Commentary Magazine


Topic: Syria conflict

Blame Obama, Not Israel for Syria Push

For those who like to blame Israel for every aspect of American involvement in the Middle East, the debate about Syria must be frustrating. Despite being next door to the chaos in Syria, Israel’s government is making it clear that it doesn’t have a dog in the fight over whether the United States ought to intervene in some manner in the civil war tearing that country apart. Today at a New York conference sponsored by the Jerusalem Post, a member of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Cabinet stated the obvious: It’s not Israel that’s pushing the United States to take action on Syria. Yuval Steinetz, who holds the odd-sounding title of minister of strategic and intelligence affairs and international relations told an audience:

We never asked, nor did we encourage, the United States to take military action in Syria. And we are not making any comparison or linkage with Iran, which is a completely different matter.

Israel’s position on Syria is, if anything, even more complicated than America’s. Their main interest is in keeping the border with a state that is still technically at war with them quiet. Though Bashar Assad was a butcher whose regime has slaughtered tens of thousands of his own people just like his father Hafez was before him, Israel has stayed aloof from the conflict in that country. Assuming Bashar does actually fall some day, most Israelis are far from confident that the next Syrian government will be any less hostile than that of Assad. Indeed, with al-Qaeda-allied elements, it may be even worse.

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For those who like to blame Israel for every aspect of American involvement in the Middle East, the debate about Syria must be frustrating. Despite being next door to the chaos in Syria, Israel’s government is making it clear that it doesn’t have a dog in the fight over whether the United States ought to intervene in some manner in the civil war tearing that country apart. Today at a New York conference sponsored by the Jerusalem Post, a member of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Cabinet stated the obvious: It’s not Israel that’s pushing the United States to take action on Syria. Yuval Steinetz, who holds the odd-sounding title of minister of strategic and intelligence affairs and international relations told an audience:

We never asked, nor did we encourage, the United States to take military action in Syria. And we are not making any comparison or linkage with Iran, which is a completely different matter.

Israel’s position on Syria is, if anything, even more complicated than America’s. Their main interest is in keeping the border with a state that is still technically at war with them quiet. Though Bashar Assad was a butcher whose regime has slaughtered tens of thousands of his own people just like his father Hafez was before him, Israel has stayed aloof from the conflict in that country. Assuming Bashar does actually fall some day, most Israelis are far from confident that the next Syrian government will be any less hostile than that of Assad. Indeed, with al-Qaeda-allied elements, it may be even worse.

Steinetz is right to state that Iran and Syria are two different questions, but if there is any linkage it was put there by President Obama, not Netanyahu or American supporters of Israel. It was he who stated that Syrian use of chemical weapons constituted a red line that warrant American action. It was he, and not the Israelis, who publicly expressed the belief that Assad had to go. If, even after the White House admitted proof existed of the use of deadly poisons like sarin, the United States does nothing, it will effectively destroy his credibility.

The White House might be more worried about the fact that, as the New York Times noted today, President Obama’s job approval rating on foreign policy is down in recent polls. But they should be more concerned with how the president’s dithering on Syria is playing in Iran, where the ayatollahs are counting on the administration being more concerned about a war-weary American public than they are of the mass murders going on in Syria to save their ally.

Friends of Israel are watching to see what happens when a foreign leader crosses what President Obama defined as a red line, as he did in Syria. If the answer is nothing, they’ll have a better grasp of what they can expect out of the administration on Iran.

But there should be no doubt about who set this red line about what is going on in Damascus. It wasn’t Israel, Netanyahu or the pro-Israel community in the United States.

The impetus to take a stand on Syria came from a president who was eager to place himself on the side of Arab Spring protesters against authoritarian regimes. No one was more vocal than Obama when it came to supporting the ouster of dictators, especially in Egypt, even when doing so brought little comfort to either Israeli or American strategic interests. Though these revolutions have brought either chaos or the rise to power of Islamist parties, the president has not recalibrated his rhetoric. He remains a firm believer in the wave of change in the Middle East as his continuing embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt illustrates.

