost 1.5 million refugees, and the number of internally displaced persons has rise to more than four million. (Tony Blair discusses Syria in this op-ed.) Moreover, as the Washington Post reports 

As fighters with Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement wage the battles that are helping Syria’s regime survive, their chief sponsor, Iran, is emerging as the biggest victor in the wider regional struggle for influence that the Syrian conflict has become… after the Assad regime’s capture of the small but strategic town of Qusair last week — a battle in which the Iranian-backed Shiite militia played a pivotal role — Iran’s supporters and foes alike are mulling a new reality: that the regional balance of power appears to be tilting in favor of Tehran, with potentially profound implications for a Middle East still grappling with the upheaval wrought by the Arab Spring revolts.

That’s not all.

The Syrian civil war is badly destabilizing our most reliable Arab ally, Jordan. Lebanon is increasingly fragile. In Egypt and across North Africa the Muslim Brotherhood has gained power. Since Mr. Obama withdrew American forces in Iraq, sectarian violence has markedly increased there, with the hard-won gains from the Bush administration’s surge being washed away. The war in Afghanistan is going poorly, while relations with the Karzai regime are quite bad, limiting American leverage in that nation (our much-trumped retreat of forces from Afghanistan have of course limited our leverage as well). Turkey is struggling to contain a political crisis that has threatened the nation’s economy and paralyzed the government. There are no prospects for genuine peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. The Libyan people are weary of two years of militia violence that has kept the country in chaos and stalled reform, with the government weak and unstable. And al Qaeda is ascendant in North Africa.

I could go on, but you get the picture.

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On April 23, 2007, then-Senator and future presidential candidate Barack Obama gave a speech in which he said this:

Until we change our approach in Iraq, it will be increasingly difficult to refocus our efforts on the challenges in the wider region – on the conflict in the Middle East, where Hamas and Hezbollah feel emboldened and Israel’s prospects for a secure peace seem uncertain; on Iran, which has been strengthened by the war in Iraq; and on Afghanistan, where more American forces are needed to battle al Qaeda, track down Osama bin Laden, and stop that country from backsliding toward instability… Now it’s our moment to lead – our generation’s time to tell another great American story. So someday we can tell our children that this was the time when we helped forge peace in the Middle East.

It hasn’t quite turned out that way, has it?

Just yesterday the Obama administration admitted what our allies have long said – that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against opposition forces. At least 80,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict, there are almost 1.5 million refugees, and the number of internally displaced persons has rise to more than four million. (Tony Blair discusses Syria in this op-ed.) Moreover, as the Washington Post reports 

As fighters with Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement wage the battles that are helping Syria’s regime survive, their chief sponsor, Iran, is emerging as the biggest victor in the wider regional struggle for influence that the Syrian conflict has become… after the Assad regime’s capture of the small but strategic town of Qusair last week — a battle in which the Iranian-backed Shiite militia played a pivotal role — Iran’s supporters and foes alike are mulling a new reality: that the regional balance of power appears to be tilting in favor of Tehran, with potentially profound implications for a Middle East still grappling with the upheaval wrought by the Arab Spring revolts.

That’s not all.

The Syrian civil war is badly destabilizing our most reliable Arab ally, Jordan. Lebanon is increasingly fragile. In Egypt and across North Africa the Muslim Brotherhood has gained power. Since Mr. Obama withdrew American forces in Iraq, sectarian violence has markedly increased there, with the hard-won gains from the Bush administration’s surge being washed away. The war in Afghanistan is going poorly, while relations with the Karzai regime are quite bad, limiting American leverage in that nation (our much-trumped retreat of forces from Afghanistan have of course limited our leverage as well). Turkey is struggling to contain a political crisis that has threatened the nation’s economy and paralyzed the government. There are no prospects for genuine peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. The Libyan people are weary of two years of militia violence that has kept the country in chaos and stalled reform, with the government weak and unstable. And al Qaeda is ascendant in North Africa.

I could go on, but you get the picture.

My point in running through this parade of horribles isn’t to blame President Obama for every one of them. That would be silly. But it would be just as silly to pretend that Mr. Obama isn’t responsible for much, and in some cases most, of the multiplying failures we’re seeing sweep the world.

