Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Obama's Syria Dilemma

by Jonathan F. Keiler

As the situation in Syria deteriorates, with the Assad regime acting with ever-increasing ruthlessness, the Obama administration's firm policy of inaction has come in for extended criticism from both the left and the right. That is not to say there are not legitimate reasons for caution. Syria presents a difficult and complex situation. Credible explanations for the administration's inaction cover a range of military and political factors. Taking down the Syrian regime through air strikes might prove more difficult than operations in Kosovo or Libya. There are potential problems with the Kurds, the Turks, and the Russians. There is uncertainty about the Syrian opposition. What to do about Syria's arsenal of poison gas and biological weaponry and its ballistic missiles? What about the doctrine of non-interference initiated with the Peace of Westphalia? And so on.

Yet these problems could prove manageable if President Obama were determined to act. But Obama's clear unwillingness to act militarily against the Assad regime almost certainly runs deeper than his famous preference for leading from behind. It is one thing for a dilettante like Obama to launch drone strikes against terrorist hovels, beat up on Moammar Gaddafi's pathetic army, or even agree to the hit on bin Laden. It's quite another to embark on an extended military campaign against a large and battle-tested army.

Nonetheless, even a reluctant warrior like Obama might be convinced to launch a limited air/sea campaign against the Assad regime, if there were a limited aim -- removing Assad -- and a reasonable chance of success with few if any losses. As Obama's political fortunes continue to fade, it's not hard to see the president hungering for yet another chance to brag about his fortitude and toughness. Helping Syria might help Obama politically -- a consideration, if believed, that usually trumps in his Oval Office.

And for all the potential difficulties bandied about, it's hard to believe that American air and naval forces could not take down the Assad regime with relative ease. True, Syria has a large and elaborate air defense system, built to oppose the Israelis, and considerably more formidable than Libya's. But in 1982 the Israelis dismantled a similar system in the Bekaa Valley without loss, and we dealt with Iraq's similar systems effectively in the Gulf War. Taking out Assad would likely require crippling his air defenses, ballistic missiles, WMD stores, and logistical bases, but not wiping out his army tank by tank. Without gas and ammunition, Assad's army would quickly grind to a halt.

Moreover, in the twenty years since the Gulf War, our military capabilities have expanded exponentially, while Syria is basically equipped with the same weapons that armed Saddam Hussein's army. Israel's successful 2007 strike against a Syrian nuclear facility suggests that American forces, five years on, with basing options, allies, and air and naval capabilities that the Israel Defense Force (for all its talents) simply lacks, could devastate the Syrian military structure that supports the Assad regime.

So why won't Obama act? Well, here's a reason I haven't yet seen bruited but which probably stays Obama's hand as much as anything listed in paragraph one. It's that an American-led assault on Syria, which broke Assad's military, would actually help one of America's key regional allies -- Israel -- and that is simply something that Obama, or Hillary Clinton's State Department, or the British and the French, for that matter, cannot abide.

While it's true that any American action against Syria might bring uncertainty and danger for the Jewish State, just imagine Israel's situation in the wake of a successful American attack. A key threat to its northern border, and even its survival -- one that has plagued the country since its founding -- would be eliminated. Syrian support for Hezb'allah would be diminished if not crippled. Iran's position would be weakened.

Israeli officials have been discreet regarding Syria, and for good reason. The Arab revolts have not been a boon for Israel's interests in general, and most particularly with respect to Egypt. There, regime change left the country's "reformers" (which includes the viciously anti-Semitic and anti-Israel Muslim Brotherhood) in possession of Egypt's powerful American-equipped military. Hardly a day passes without someone in Egypt calling to abrogate the peace treaty with Israel. The IDF has had to reposition forces to the south for the first time in a generation, and re-evaluate its strategic posture. A similar outcome in Syria -- regime change that left the Syrian military intact -- might be disastrous for Israel.

But if Syria's military capabilities were first devastated in an American-led attack, then whatever successor regime emerged in Syria would be of much less concern to the Israelis. Although Israeli officials have been circumspect, that is the kind of regime change Israelis could support. And such an outcome would clearly be in America's best interests as well -- that is, you'd think so, unless your name is Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, or you're one of their fellow travelers. It would not be the first time that Obama saw his first priority as checking Israel, rather than its enemies.

Here's how Obama and State would view such an outcome vis-à-vis Israel: disaster! Netanyahu, perhaps Obama's chief personal international nemesis, would win again. Then Obama must consider the poor Palestinians. How will the president ever get the Israelis to negotiate a "just and lasting peace" without the added pressure of war on the Golan, or on the Lebanese border, or in Gaza? All three would become less likely if Syria were defanged.

What of the Golan itself -- that supposedly sacred Arab territory that under Syrian control as nothing but an artillery platform? Israel annexed the Golan and turned it into a vital, beautiful, and productive part of the nation. But so what? It's Arab land -- so the Arabs claim, anyway -- that Israel must eventually return. How is that ever going to happen without the credible threat of a Syrian invasion?

See? If you're Obama, it's a nightmare. The British and French governments would see things the same way. Another "war for Israel" waged by American forces -- to use the calumny often bandied about regarding the Iraq war by extremists on the left and right. Another win for Israel!

Jonathan F. Keiler


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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