Obama’s stand on Syria was in the context of a “lead from behind” strategy that involved few risks for the United States even in Libya, where we joined a Western intervention. But no one in Israel was twisting his arm to talk about red lines on Syria, especially when he has refused to set them on the far more dangerous Iranian nuclear threat. He did so on his own hook just as his rhetoric about Assad was the function of his Arab Spring sympathies rather than any neoconservative plot.

Mass murder in Syria and the use of chemical weapons is something that ought to concern the civilized world. But having put his own credibility on the line there, the issue now is inextricably tied to that of the president’s reputation. If he succumbs to his fears on this issue, it will complicate Israel’s strategic dilemma, but it will be Barack Obama’s legacy that will be fatally compromised. 

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U.S. Still Lost as Assad Regime Totters

For more than a year, optimists have been predicting the end of the Assad regime in Syria. Those forecasts have been proven wrong, as the Syrian dictator has not lost his willingness to kill as many people as possible in order to hold on. Nor has he been deprived of the crucial foreign support from Iran, Hezbollah and most importantly, Russia. But today’s news that his prime minister has defected may finally be the signal that the tipping point has been reached in the conflict that has taken the lives of thousands of Syrians. While Bashar al-Assad’s forces still seem full of fight, they have noticeably faltered in their efforts to finish off the opposition or even to keep them out of Damascus and other major cities. No one could credibly accuse someone who had served in this brutal government of having much of a conscience about all the massacres committed in order to preserve Assad’s grip on power, but it may be that Prime Minister Riyad Farid Hijab has read the writing on the wall and understands it is better not to go down with a sinking ship.

Nevertheless, this latest sign that finally President Obama’s forecast about Assad’s demise is coming true is no reason for the administration to celebrate. Obama helped prolong the agony of Syria and the life of Assad’s government by not acting more forcefully to depose him earlier in the struggle. But now that the country is in a state of chaos with Islamists appearing to dominate the opposition forces, the United States is faced with a far more dangerous situation. During the weekend, the New York Times reported that both the State Department and the Pentagon were planning for the post-Assad era in Syria. That’s good, but the problem is it may be too late for the United States to have much influence on the outcome if, as now seems possible, Assad is actually defeated.

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For more than a year, optimists have been predicting the end of the Assad regime in Syria. Those forecasts have been proven wrong, as the Syrian dictator has not lost his willingness to kill as many people as possible in order to hold on. Nor has he been deprived of the crucial foreign support from Iran, Hezbollah and most importantly, Russia. But today’s news that his prime minister has defected may finally be the signal that the tipping point has been reached in the conflict that has taken the lives of thousands of Syrians. While Bashar al-Assad’s forces still seem full of fight, they have noticeably faltered in their efforts to finish off the opposition or even to keep them out of Damascus and other major cities. No one could credibly accuse someone who had served in this brutal government of having much of a conscience about all the massacres committed in order to preserve Assad’s grip on power, but it may be that Prime Minister Riyad Farid Hijab has read the writing on the wall and understands it is better not to go down with a sinking ship.

Nevertheless, this latest sign that finally President Obama’s forecast about Assad’s demise is coming true is no reason for the administration to celebrate. Obama helped prolong the agony of Syria and the life of Assad’s government by not acting more forcefully to depose him earlier in the struggle. But now that the country is in a state of chaos with Islamists appearing to dominate the opposition forces, the United States is faced with a far more dangerous situation. During the weekend, the New York Times reported that both the State Department and the Pentagon were planning for the post-Assad era in Syria. That’s good, but the problem is it may be too late for the United States to have much influence on the outcome if, as now seems possible, Assad is actually defeated.