This much is clear: The president’s policies have, by almost every objective measure, failed. And they have failed by his own standards, his own promises, and his own words. What he said would happen has not; and the things he complained about have gotten worse. His incompetence in international affairs is staggering; and in some of these circumstances it will take years, in some cases decades, and in some cases generations to undo the damage, if we ever do.

What Barack Obama must know, at least in his quiet, private moments, is that conducting foreign policy turned out to be a lot harder than critiquing someone else’s foreign policy. That words aren’t substitutes for actions. That preening arrogance and empty threats don’t actually shape events on the ground. And that there is a high human cost to ineptitude.

After eight years the damage of the Obama legacy will be extraordinary. But the damage may be most acute in foreign policy, where events are continuing to spin out of control and our commander-in-chief doesn’t have any idea how to stop it.

This is not what America’s “moment to lead” and its “new beginning” was supposed to look like. 

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Russians Think Obama Will Bail on Syria

American cable news stations devoted a lot of airtime today to Senator John McCain’s surprising visit to Syria where he met with the leader of a moderate rebel faction. The trip was supposed to focus attention on the effort to influence the West to aid the rebels, or at least those rebel factions that are not tainted by association with Al Qaeda terrorists. But while McCain restarted the conversation about the need for the U.S. to stop pretending it can ignore the crisis in that war torn country, his venture was actually overshadowed by the Russian announcement that it would persist in its determination to sell air defense missiles to the embattled Assad government.

It is still possible that the West will act to prevent more bloodshed and to make good on President Obama’s prediction. But the Russian decision to stand by their Syrian ally effectively renders McCain’s quest moot. Though Israel has issued a warning to Russia that any such missiles — and by extension the personnel servicing them — could be targeted by airstrikes, Moscow’s willingness to stake its reputation on Assad’s survival is likely enough to deter even the possibility of action by President Obama with the added bonus that doing so humiliates Secretary of State John Kerry after he trooped to Moscow to plead with the Russians not to do it. Though the Russians may not want to tangle with the West or even the Israelis, they seem to be betting that a U.S. president that prefers to lead from behind can be counted on to stay out of any conflict where there is a risk of confrontation. They may be bluffing but it’s hard to argue with their reasoning.

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American cable news stations devoted a lot of airtime today to Senator John McCain’s surprising visit to Syria where he met with the leader of a moderate rebel faction. The trip was supposed to focus attention on the effort to influence the West to aid the rebels, or at least those rebel factions that are not tainted by association with Al Qaeda terrorists. But while McCain restarted the conversation about the need for the U.S. to stop pretending it can ignore the crisis in that war torn country, his venture was actually overshadowed by the Russian announcement that it would persist in its determination to sell air defense missiles to the embattled Assad government.

It is still possible that the West will act to prevent more bloodshed and to make good on President Obama’s prediction. But the Russian decision to stand by their Syrian ally effectively renders McCain’s quest moot. Though Israel has issued a warning to Russia that any such missiles — and by extension the personnel servicing them — could be targeted by airstrikes, Moscow’s willingness to stake its reputation on Assad’s survival is likely enough to deter even the possibility of action by President Obama with the added bonus that doing so humiliates Secretary of State John Kerry after he trooped to Moscow to plead with the Russians not to do it. Though the Russians may not want to tangle with the West or even the Israelis, they seem to be betting that a U.S. president that prefers to lead from behind can be counted on to stay out of any conflict where there is a risk of confrontation. They may be bluffing but it’s hard to argue with their reasoning.

 There is a case to be made that the time has past when U.S. intervention in Syria could shape events to our liking. Had President Obama acted at the outset of the protests against the Assad regime there was a reasonable chance a moderate government could have been put together to replace the dictator. But two years and 80,000 dead later, the conflict has become a bloody standoff with Al Qaeda types taking an increasingly large role in the rebellion and Assad’s forces being stiffened by Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah “volunteers.” Though I believe Assad’s victory — and by extension the boost that would give Iran and Hezbollah — would be worse for the United States and the region than the creation of Iraq-style chaos if the country disintegrates, it is difficult to argue that either outcome is to the benefit of either the West or America.

The shipment of advanced missiles to Syria may be intended to deter the West from using air power to help the Syrian rebels or even from instituting a no fly zone inside the country. But the wild card here is that Israel has its own priorities and they don’t concern which band of cutthroats is running things in Damascus. What they can’t tolerate is having advanced weaponry placed in the hands of Assad’s terrorist allies.

