Having gained this reprieve, President Assad can be forgiven for doubting that the threat of US military force remains a realistic danger to his regime’s survival, or to his armed forces’ freedom of action against the domestic opposition. It is Mr. Assad’s good fortune that, with the military strikes options pulled back from the brink, the Obama national-security team left itself with no other levers of influence at hand to contain the spreading Syria crisis.
When President Obama initially solicited options to exert leverage on Syria in this crisis, his national-security staff turned straight to the Pentagon, which dutifully generated kinetic strike packages and target sets. Nowhere did that process reflect the Administration’s forward-looking doctrinal approach to international-security challenges tying success to the integration of "all of the tools of American power" in a whole-of-government operation. The President also ignored the counsel of his top military advisor, General Martin Dempsey, who had publicly cautioned that in Syria “you need a strategy to tie military options with other instruments of power.”
It is a rare spectacle to find the Arab League Foreign Ministers formally calling for war crimes prosecutions against a fellow Arab leader and his inner circle, yet even more striking that US government—which sports a full Office of Global Criminal Justice led by an Ambassador-at-Large, solely for this purpose—apparently has not seen fit to lead on this issue or even consider the threat of war crimes prosecution as a potential tool of leverage on Mr. Assad’s regime.
While Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have invested heavily in television and other media outlets as a means of shaping public opinion to their advantage, the administration apparently sees no opportunity in the Arab world’s information domain to expose the cynical and illegitimate misdeeds of those directly responsible for this crisis. And while President Obama’s June decision to arm and train the Syrian opposition has translated into what the Washington Post describes as a “minuscule” clandestine program, Moscow and Tehran continue a robust flow of heavy arms, fighters and funds into Syria to sustain the Assad regime.
In sum, Washington shows no evidence of mustering either military or nonmilitary tools of influence that would offer a credible prospect of rescuing what remains of Syria’s largely defenseless population from the ravages of Bashar al-Assad’s conventional forces. With well over 110,000 killed and an estimated seven million displaced, one third of them overflowing refugee camps in neighboring countries, one finds no inclination within the Administration to invoke—as it had in Libya—the humanitarian intervention doctrine known as Responsibility to Protect. Indeed, the US-Russia-Syria chemical weapons disarmament project has become, pace the Nobel Committee, the ethical antithesis of Responsibility to Protect, veritably a License to Ignore.
These policy foibles obscure the larger strategic landscape at play in Syria’s conflict. Russia’s opportunism in seizing upon Secretary Kerry’s press remark to offer full partnership in eliminating Syrian chemical weapons was clearly motivated less by the fear of civilian casualties from “one stiff breeze” of toxic vapors than by its interest in keeping the Assad regime in power. Having no other major clients for its arms-export industry since the fall of Muammar Qadhafi, no other port of access for its navy in the Levant, and an affinity for a secular regime—however brutal—that bills itself as a bulwark against Sunni Arab religious extremism, Russia has deftly kept America from getting in the way of its core interests in the region.
If the Administration sees advantage in giving Moscow a pass over its weapons being used by the Syrian military to lay waste to populated cities and towns, its passivity toward Iran’s regional activities demands explanation. Iran and its proxy force Hezbollah have massively supported the Assad regime, revealing an historically rare condition of vulnerability to prospective regime change in Damascus.
Hezbollah, which has the blood of US Marines on its hands and has become so heavily armed that it sustained hostilities with Israel for several days in 2006, is now politically exposed back home in Lebanon and throughout the Arab world for fighting and killing fellow Muslims in a neighboring Arab country on behalf of a secular dictatorship. Its operations, today as thirty years ago, are wholly dependent on continued support from Tehran.