Having decided last year to “lead from behind” on Syria, President Obama is in no position to have much of an impact on what will follow Assad’s fall. While the U.S., along with its European allies, has been supplying the rebels with some help in recent months, that is not likely to buy much goodwill with a Syrian people who will be justified in thinking the U.S. stood by as they were being killed by Assad’s loyalists. Nor will the U.S. be in a position to prevent the humanitarian disasters that may well unfold in the coming months. Score settling could result in the mass slaughter of Syrian Alawites who are seen as supporters and beneficiaries of the Assad clan during their decades ruling in Damascus.

Having held itself largely aloof from the conflict, it will not be possible for the Obama administration to do anything different as conditions there worsen. By failing to choose in Syria, as it largely failed to do in Egypt, the president has set us up for the worst of all worlds, with a stable situation rendered unstable and the United States getting no credit for helping to affect change. If this is what some pundits consider a successful foreign policy, I’d hate to see what failure looks like.

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Stop Syria’s Descent into Barbarism

For five grim years, from approximately 2003 to 2008, Iraq faced the greatest onslaught of terrorism in the history of any state. Many of the worst attacks were perpetrated by suicide bombers, often driving vehicles packed with explosives. By mid-2008, suicide bombers had killed at least 10,000 Iraqis. A disproportionate share of those suicide bombers were foreign Sunnis who arrived in Iraq via Syria. The U.S. government remonstrated with the Assad regime to stop the flow of the fanatics, but Bashar al-Assad consistently played dumb. If the U.S. could not control its border with Mexico, the Syrians disingenuously argued, how could they control their border with Iraq? This ignored the rather major difference that Syria is a police state. The networks that recruited, organized, and passed on the suicide bombers could not have operated without the knowledge of the regime’s all-pervasive secret police. Assad and his cronies were not jihadist fanatics, but they were willing to make use of jihadist fanatics to inflict harm on American interests in Iraq–even if the overwhelming majority of victims were Iraqis, not Americans.

Fast forward to today. Now comes news that Syrian Defense Minister Daoud Rajha and Deputy Military Chief of Staff Asef Shawkat (who is also the president’s brother-in-law) have been slain by a suicide bomber in the heart of Damascus. The interior minister–the man in charge of the notorious secret police–was also wounded but is said to be alive. Quite possibly the bomber, who was rumored to be a bodyguard, was connected to the very organization that Syria once did so much to help–al-Qaeda in Iraq. It is hard not to see some element of cosmic justice here: what goes around comes around, ye reap what ye sow, if you play with fire, and all that. It is certainly a sign the Assad regime is getting ever more embattled, and the civil war many had warned would come if the U.S. provided arms to the rebel fighters has arrived anyway.

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For five grim years, from approximately 2003 to 2008, Iraq faced the greatest onslaught of terrorism in the history of any state. Many of the worst attacks were perpetrated by suicide bombers, often driving vehicles packed with explosives. By mid-2008, suicide bombers had killed at least 10,000 Iraqis. A disproportionate share of those suicide bombers were foreign Sunnis who arrived in Iraq via Syria. The U.S. government remonstrated with the Assad regime to stop the flow of the fanatics, but Bashar al-Assad consistently played dumb. If the U.S. could not control its border with Mexico, the Syrians disingenuously argued, how could they control their border with Iraq? This ignored the rather major difference that Syria is a police state. The networks that recruited, organized, and passed on the suicide bombers could not have operated without the knowledge of the regime’s all-pervasive secret police. Assad and his cronies were not jihadist fanatics, but they were willing to make use of jihadist fanatics to inflict harm on American interests in Iraq–even if the overwhelming majority of victims were Iraqis, not Americans.

Fast forward to today. Now comes news that Syrian Defense Minister Daoud Rajha and Deputy Military Chief of Staff Asef Shawkat (who is also the president’s brother-in-law) have been slain by a suicide bomber in the heart of Damascus. The interior minister–the man in charge of the notorious secret police–was also wounded but is said to be alive. Quite possibly the bomber, who was rumored to be a bodyguard, was connected to the very organization that Syria once did so much to help–al-Qaeda in Iraq. It is hard not to see some element of cosmic justice here: what goes around comes around, ye reap what ye sow, if you play with fire, and all that. It is certainly a sign the Assad regime is getting ever more embattled, and the civil war many had warned would come if the U.S. provided arms to the rebel fighters has arrived anyway.

