by Yoav Limor
Islamic State has already been routed, while a balanced and sane confederation can possibly be established in Assad's place.
The expected American-British-French attack in Syria is intended, on the surface, as a response to Bashar Assad's use of chemical weapons against his people. At stake, however, is something much larger: To what extent is the enlightened world willing to allow the "axis of evil" to run amuck in the war-torn country on Israel's northern border and do with it as it pleases.
Looking at the incident in question, the international community's glance shifts between Damascus and Moscow. When squinting we see the Syrian president and his defiant, repeated use of chemical weapons; with a wider view we see his patron, Russia, giving him the tailwind to act in such a manner. While no one is planning to hit Russian targets, make no mistake: Hanging in the balance is more than Assad, whose civil war victory has given him new life, but the fight between global blocs and religions to determine the boundaries of what is permitted and what is forbidden.
U.S. President Donald Trump most likely didn't seek this clash with Russia, certainly not at the present juncture. However, after getting rid of all the background noise, this is precisely where he finds himself. Although the chemical weapons were used against Syrian civilians, they were also aimed at Washington; one year to the day of the American cruise missile attack on a Syrian military base, Assad – under Russian protection – is again showing America the proverbial middle finger.
Trump, who doesn't know the meaning of the word "chump," has a rare opportunity here to make the United States the global leader again. There is almost complete international consensus against the use of chemical weapons, which will help rally a broad range of forces. Some of these forces will be good willed, others will have narrow interests in mind – such as Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have already declared their desire to join this fight, even though their goal is obviously not the defeat of Assad and his regime but Iran and its expansionist regional ambitions.
Israel, too, has a central role to play in this campaign – overt and covert. Overtly, it must step aside. If up until the chemical attack two days ago it was clearly alone in combatting the axis of evil in Syria, it now finds itself in the camp of the good guys. However, similar to the Gulf War in 1991, Israel has to be careful not to sabotage it. Covertly, it is a crucial player due to its superior intelligence gathering capabilities in the Syrian arena, which can help the Americans and their allies focus their attacks on the Syrian regime and its allies.
It's doubtful that the U.S. is presently willing to go all the way to remove the Assad regime. This stems not only from a lack of desire to confront Moscow but from concern that it will push Syria into a renewed cycle of civil war. From this perspective, it would be a shame: Unlike the previous stages of the civil war, when getting rid of Assad would have meant the ascension of Islamic State, the situation is completely different now. ISIS has been routed, while a balanced and sane confederation can possibly be established.
The international community, then, not only has the opportunity to dispense belated justice and impair a leader who has slaughtered hundreds of thousands of his countrymen, it can also block the nightmare scenario set to unfold in Syria, under Russian and Iranian patronage, at the last second.
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