Over the past week, President Barack Obama and his senior advisers have told us
that the US is poised to go to war against Syria. In the next few days, the US
intends to use its airpower and guided missiles to attack Syria in response to
the regime’s use of chemical weapons in the outskirts of Damascus last
The questions that ought to have been answered before any
statements were made by the likes of Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary
of Defense Chuck Hagel have barely been raised in the public arena. The most
important of those questions are: What US interests are at stake in Syria? How
should the US go about advancing them? What does Syria’s use of chemical weapons
means for the US’s position in the region? How would the planned US military
action in Syria impact US deterrent strength, national interests and credibility
regionally and worldwide? Syria is not an easy case. Thirty months into the war
there, it is clear that the good guys, such as they are, are not in a position
Syria is controlled by Iran and its war is being directed by the
Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and by Hezbollah. And arrayed against them
are rebel forces dominated by al-Qaida.
As US Sen. Ted Cruz explained
this week, “Of nine rebel groups [fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar
Assad], seven of them may well have some significant ties to
With no good horse to bet on, the US and its allies have three
core interests relating to the war. First, they have an interest in preventing
Syria’s chemical, biological and ballistic missile arsenals from being used
against them either directly by the regime, through its terror proxies or by a
Second, the US and its allies have an interest in
containing the war as much as possible to Syria itself.
Finally, the US
and its allies share an interest in preventing Iran, Moscow or al-Qaida from
winning the war or making any strategic gains from their involvement in the
For the past two-and-a-half years, Israel has been doing an
exemplary job of securing the first interest. According to media reports, the
IDF has conducted numerous strikes inside Syria to prevent the transfer of
advanced weaponry, including missiles from Syria to Hezbollah.
than assist Israel in its efforts that are also vital to US strategic interests,
the US has been endangering these Israeli operations. US officials have
repeatedly leaked details of Israel’s operations to the media. These leaks have
provoked several senior Israeli officials to express acute concern that in
providing the media with information regarding these Israeli strikes, the Obama
administration is behaving as if it is interested in provoking a war between
Israel and Syria. The concerns are rooted in a profound distrust of US
intentions, unprecedented in the 50-year history of US-Israeli strategic
The second US interest threatened by the war in Syria is the
prospect that the war will not be contained in Syria. Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan
specifically are threatened by the carnage. To date, this threat has been
checked in Jordan and Lebanon. In Jordan, US forces along the border have
doubtlessly had a deterrent impact in preventing the infiltration of the kingdom
by Syrian forces.
In Lebanon, given the huge potential for spillover, the
consequences of the war in Syria have been much smaller than could have been
reasonably expected. Hezbollah has taken a significant political hit for its
involvement in the war in Syria. On the ground, the spillover violence has
mainly involved Sunni and Shi’ite jihadists targeting one another.
is the main regional victim of the war in Syria. The war there reignited the war
between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Iraq. Violence has reached levels unseen since
the US force surge in 2007. The renewed internecine warfare in Iraq redounds
directly to President Barack Obama’s decision not to leave a residual US force
in the country. In the absence US forces, there is no actor on the ground
capable of strengthening the Iraqi government’s ability to withstand Iranian
penetration or the resurgence of al-Qaida.
The third interest of the US
and its allies that is threatened by the war in Syria is to prevent Iran, Russia
or al-Qaida from securing a victory or a tangible benefit from their involvement
in the war.
It is important to note that despite the moral depravity of
the regime’s use of chemical weapons, none of America’s vital interests is
impacted by their use within Syria. Obama’s pledge last year to view the use of
chemical weapons as a tripwire that would automatically cause the US to
intervene militarily in the war in Syria was made without relation to any
specific US interest.
But once Obama made his pledge, other US interests
became inextricably linked to US retaliation for such a strike. The interests
now on the line are America’s deterrent power and strategic credibility. If
Obama responds in a credible way to Syria’s use of chemical weapons, those
interests will be advanced. If he does not, US deterrent power will become a
laughing stock and US credibility will be destroyed.