But while the victims–the men who directed the military forces that have killed upwards of 17,000 Syrians since the start of the fighting–undoubtedly deserved their fate, it is hard to take much satisfaction in the manner of their demise. For suicide bombing is never the weapon of the moderate. As a terrorist tactic it was occasionally utilized by the Socialist Revolutionary Combat Organization in early 20th-century Russia but really came into its own with Hezbollah in Lebanon in the 1980s, before being picked up by al-Qaeda and its offshoots. While the willingness of ordinary soldiers to sacrifice their lives to win a battle is universally respected (think of the Spartans at Thermopylae) that is a very different thing from deliberately setting out to kill one’s self and take as many of the enemy with you as possible. Americans were appalled at the kamikaze tactics employed by the Japanese at the end of Word War II and rightly so: fighting in this way bespeaks a fanaticism that does not bode well for the future unless it is rooted out.

So now in Syria there is a great danger that America’s hesitancy to get involved on the rebel side has ceded the momentum to jihadist suicide bombers. They by no means represent the mainstream of Syrian opposition. But they will increasingly gain the upper hand, quite possibly with Saudi and Qatari help, unless the U.S. does more to help the secularists and moderates. And that, in turn, means the Obama administration will have to stop waiting for the blessing of the UN and Moscow before getting more involved. Only greater American-led intervention can end the fighting and stop Syria’s descent into greater barbarism.

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Has Assad Made a Fatal Mistake?

The downfall of dictators is often their stupidity, arrogance, and unbridled aggression. Saddam Hussein might have stayed in power if he had simply admitted not having weapons of mass destruction. Muammar Qaddafi could have survived if he had not made blood-curdling statements about massacring everyone in Benghazi. And Bashar al-Assad would have a greater chance of survival had not his aircraft defenses shot down a Turkish Air Force F-4 yesterday.

It is still unclear exactly what happened, but the result will surely be to increase Turkey’s role—already substantial—in helping the Syrian opposition.

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The downfall of dictators is often their stupidity, arrogance, and unbridled aggression. Saddam Hussein might have stayed in power if he had simply admitted not having weapons of mass destruction. Muammar Qaddafi could have survived if he had not made blood-curdling statements about massacring everyone in Benghazi. And Bashar al-Assad would have a greater chance of survival had not his aircraft defenses shot down a Turkish Air Force F-4 yesterday.

It is still unclear exactly what happened, but the result will surely be to increase Turkey’s role—already substantial—in helping the Syrian opposition.

It could even spark the creation of “safe zones” inside Syria and make a NATO intervention more likely. The anti-aircraft gunners who brought down the Turkish jet could not have done more damage to their leader if they had tried.

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Syria Inaction Messier Than the Alternative

Last year’s Western decision to intervene in Libya prompted some debate, but the scale of the conflict and its fairly swift conclusion limited the debate to some extent. But the growing tally of atrocities and the thousands of casualties in Syria have necessarily amplified the arguments being conducted as both the United States and its European allies continue to stand aside from the fighting there. As the weeks go by and new outrages are reported, it is increasingly clear to even the optimists in the Obama administration that the Assad regime will not go unless they contribute materially–giving him the push. Consequently, the debate among informed observers about the wisdom of intervention is growing in intensity.

Among the loudest of voices opposing intervention is scholar Daniel Pipes, who writes in National Review to urge the West to stay out of the Syrian morass. While acknowledging the arguments that allowing civil strife there to continue might be dangerous, he argues that such a war might actually be in America’s interest so long as the U.S. doesn’t get dragged in. Walter Russell Mead is more equivocal about intervention than Pipes. But Mead writes in his blog at The American Interest that the humanitarian argument to be made on behalf of intervention is weaker than we think. Both make strong arguments, especially Mead, who acknowledges that there are no good answers here. He’s right about that, but the alternative of a long war there or an Assad victory is not an acceptable outcome.

