If we are going to win in the Middle East, we have to get the context right. As I wrote in The War Against the Terror Masters, long before the invasion of Iraq, we cannot just “do” a country like Iraq, or today, Syria, and then move on. That’s one of the strategic mistakes Bush, Rice, Hadley, Cheney and Rumsfeld made. They viewed Iraq in isolation. They thought they could just “do Iraq,” and then consider their options. We then belatedly discovered (even though our enemies publicly announced what they were going to do) that Iraq and Afghanistan could not have decent security so long as Syria and Iran actively supported terrorists in those countries. American soldiers and countless Iraqi and Afghan civilians have paid a terrible price for our failure of vision.
The regional war has expanded, but we still look at each battle field in isolation, rather than seeing the war whole:
- Israel has been invaded, and is under constant rocket attack;
- The shooting war in Libya, where American pilots and trainers conducted operations, and others trained and helped organize the anti-Qadaffi campaign;
- We have declared diplomatic and economic war on the Assad regime in Syria, just as we began with Qadaffi’s regime in Libya;
- The war against the Kurds: Turkey now routinely bombs and invades PKK camps in Iraqi Kurdistan, while Iran shells and invades the same region. We are directly involved on this battlefield; we’ve been providing intelligence to the Turks on the Kurds since at least 2007;
- The violence against our troops, and against our allies in Iraq and Afghanistan, is relentlessly increasing.
To be sure, there was nothing new about most of that; Obama was simply embracing the failed dreams of the two Bushes and the Clintons. The only difference was timing: the others slowly came to believe that a Grand Bargain with Iran and Syria was doable, while Obama started with that fantasy. All believed—and perhaps some of our policy makers still believe—that Turkey was a friend and would support our goals.
What happens when an administration’s dreams are shattered? In a very important article in the Weekly Standard, Stephen Hayes and Tom Jocelyn suggest the administration may have drawn the obvious conclusions from the failure of wishful thinking, and may now be changing course. “With the public accusations that Iran is harboring the next generation of al Qaeda leadership and is facilitating the operation of al Qaeda’s key pipeline for funding and operatives,” they suggest, “the Obama administration seems to be saying that this conciliatory approach has now come to an end.” It’s a bit clearer with Syria; we are now publicly committed to regime change in Damascus.
Whatever Obama’s intentions, he has certainly laid the groundwork for more vigorous action against Syria and Iran, whose bonds are so intimate they constitute a single strategic enemy of the United States. The Iranian regime is fighting feverishly to save Assad: committing billion of dollars, sending Damascus weapons and technology to censor and monitor internet and cellular communications, dispatching Quds Force killers (some of whom are Syrian Kurds, so that if they’re captured Assad and Khamenei can blame Kurdish “terrorists”), and even publicly warning the Turks to butt out. If Tehran has to choose between Syria and Turkey, the mullahs will choose Syria.
It’s easy to understand Khamenei’s anxiety, now on public display as he sends a new ambassador—Mohammadreza Raouf Sheybani, a notoriously tough Revolutionary Guards veteran –to Damascus in the middle of Ramadan. Iran has long waged war through Syrian-based proxies, from Hezbollah to Islamic Jihad and Hamas, and on to terror groups with secular, rather than Islamist, ideologies. In all probability, Syria and Iran have conducted a joint nuclear program. The fall of Assad and his replacement by a less Iranian-compliant government would be a catastrophe for Khamenei: it would be a terrible blow to Hezbollah and the other terror proxies. It would deep-six whatever nuclear schemes are in the works, and it would undoubtedly send a powerful emotional charge through the ranks of the Iranian opposition. If the regime can be beaten in Damascus and Homs, they will reason, why not in Tehran and Tabriz?
Khamenei’s worries about Syria are likely a component of the new assault against Israel as well. Such an ambitious action is at least in part designed to mobilize the region against the Zionist entity, and forget about the poor Syrian people. On the other hand, the fall of Qadaffi is bad news for the whole collection of Middle Eastern tyrants, whether Sunni or Shi’a, in Tehran or Riyadh. They all know that American power brought him down, and they all saw the ferocity with which his opponents fought to bring down his regime, just as they see the remarkable courage of tens of thousands of Syrians taking to the streets, even though suffering and death await them. And they remember the similar scenes in Iran, which in so many ways inspired the insurrections across the Arab world.
The short march to the best available outcome right now runs through Damascus to Tehran. Regime change in Syria and Iran would be a godsend for our travails in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as for the increasingly irrelevant peace process. Unlike Libya, we should not resort to military means to bring down Assad and Khamenei; in addition to sanctions, we need to support political revolution in both countries. And while we’re at it, American support for the Kurds is long overdo. They are critical components of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. Despite ongoing spats, they have long cooperated in a regional strategy aimed at gaining autonomy in all four countries, pending the opportunity to test the possibility of a Kurdish state. They are very well informed, and they are good fighters (ask the Turks and the Iranians, both of whom are badly bloodied when they venture into Kurdish territory). The Kurds should be part of our political strategy.
When Obama says that the future of Iran and Syria will be determined by the people of those countries, he never says what we all know to be true: those people have already decided what they want, and we should help them achieve it. Our successful support of dissident democratic groups in the Soviet Empire provides many of the guidelines: build strike funds for Syrian and Iranian workers; find ways to help the dissidents communicate with one another to organize more effective protests and confrontations; make their cause a daily talking point for all our national security officials, civilian and military, both in their statements to media reporters and via our national radio and tv stations from VOA to Farda.
As we do that, we need to have a serious conversation with the Saudis. King Abdullah was one of the first national leaders to yank his ambassador from Damascus, demonstrating his disgust with Assad, and it may well have been a turning point for others as well. But the kingdom remains the major financier of radical Islamic mosques and schools (and a forthcoming book in England revives suspicions of Saudi involvement in the 9/11 operation), which are an assembly line—not the only one, but certainly the biggest–for the next generation of terrorists. That has to stop, and we need to make them stop it. That demarche, and whatever actions necessary to accomplish its goals, must be high on our strategic to-do list.
Yes, it’s a lot to do. But it’s a big war. And we’re a big country. It’s a challenge worthy of us, and we should embrace it.