US doesn’t have many options for responding to Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
If it targets the regime in a serious way, Assad could fall, and al-Qaida would
then win the war. Conversely, if the US strike is sufficient to cause strategic
harm to the regime’s survivability, Iran could order the Syrians or Hezbollah or
Hamas, or all of them, to attack Israel. Such an attack would raise the prospect
of regional war significantly.
A reasonable response would be for the US
to target Syria’s ballistic missile sites. And that could happen. Although the
US doesn’t have to get involved in order to produce such an outcome. Israel
could destroy Syria’s ballistic missiles without any US involvement while
minimizing the risk of a regional conflagration.
There are regime centers
and military command and control bases and other strategic sites that it might
make sense for the US to target.
Unfortunately, the number of regime and
military targets the US has available for targeting has been significantly
reduced in recent days. Administration leaks of the US target bank gave the
Syrians ample time to move their personnel and equipment.
This brings us
to the purpose the Obama administration has assigned to a potential retaliatory
strike against the Syrian regime following its use of chemical
Obama told PBS on Wednesday that US strikes on Syria would be “a
shot across the bow.”
But as Charles Krauthammer noted, such a warning is
worthless. In the same interview Obama also promised that the attack would be a
nonrecurring event. When there are no consequences to ignoring a warning, then
the warning will be ignored.
This is a very big problem. Obama’s obvious
reluctance to follow through on his pledge to retaliate if Syria used chemical
weapons may stem from a belated recognition that he has tethered the US’s
strategic credibility to the quality of its response to an action that in itself
has little significance to US interests in Syria.
And this brings us to
the third vital US interest threatened by the war in Syria – preventing Iran,
al-Qaida or Russia from scoring a victory.
Whereas the war going on in
Syria pits jihadists against jihadists, the war that concerns the US and its
allies is the war the jihadists wage against everyone else. And Iran is the
epicenter of that war.
Like US deterrent power and strategic credibility,
the US’s interest in preventing Iran from scoring a victory in Damascus is
harmed by the obvious unseriousness of the “signal” Obama said he wishes to send
Assad through US air strikes.
Speaking on Sunday of the chemical strike
in Syria, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu warned, “Syria has become Iran’s
testing ground.... Iran is watching and it wants to see what would be the
reaction on the use of chemical weapons.”
The tepid, symbolic response
that the US is poised to adopt in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons
represents a clear signal to Iran. Both the planned strikes and the growing
possibility that the US will scrap even a symbolic military strike in Syria tell
Iran it has nothing to fear from Obama.
Iran achieved a strategic
achievement by exposing the US as a paper tiger in Syria. With this
accomplishment in hand, the Iranians will feel free to call Obama’s bluff on
their nuclear weapons project. Obama’s “shot across the bow” response to Syria’s
use of chemical weapons in a mass casualty attack signaled the Iranians that the
US will not stop them from developing and deploying a nuclear
Policy-makers and commentators who have insisted that we can
trust Obama to keep his pledge to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons
have based their view on an argument that now lies in tatters. They insisted
that by pledging to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, Obama staked his
reputation on acting competently to prevent Iran from getting the bomb. To avoid
losing face, they said, Obama will keep his pledge.
Obama’s behavior on
Syria has rendered this position indefensible. Obama is perfectly content with
shooting a couple of pot shots at empty government installations. As far as he
is concerned, the conduct of air strikes in Syria is not about Syria, or Iran.
They are not the target audience of the strikes. The target audience for US air
strikes in Syria is the disengaged, uninformed American public.
believes he can prove his moral and strategic bonafides to the public by
declaring his outrage at Syrian barbarism and then launching a few cruise
missiles from an aircraft carrier. The computer graphics on the television news
will complete the task for him.
The New York Times
claimed on Thursday
that the administration’s case for striking Syria would not be the “political
theater” that characterized the Bush administration’s case for waging war in
Iraq. But at least the Bush administration’s political theater ended with the
invasion. In Obama’s case, the case for war and the war itself are all political
While for a few days the bread and circuses of the planned
strategically useless raid will increase newspaper circulation and raise viewer
ratings of network news, it will cause grievous harm to US national interests.
As far as US enemies are concerned, the US is an empty suit.
And as far
as America’s allies are concerned, the only way to prevent Iran from becoming a
nuclear power is to operate without the knowledge of the United
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