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Last year’s Western decision to intervene in Libya prompted some debate, but the scale of the conflict and its fairly swift conclusion limited the debate to some extent. But the growing tally of atrocities and the thousands of casualties in Syria have necessarily amplified the arguments being conducted as both the United States and its European allies continue to stand aside from the fighting there. As the weeks go by and new outrages are reported, it is increasingly clear to even the optimists in the Obama administration that the Assad regime will not go unless they contribute materially–giving him the push. Consequently, the debate among informed observers about the wisdom of intervention is growing in intensity.

Among the loudest of voices opposing intervention is scholar Daniel Pipes, who writes in National Review to urge the West to stay out of the Syrian morass. While acknowledging the arguments that allowing civil strife there to continue might be dangerous, he argues that such a war might actually be in America’s interest so long as the U.S. doesn’t get dragged in. Walter Russell Mead is more equivocal about intervention than Pipes. But Mead writes in his blog at The American Interest that the humanitarian argument to be made on behalf of intervention is weaker than we think. Both make strong arguments, especially Mead, who acknowledges that there are no good answers here. He’s right about that, but the alternative of a long war there or an Assad victory is not an acceptable outcome.

Pipes is right to worry about the nature of a successor regime to that of Assad. Given what other so-called Arab Spring protests have led to elsewhere, his prediction of an Islamist government following the dictator is probably on target. And Mead does an excellent job of pointing out that the blowback from even an intervention that seemed as clean as that in Libya can be far greater than we think. The current troubles in Mali are a direct result of what happened in Libya, so the moral calculus there wasn’t as neat as some of us thought.

Mead is also correct that even the most successful of Western interventions will not give us a storybook ending. But as even he points out, the situation in Syria isn’t a purely humanitarian question. As much as he deplores the “Wilsonian” instincts of those of us who believe it is morally insupportable for the West to stand by and let thousands die when we can do something to stop it, he also understands that:

If we don’t act, others will. The arming of the Sunni opposition by Gulf Arabs, some with Salafi sympathies, will go on no matter what we think or say, and that is likely both to affect the balance of power within the Syrian opposition in ways we don’t like and to change what happens on the ground. At the same time, our strategic interest in pressuring Iran and in that way hoping to avoid a war between the U.S. and Iran makes the ouster of the Syrian regime a much more important goal than it might otherwise be.

Pipes’ arguments in favor of allowing a Syrian civil war to fester also are not convincing. Such a war might distract the bad guys there from committing enormities elsewhere as he suggests, but I also think he is way too optimistic about Iranians taking a lesson from Syria and starting a revolt against the ayatollahs. Nor do I believe that the blowback from Assad’s reign of terror will channel much Middle Eastern outrage against Moscow and Beijing even though it would be well-deserved.

The main argument in favor of action isn’t purely humanitarian, and it rests not so much on what we think will happen as a result of our intervention. Rather, it rests on what will happen if we don’t. Assad’s survival will mean not just more Syrian slaughter but will be a huge victory for his Iranian allies that will strengthen their position enormously. One way or another, the West needs to prevent that from happening. The reasons for not doing something about Syria are like those for not doing something about the Iranian nuclear threat. The consequences of intervention will be messy and possibly awful. Yet the alternative is far worse.

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Assad Won’t Be Toppled by Words

In the last year, President Obama loudly denounced Syria dictator Bashar al-Assad for human rights abuses and confidently predicted the regime’s fall. But as in virtually every other difficult foreign policy question, the president has preferred to “lead from behind,” which in this case means doing absolutely nothing while Assad slaughters thousands. The most recent Syrian atrocity has brought this shameful inaction back into the spotlight, but as Mitt Romney’s justified criticism of Obama on the issue yesterday makes clear, both the president and his challenger need to come up with more coherent positions.