The Iranian cleric leading an organization charged with countering the “soft war” against the fundamentalist regime in Tehran, Hojjat al-Islam Mehdi Taeb, explained the vital importance of Syria to the survival of the mullahs’ regime, in remarks to student loyalists in February:
**“Syria is the 35th province [of Iran] and a strategic province for us. If the enemy attacks us and wants to appropriate either Syria or Khuzestan [in southern Iran], the priority is that we keep Syria….If we keep Syria, we can get Khuzestan back too, but if we lose Syria we cannot keep Tehran.”**
As with the Israel-Palestinian negotiations, a proper US understanding of Syria’s crisis must factor in an Iranian role animated by nothing short of a belief that preserving the Assad regime is an imperative, linked to the fundamentalists’ own survival in power in Tehran. And yet, the Obama Administration appears strangely indifferent to the parlous circumstances of perhaps the most anti-American regime in the world for the past 35 years, and uninterested in the leverage on Iran now potentially within Washington’s grasp after decades of enduring terrorist, nuclear and missile threats from Tehran’s security services.
The willful averting by the Administration of its gaze from these and other core dynamics at play in and around Syria is certain to shape regional perceptions of American power for years to come. Funding copious humanitarian assistance, already $1.3 billion and counting, for the fleeing victims of Russian-armed Syrian forces or Iranian-armed fighters, worthy as that is, will not indemnify the US against the erosion of its superpower reputation.
Negotiations with Iran—How to Avert War and Build American Influence
American politicians, including President Obama, have been justified in pledging to do whatever it takes to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Cold War notions of ‘containment’ may offer no assurance of stability in the volatile Middle East, where in contrast to Kremlin leaders during the Cold War, surviving a nuclear exchange may not be a priority for many extremist aggressors. As recently as September 30, the State Department reiterated the official US view that “We’re not going to allow Iran to create a nuclear weapon.”
The carefully engineered June election of Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran, and this regime stalwart’s genial pursuit of détente with the US and normalized foreign relations with others, have challenged Washington to respond with comparable tactical skill and strategic purpose. Some observers—press photographers, at the very least—were disappointed when President Obama’s opportunity to greet President Rouhani personally at the UN in September did not materialize. Mr. Obama’s telephone call to Mr. Rouhani as the latter headed for the airport to return to Iran was a hospitable gesture regardless of one’s policy view of Iran, a privilege US presidents can exercise as a consequence of hosting the United Nations on American soil.
Yet the ensuing press statements by White House aides promoted the disturbing theme that, just as Secretary Kerry had met with Iranian foreign minister Zarif in New York, President Obama had made a connection with his own “counterpart,” talking ‘president to president’ with Hassan Rouhani. President Obama would have been well advised to initiate a call the next morning to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Not only would that have tested the sincerity of Tehran’s apparent warming to the United States, it would have dispelled the damaging misimpression that an unelected religious autocrat holds a superior protocol rank to the president of the United States.
That Mr. Obama, in his September 24 speech to the UN General Assembly and subsequently, cited a fatwa by the Supreme Leader without irony or caveat, as though this carried some recognized legal effect, only underscored the uncertainty about the new Iranian President’s own authority to set national policy on the very matter to be negotiated.
US and European diplomats emerged from the initial mid-October nuclear talks in Geneva remarking on the change in Iran’s posture from previous negotiations. Foreign Minister Zarif reportedly engaged in detailed, substantive discussions about the nuclear program, and told the press afterward that “serious give-and-take has taken place.” It is a welcome change, and administration officials are now seized with two entirely predictable tasks: eliciting from the Iranian side a set of commitments that the US and allies persuasively believe will prevent a future nuclear weapons “breakout;” and offering Iran in return a commitment to deliver an agreed level of sanctions relief.
Lead US negotiator Wendy Sherman, in congressional hearings before the initial Geneva session, assured legislators that the President is pursuing a comprehensive agreement, not interim steps wherein a partial lifting of sanctions could deflate international solidarity to pressure Iran economically before a satisfactory nuclear deal is reached. It is the correct approach. Yet the Administration now, predictably, finds itself caught in a two-front negotiation, needing to overcome deep skepticism and a backdrop of troubled relations not only with Tehran but with Capitol Hill.