In the aftermath of the latest chemical attack in Syria most observers agreed that President Barack Obama would dearly like to extricate himself from the crisis.
While this may be so, the White Houses’s view may be shortsighted.
In fact the horrid event in Syria may have provided Washington with its final opportunity to strike a decisive blow against the spread of weapons of mass destruction and especially to stop or at least slow Iran’s unrelenting march to nuclear weapons.
Already in June 2012, then-defense minister Ehud Barak said that while “the Iranian challenge is a mutual one... Israel and the US’s clocks are ticking at different rates.”
There is little doubt that in the wake of the latest Syrian chemical massacre the Israeli clock is running even faster. As Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu declared on Sunday: “What is happening in Syria [i.e. the chemical attack] simply demonstrates what will happen if Iran gets even deadlier weapons.”
Under such circumstances the US reaction to President Assad’s latest atrocity must be robust enough that its echoes reverberate in Jerusalem and Tehran. While an argument can be made in favor of a “slap on the wrist” punishment when it comes to Syria itself, the bigger picture – which takes into account the Israeli- Iranian aspect – requires an altogether different approach. Indeed, a symbolic American armed response would not only be bereft of any military logic but could precipitate an Israeli military undertaking against Iran now that Netanyahu has apparently concluded that the danger of the mullahs possessing nuclear weapons must be dealt with forthwith.
Washington’s resort to force, while presumably avoiding “boots on the ground,” must thus be a devastating one to accomplish both strategic and tactical objectives. On the strategic level the US response must strive to restore America’s deterrent posture in the Middle East and beyond.
The latter has been further degraded once the Obama administration failed to enforce its publicly declared redline even though on June 13, 2013, it confirmed with “high confidence” repeated small-scale chemical attacks, including with the nerve agent sarin, by Assad’s forces against their enemies inside Syria. Now Washington must put what Iran’s Ambassador to Damascus Mohammad Reza Raouf Sheibani termed last January the “axis of resistance” to the West and Israel (i.e. Iran, Syria, the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Hamas rulers of Gaza) on notice that it intends to vigorously defend its interests and commitments in the region.
It also needs to deliver a calming message to an increasingly edgy Jerusalem.
On the tactical level the US response must demonstrate the US intelligence prowess and – through the reach, precision and effectiveness of its weapon systems – its unquestionable military superiority. In short, it must convince foes and friends alike that not only are America’s conventional military capabilities ready and able to accomplish their jobs, but that Obama will not hesitate to make use of them when needed.
It is true that a massive American strike on Syria could tip the balance in favor of the rebels and thus rebound to the benefit of the jihadists among them. But such an outcome is still preferable to an Israeli preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear installations (which is now a certainty if Washington does not act forcefully soon), or to a nuclear Iran.
After all, the latter scenarios could entail much more detrimental consequences to the recovering US economy than the fall of the Assad regime.
Further,it is all but certain that some in Israel and abroad will argue that a massive US strike on Syria would be counterproductive as it will only boost those in Iran who view nuclear weapons as the ultimate guarantee against the “bullies of the world” threatening the Tehran regime. But they will be wrong. Irrespective of such Iranian calls, in the wake of a decisive American action in Syria, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would have to conclude that when the president of the United States vows that Iran will not have nuclear weapons, he actually means it.
As for Assad himself, he must conclude that the US response was his last warning – any future use of weapons of mass destruction would most assuredly spell the destruction of his regime.
The writer is the author of The Continuing Storm: Iraq, Poisonous Weapons, and