Of course, it may be as long as year before the missiles can be delivered and Syrian crews are trained to use them. A lot can happen between now and then. But the main point is that Russia is hoping that its intervention will nevertheless serve to keep its friend afloat while frustrating a timorous American administration that would prefer to pretend that its conflict with Islamist extremists is over. The net result is bound to not only keep a butcher in power in Damascus to embolden an Iranian government that is the prime threat to peace in the region.

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Israel Doing West’s Dirty Work in Syria

American officials are now confirming that Israel launched an attack on a Syrian convoy transporting sophisticated weaponry into Lebanon. As expected, the Israelis had no comment about the incident. But the squeals of outrage from both Syria and its ally Iran about the attack, as well as their furious threats of retaliation, show that the operation was probably a success. It’s not clear whether the transfer of what was allegedly anti-aircraft equipment to Hezbollah is a sign that the Assad regime is falling or whether the shipment was a payment for the extensive help it has received from both Iran and its Lebanese proxies. But the question of the disposal of the massive arsenal, including chemical weapons, that Assad still possesses raises an a important point about this latest twist in what has become a Syrian civil war.

As that struggle increasingly looks like one between a bloody tyrant and Islamist rebels rather than a democratic alternative, the American decision to lead from behind in Syria rather than to take action earlier when a better result might have been possible is looking even worse than it did a year ago. Though much of the discussion about Israel’s actions has centered on how far it will go to defend its interests, the bottom line here is that, as it has done in the past, the Jewish state is doing the Americans’ dirty work for them in Syria.

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American officials are now confirming that Israel launched an attack on a Syrian convoy transporting sophisticated weaponry into Lebanon. As expected, the Israelis had no comment about the incident. But the squeals of outrage from both Syria and its ally Iran about the attack, as well as their furious threats of retaliation, show that the operation was probably a success. It’s not clear whether the transfer of what was allegedly anti-aircraft equipment to Hezbollah is a sign that the Assad regime is falling or whether the shipment was a payment for the extensive help it has received from both Iran and its Lebanese proxies. But the question of the disposal of the massive arsenal, including chemical weapons, that Assad still possesses raises an a important point about this latest twist in what has become a Syrian civil war.

As that struggle increasingly looks like one between a bloody tyrant and Islamist rebels rather than a democratic alternative, the American decision to lead from behind in Syria rather than to take action earlier when a better result might have been possible is looking even worse than it did a year ago. Though much of the discussion about Israel’s actions has centered on how far it will go to defend its interests, the bottom line here is that, as it has done in the past, the Jewish state is doing the Americans’ dirty work for them in Syria.

The United States has cautioned Syria about its cache of chemical weapons both in terms of their use against insurgents and their possible export to safe havens in either Lebanon or Iran. But when it comes to brass tacks, it is the Israelis and not U.S. forces that are being counted on to act to ensure that those threats have teeth.

The administration has spent the last two years punting on a deteriorating situation in Syria. Initially Obama was reluctant to turn on a dictator that he and his new secretary of state may have thought was a moderate. But eventually he switched and started claiming that Assad’s fall was imminent. Had the West moved swiftly on Syria, as it did in Libya, that might have been true even though such action would have been fraught with risk. But what we have learned is that sometimes inaction can be even more dangerous than interventions.

Syria is a crucial lynchpin in Iran’s strategy for expanding its influence throughout the Middle East. By largely standing aloof from the bloody struggle there, the United States has not only been complicit in the slaughter there but has allowed Tehran to save its ally, which it has propped up with “volunteers” and arms. This has led to a worst-case scenario in which the Assad regime is still holding on while Syria is convulsed in chaos and violence. That not only endangers Israel’s security, but also creates the danger that Assad’s arsenal will either fall into the hands of unsavory insurgents or be given to Hezbollah.

Though Israel will be criticized for having its forces cross an international border, in acting to interdict Syrian arms convoys or to attack chemical weapons stored there, it is doing something that is as much in the interests of the United States as it is their own. At a time when critics continue to attack Israel as a liability for American foreign policy, this attack ought to bring home just how important the strategic alliance with the Jewish state has become.

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