House c'tee examines Obama policy on Syria

Veteran Foreign Relations staff member warns against sending "mixed messages" that will reduce American power.

June 5, 2013 20:47
2 minute read.
Israel soldiers wear protective gear during a drill.

israeli soldiers wearing anti chemical gear 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

WASHINGTON – The US House Committee on Foreign Affairs addressed President Barack Obama’s performance in Syria on Wednesday, criticizing perceived backpedaling on his tolerance of chemical weapons use in the country while voicing caution at alternative options for the United States to more forcefully assert its interests in the conflict.

Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said that our denial of Assad’s use of chemical weapons – as France, Britain and the United Nations begin to identify evidence that such attacked have occurred – “sends a message not just to Assad but to the opposition” on US willingness to meaningfully engage.

Testifying before the committee, Danielle Pletka, a veteran senior staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warned that such mixed messages undermine American power and present the US as a “paper tiger.”

“We can only imagine to ourselves how the Iranian regime appreciates the president’s failure to act on his own threats,” Pletka said in her testimony.

But Democrats on the committee called on their Republican colleagues to offer feasible alternatives. Congressman Joe Kennedy said that “the United States and Secretary Kerry have done an admirable job” bringing all sides to one table in Geneva for highly anticipated talks. He expressed fears that the alternative to a negotiated settlement might be a wider regional conflict.

Dr. Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that the “best out of a series of really bad choices” is “a settlement that arises from a negotiated transfer of power.”

He added, however, that “the biggest mistake we can make about Geneva is to assume it’s going to produce a solution,” and said that any scenario will take several years to play out.

During the politically titled hearing, dubbed “A Crisis Mismanaged: Obama’s Failed Syria Policy,” the options that were floated – rely on the Saudis and Qataris to delineate between idealist and sinister rebels; target Hezbollah through sanctions to inhibit their foreign fighting force; implement a no-fly zone – reflected the existing menu of options drawn up by the Pentagon for President Obama, who has requested all contingencies be thoroughly explored for his assessment.

“The primary problem with Washington’s current policy is not that it has been too reluctant to get involved in Syria; it is that it has been reading the strategic map incorrectly,” said Tony Badran, a research fellow at the conservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “Whereas Iran views the battle for Syria in strategic terms, current US policy, unfortunately, does not.”

Regarding US allegiance to the protection of Israel, Badran said that the committee should view Iran as an existential threat, Hezbollah as a strategic threat and all other extremist contingencies as tactical threats to the Jewish state.

In his testimony, Badran quoted Mehdi Taeb, the head of an influential government think tank in Iran, to summarize this position: “Syria is the 35th district of Iran and it has greater strategic importance for Iran than Khuzestan,” Taeb said, referring to Iran’s oldest province. “If we lose Syria we will not even be able to keep Tehran.”

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