Savir's Corner: Between Damascus and Tehran

Israel, with the shifting of the balance of powers in the region, needs to pose itself critical questions of national security.

Marie Colvin in Misrata_390 (photo credit: Reuters)
Marie Colvin in Misrata_390
(photo credit: Reuters)
On February 22, a good friend of mine, the courageous Sunday Times reporter Marie Colvin, who reported from almost every war zone in the world to present the readers with the horror, brutality and futility of war, was killed by Syrian forces in the city of Homs.
She is now one of more than 6,000 innocent civilians who have been massacred by Bashar Assad’s forces, most recently and in the most gruesome way in the Homs massacre. And the world is numb. Russia and China vetoed a condemnation of the atrocities, and the West, led by the United States, has limited itself to economic sanctions, and has not intervened militarily on the side of the brave Syrian rebels, unlike in Libya.
The Assad Alawite regime has been largely a tragedy for Syria, a minority rule of ruthless dictators. The father, Hafez Assad, while probably a more astute and intelligent leader, ruled with immense brutality, killing more than 20,000 Islamists in Hama in 1982. He kept Syria not only a closed and backwards country, close to the Soviet Union, but also far away from the West and peace, despite generous overtures by Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton.
The apple has fallen close to the tree, and young Bashar, who seemed initially to bring some promise, due to his age, his Western education and his spouse, walked straight in the footsteps of his father, or rather limped in them. Lacking intelligence and experience, he has inherited his father’s cynicism and cruelty in abundance. He is totally committed to suppressing the people’s revolt against his despised regime, no matter the cost in innocent lives.
An end must be put to Bashar’s regime, and an end being in sight in one way or another, it has already affected other regional players, both near and far from Damascus. The Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah- Hamas axis has been a potent source of danger to the stability of the entire Middle East. The ongoing weapon supply chain from Tehran via Damascus, to Lebanese and Palestinian terror organizations, was the foundation for this dangerous coalition. Now, the alarm bells are sounding in Tehran’s mosques, and in Beirut’s headquarters.
Khaled Mashaal and Hamas were the first to understand the strategic shift, and he and his cronies fled Damascus and are now looking for refuge in Amman or Doha. Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah is Assad’s last remaining supporter, besides his Iranian godfathers, weaving conspiracy theories around the bloodshed in Syria, as Nasrallah knows that his position as the de facto ruler of Lebanon may be damaged. Even the Muslim Brotherhood organizations in Cairo and the Maghreb have stood up against the Alawite “kingdom,” as was apparent in the recent “Friends of Syria” summit in Tunis.
This further deepens the divide between relatively moderate and fundamentalist Islam, placing the relatively more moderate, mainly Sunni, mainstream Islamists, opposite the dogmatic Shia made-in-Tehran version, which is all the while trying to export a fundamentalist ideology of the supremacy of Shari’a law and fanatic hate for the infidels, be they Arab or Western.
The supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have already brutally suppressed the “Green Revolution” in Tehran, and when it comes to brutality and fanaticism, they can teach even Bashar Assad a lesson. The Iranian regime combines fundamentalist Islam with militant warfare capacities – from a vast terror network, to the ongoing effort to produce nuclear weapons. They thrive on an ideology of hate, denying the Holocaust and Israel’s right to exist, and seeing in the United States “the Great Satan.”
They are also a tragedy to the Iranian people, to the continuum of the great Persian culture and civilization.
But even Tehran is concerned with the possibility of a regime change in Damascus, and with the crippling sanctions that affect the economy of Syria, an already very poor country.
The Tehran-Damascus-Beirut axis is thus in flux, and it is therefore critical how the world, led by the West and the United States, will act in relation to Assad’s atrocities and Ahmadinejad’s ambitions. From a moral and strategic point of view, the West and the United States cannot stand idly by, and have to move from words to deeds, in order to topple the Damascus tyrant.
Sanctions can not suffice. While a Security Council resolution is impossible, NATO, led by the United States, should initially declare a no-fly zone over Syria, arm the rebels and organize the opposition, as it has already begun to do in Tunis, with the Syrian National Council. In the second stage, the involvement of NATO’s air forces in order to defeat Bashar’s army should not be ruled out, nor should peacekeeping functions be ruled out in the aftermath. Some, even in Israel, are wary of such engagement, as they fear what and who will succeed Assad.
Nothing could be worse than the butchering of one’s own people. Ask the people of Syria.
Such actions would be the beginning of the end of the Assad regime in Syria.
This would lead to a shift in the balance of forces, with Iran and Hezbollah weakened. A weaker and more isolated Tehran may then be more susceptible to international sanctions – a poor and isolated Iran may not alter its long-term ambitions, but it may be more open to engage diplomatically with the “five powers” group – to bring its nuclear program onto a slower path, with greater inspections and restrictions.
Attacking Iran should be a last resort; not an option for Israel at all, as this would be insufficient and too costly, but for the United States under Barack Obama. Following the Netanyahu-Obama meeting this week, Israel should, after having successfully brought about the prioritizing of the Iranian issue, stop being at the rhetorical forefront of the effort against Iran, and become a concerned and constructive partner in an international coalition led by the United States.
Israel, with the shifting of the balance of powers in the region, needs to pose itself critical questions of national security. This means engaging in a viable peace process with the Palestinians, after a settlement freeze, thus opening the route to Cairo and Ankara, necessary partners in the unfolding power puzzle. It is time for the international community and Israel to stop thinking simply of bilateral deterrence, which is insufficient, and to begin thinking on how to structure a new regional coalition and balance of power, in favor of modernization, greater democratization and freedom, and regional peaceful coexistence. This will serve as an answer to both the shifting positions in the Tehran-Damascus axis, and the shifting sands of the Arab Spring. The solution does not not lie exclusively in our military might, but in the degree of our policy wisdom, something that has so far been noticeably lacking.
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.