Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”
President Barack Obama made this statement on March 28 in an address to the National Defense University, during which he explained America’s rationale for approving a military campaign to stop Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s violent crackdown on protesters.
The war in Libya is almost three months old and seems to be continuing,
but one question that remains unanswered is why the above policy of not
turning a blind eye to atrocities doesn’t apply to other countries in
the Middle East – like Syria, for example.
By Thursday, the death toll in Syria was believed to have already
reached over 1,500 people, but the international community, led by the
US, could not even find itself in agreement over the language of a
resolution censuring Syria that some countries in Europe wanted to push
through the Security Council.
So why the difference? In a word: Israel.
Israel does not share a border with Libya, but it does share one with
Syria, and there are fears in the IDF that in the event of foreign
military intervention there, Israel would feel the brunt of Bashar
While Assad is already believed to be trying to divert attention from
his lethal crackdown on protesters by encouraging Palestinians to raid
the Israeli border, as occurred this past Sunday, this is just the tip
of the iceberg of what Syria can do.
One intelligence assessment speaks of the possibility that, under
extreme pressure – caused politically or militarily – Assad might decide
to attack Israel with more than just angry Palestinians from the
Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus.
Instead, he would have available the thousands of ballistic missiles
Syria has manufactured over the years, as well as an extensive chemical
arsenal, bolstered as a replacement for the nuclear reactor Israel
destroyed in 2007.
For this reason, Jerusalem is quietly warning about the potential
consequences of Western military action aimed at toppling Assad. This
does not mean, of course, that Israel wants Assad to remain in power; in
reality, the opposite is true. But the concern cannot be ignored; what
will happen the day after Assad falls, and into whose hands will the
ballistic missiles and chemical weapons fall?
At the same time, senior
IDF officers believe that there is no turning back for Assad and that
after killing some 1,500 of his own people, he will not be able to rule
again as he once did. What this means practically is still unclear, but
the hope is that it will ultimately lead to a larger break in the
Iranian axis that connects Tehran, Damascus and Beirut, and will further
isolate Iran and cut off supplies to Hezbollah.
Syria’s close allies – Hezbollah and Iran – are also extremely concerned
with the ongoing demonstrations in Syria and the potential impact on
Western intelligence agencies have raised the possibility that Hezbollah
is trying to transfer advanced weaponry it reportedly maintains on
Syrian soil to Lebanon due to the ongoing turmoil in the country.
The group is believed to have stored advanced arms in Syria – including
longrange Scud missiles- as part of its logistical deployment along
Israel’s northern border.
Iran is also not waiting for Assad, and just this week – in the midst of
the ongoing upheaval in the Middle East – announced that it was
implementing plans to triple its production of uranium. It also said
that the secret nuclear facility it was caught covertly building near
the city of Qom in 2009 would no longer remain empty and would be
equipped with advanced centrifuges for the enrichment of higher-grade
The Iranian announcement came just two days after International Atomic
Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Yukiya Amano said the nuclear
watchdog had obtained information that “seems to point to the existence”
of possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program.
Amano’s announcement came just a few weeks after the IAEA released its
latest report on Iran’s nuclear program, pointing to a significant
increase in the enrichment of uranium – up from 133 kilograms per month
to 156 kg. – with a total of just over 4 tons of low-enriched uranium
(LEU), enough for at least two nuclear weapons if enriched again to
higher military-grade levels.
While Iran is still encountering some technological difficulties,
overall it seems to have overcome the setback caused last year by
Stuxnet, the virus that attacked its uranium enrichment plant at Natanz
and is believed to have destroyed over 1,000 centrifuges.
In simpler terms, Iran is taking advantage of the current shift in the
world’s focus from its illicit nuclear activities to the ongoing
upheaval in the Middle East, and is moving forward with enriching
uranium. The decision on Tuesday to send submarines to the Red Sea is
another indication of Iran’s growing confidence and its belief that it
will not pay a price for any of these provocations.
There are a number of reasons for the confidence. While the current sanctions in place against Iran have had some effect,
they are overshadowed and undermined by the increase in the price of
oil. In addition, while other tyrants in the Middle East are battling
for survival, in Iran the protests have waned and almost disappeared.
According to Israeli intelligence assessments, Iran wants to wait until
it has enough fissionable material to produce an arsenal of nuclear
weapons, which means it will need several more tons of low-enriched
uranium. From the stage when it decides to break out and begin enriching uranium
at military levels, until the point that it has a testable nuclear
device, it will likely be a year.
Iran’s confidence also appears to have received a boost from the recent
media mayhem in Israel over former Mossad chief Meir Dagan’s comments
about Jerusalem’s military option vis-à-vis the Iranian nuclear issue.
Dagan said it was a “stupid idea” to attack Iran, and pointed out the
“impossible” regional challenge Israel would face following such an
For Tehran, these comments fell on welcoming ears. For years, the Iranians have questioned Israel’s military capabilities. Now here comes Dagan – their archnemesis – and gives them a reason to.
Dagan’s justification for doing this – his concern with Israel’s current
political leadership – might be genuine, even though it was done with
the awareness that it would eat away at the deterrence Jerusalem has
tried for years to create in the face of the Iranian threat.
Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon has long spoken about
the importance of creating a “credible military option” for Iran’s
nuclear program. According to Ya’alon, it is not enough to speak about
the option; it is also necessary to show the Iranians that it is real,
viable and effective.
“They need to fear that the military option is real and can be used,” Ya’alon has said in the past.
To back up this argument, Ya’alon has referred to Tehran’s 2003 decision
to suspend its enrichment of uranium and weapons program. That move was
based on fear that after the US invasion of Iraq, it was next in line.
President George W. Bush had already listed Iran has part of the “Axis
of Evil” mentioned in his 2002 State of the Union address.
Judging by its recent decisions, Iran no longer feels threatened. As it
continues to provoke the world without paying a price, there is
unfortunately no reason it should.