Allowing the Syrian civil war simply to rage on is a bad option; so too is a short series of airstrikes to “degrade” Assad’s forces, so is a long series of airstrikes to “tip the balance” in Syria in favor of the Al Qaeda aligned rebels. What seems the best option, an energized effort at multilateral diplomacy—aiming towards a ceasefire and elections—which included Russia and Iran, Assad’s chief allies, isn’t on Washington’s menu at all.
Washington now seems poised on the verge of option three, using missiles and air power to tip the balance against Assad. Let us assume that the Syrians, or their Iranian allies, or Hezbollah do not strike back, instigating a larger war. Assume the air strikes “succeed”—and that Assad’s government begins to come apart. What then happens to the chemical stockpiles? What prevents Syria from becoming a haven for al-Qaeda, or stops the slaughter of the Christian communities that have long ago thrown in their lot with Syria’s secular Baathist regime? No problem say the hawks. William Pfaff points to one of their scenarios:
Vali Nasr, head of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, says in a New York Times op-ed that America’s strategic interest is to “mortally wound” the Assad regime, and then immediately “take decisive action” to assure that Syria does not “become a haven for Al Qaeda.” Unless he knows forms of decisive action the rest of us do not, that means occupation with ground troops and those military measures that have in the past decade proven so successful in pacifying and eliminating terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Let’s be optimistic (not sure why we should) and assume Obama’s attack on Syria will not lead to the introduction of American ground troops. The next and larger question is Iran, unlike Syria a country of tremendous strategic importance. A war with Iran could destroy the Middle East and the pull the world economy back into depression.
All indications are that Iran is sharply divided on the Syria question, as divided as is the United States. There are hard-liners there, men convinced that the United States is eternally hostile, that acquiring a nuclear weapon is the only way to protect Iran from American aggression. Given Iran’s history with the U.S. and recent American policies in the region, one has to acknowledge this is a not entirely delusional perception. On the other hand, there is the recently elected president, Rouhani, and his foreign minister, Zariv. These Iranians believe a negotiated settlement with America is possible—something along the lines of enhanced inspections, the end of sanctions, American recognition of the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. These Iranians, politically ascendant after the election of Rouhani, are signalling they are disgusted with Syria’s Assad and are engaging in twitter diplomacy in an effort to show the West that this Iranian government really is different. But how powerful is this faction? Would it remain ascendant after an American onslaught on Damascus, a long-term Iranian ally? Or would the American attack reinforce in Teheran the notion that Iran can find no security through diplomacy, that its only real option is to pursue nuclear deterrence?
In making the case for an attack on Syria, administration officials and their hawkish allies have stressed repeatedly the need to buttress Washington’s credibility, to show that Obama is not weak. But the question is what kind of weakness, as interpreted by whom? Obama has shown himself a reluctant warrior and for years has resisted John McCain’s call for a more belligerent Syria and Iran policies. Does Obama now seem less “weak” in adopting the foreign policy of John McCain and Lindsay Graham and Sheldon Adelson (!) than he would in keeping America aloof from Syria’s agony or trying innovative diplomacy to stop it? In other words, by attacking Syria, Obama is sending the message that he is politically weak at home, his foreign policy a captive of hawkish elements in both parties, and he is probably unable to pursue a diplomatic resolution with Teheran even if he wished to. Acceding to the calls for robust action against Assad might make him appear not a more credible negotiating partner for Teheran but an impossible one—a president too weak to stand up to Washington’s ever active war party, and thus one unable to reach a deal with Teheran. Richard Nixon could deal with China because the Chinese realized he was powerful enough to change the arc of American diplomacy from unbridled hostility to something approaching normalcy. By acceding to the McCain line on Syria, Obama is signaling to Teheran that he is no Nixon, that he is not politically powerful enough to make peace.
Of course, the belief that Iran has no negotiating partner in Obama would undermine Hasan Rouhani and those in Teheran who seek negotiated settlement to the nuclear issue. This is probably the key reason the neoconservatives have gotten behind intervention in Syria. The group has been remarkably consistent—and patient. They set their sights on an Iraq War in the 1990s and didn’t get their wish until the unexpected al-Qaeda assault of 9/11. They could not have anticipated Syria’s civil war, or the use (whether by Assad or not) of chemical weapons, but clearly hope to use an American attack on Syria as a table setter for an attack on Iran. “Successful” air strikes would buttress their position—see, force works!—as would any kind of military escalation. So too would any war that undermined Iranian moderates. The outcome they most fear is one that leads to successful diplomacy, especially diplomacy involving Iran in any capacity. But if the air- and missile strikes take place (as I now believe they will), the next key arena is what happens afterwards—what countries are engaged diplomatically in the reconstruction of Syria. I wish I had confidence that Obama and his team have planned for this, but I don’t.