Here’s advice to the members of the U.S. Congress as they are asked to endorse an American-led attack on the government of Syria:
- Start your consideration by establishing priorities, clarifying what matters most to the country. The Obama administration rightly points to two urgent matters: stopping the Iranian nuclear buildup and maintaining the security of Israel. To these, I add a third: re-establishing the U.S. deterrent credibility laid low by Barack Obama himself.
Note that this list conspicuously does not mention the Syrian regime’s chemical arsenal (the largest in the world) or its recent use. That’s because those pale in horror and in danger by comparison with the nuclear weapons now under construction in Iran. Also, the attack in Ghouta, Syria, on Aug. 21 was appalling, but not worse than killing a hundred times more civilians through other means, including torture. Further, that attack breached multiple international conventions, but surely no one expects “limited strikes” to restrain desperate dictators.
How best, then, to achieve the real priorities concerning Iran, Israel, and U.S. deterrence? Several options exist. Going from most violent to least, they include:
- 1. Knock off the Assad regime. Attractive in itself, especially because it takes out Tehran’s No. 1 ally and disrupts supply lines to Hezbollah, this scenario opens a can of worms: anarchy in Syria, foreign intervention by neighbors, the prospect of al-Qaida-connected Islamists taking over in Damascus, hostilities against Israel on the hitherto-quiet Golan Heights, and the dispersal of the regime’s chemical weapons to terrorist organizations. Overthrowing Syrian President Bashar Assad threatens to recapitulate the elimination of long-standing dictators of Iraq and Libya in 2003 and 2011, leading to years, or even decades, of instability and violence. Worse yet, this outcome could rejuvenate the otherwise dying career of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the bully of Turkey, currently nearly overwhelmed by his missteps.
2. Bust the regime’s chops without overthrowing it — the Obama administration proposed approach. This scenario takes us no less into the unknown: Evidence exists that the Assad regime does not worry about the U.S.-led “punishment” but already plans to use chemicals again, perhaps against civilians, as does Tehran against American targets. Further, as I have pointed out, a limited strike can lead to “violence against Israel, an activation of sleeper cells in Western countries, or heightened dependence on Tehran. Surviving the strikes also permits Assad to boast that he defeated the United States.” This step risks almost as much as overthrowing Assad without the benefit of getting rid of him, making it the worst of these three options.
3. Do nothing. This scenario has several disadvantages: letting Assad get away with his chemical attack; eroding Obama’s credibility after his declaring the use of chemicals a “red line”; and strengthening the hardliners in Iran. But it has the even greater advantages of not further inflaming an already combustible war theater, maintaining the strategically beneficial stand-off between regime and rebels, and, most importantly, not distracting Washington from the really important …read more