The administration has tried to have it both ways on Syria ever since the protests there began more than a year ago. On the one hand, Obama wants to pose as the scourge of tyrants and a supporter of human rights, so he has claimed it was only a matter of time before Assad was driven out. But he has done nothing to match those words, and the result is that the atrocities continue with no end in sight. Romney rightly criticized this inaction yesterday as an example of the president’s feckless and cowardly foreign policy. But though this critique is warranted, Romney’s own prescription for U.S. action on Syria isn’t a heckuva lot better. As the New York Times reports:

He called for the United States to “work with partners to organize and arm Syrian opposition groups so they can defend themselves” — a policy that goes somewhat further than Mr. Obama’s but falls short of the airstrikes advocated by Republicans like Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

The problem here is that despite the blithe assumptions commonly heard in the West about Assad’s inevitable doom, there is no reason to believe that he cannot sustain himself in power so long as the security services remain loyal to him.

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In the last year, President Obama loudly denounced Syria dictator Bashar al-Assad for human rights abuses and confidently predicted the regime’s fall. But as in virtually every other difficult foreign policy question, the president has preferred to “lead from behind,” which in this case means doing absolutely nothing while Assad slaughters thousands. The most recent Syrian atrocity has brought this shameful inaction back into the spotlight, but as Mitt Romney’s justified criticism of Obama on the issue yesterday makes clear, both the president and his challenger need to come up with more coherent positions.

The administration has tried to have it both ways on Syria ever since the protests there began more than a year ago. On the one hand, Obama wants to pose as the scourge of tyrants and a supporter of human rights, so he has claimed it was only a matter of time before Assad was driven out. But he has done nothing to match those words, and the result is that the atrocities continue with no end in sight. Romney rightly criticized this inaction yesterday as an example of the president’s feckless and cowardly foreign policy. But though this critique is warranted, Romney’s own prescription for U.S. action on Syria isn’t a heckuva lot better. As the New York Times reports:

He called for the United States to “work with partners to organize and arm Syrian opposition groups so they can defend themselves” — a policy that goes somewhat further than Mr. Obama’s but falls short of the airstrikes advocated by Republicans like Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

The problem here is that despite the blithe assumptions commonly heard in the West about Assad’s inevitable doom, there is no reason to believe that he cannot sustain himself in power so long as the security services remain loyal to him.

Having already killed so many of his countrymen, why would having a few hundred more corpses do him in when he hasn’t been toppled despite the thousands already slain? The iron law of history teaches us that tyrannies fall when they weaken or lose their willingness to shed blood and not before. The material support Assad is getting from his ally Iran and their Hezbollah auxiliaries have helped offset any harm incurred by Western sanctions, which are largely meaningless because of the limited scope of trade with Syria.

The only thing that will put an end to Assad’s reign of terror is Western military intervention or direct aid to the Syrian rebels. There are, as the White House has pointed out, good reasons to worry about arming the Syrian opposition. As a top-ranking Israeli military official pointed out today, should Assad fall, elements of al-Qaeda that may be sympathetic to the opposition in Syria could be empowered or at least be given free reign to conduct terror operations against Israel or the West.

The Times is right to point out that few in this country on either side of the political aisle are eager for another foreign adventure, even one that really would be a matter of saving thousands of lives. There is also good reason to believe that intervention in Syria would not be as easy as last year’s European-led effort to oust Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. But that is no excuse for standing by while hundreds, if not thousands are slaughtered in Syria by Assad, while Western leaders like Obama preen ineffectually about their support for human rights.

The analogy to Libya also breaks down because the stakes in Syria are far higher. The atrocities in Syria dwarf those in Libya. It should also be pointed out that toppling the Assad regime would be a telling blow to Iran and its terrorist allies. Though we don’t know what a post-Assad Syria would look like, in the long run, regime change there would be good for the region as well as the Syrian people.

Absent a commitment to take action, nothing Obama or Romney says about Syria has much credibility. It may be too much to expect either man to embrace the possibility of armed conflict in Syria, but anything less will not solve the crisis.

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