- By Dov ZakheimDov Zakheim is Senior Advisor, Center for Strategic and International Studies and former Under Secretary of Defense.
As the Syrian civil war drags on, and Israel moves ever closer to attacking Iran’s nuclear sites, the Obama Administration seems fixated on just one objective: delaying anything from happening in the Middle East before Election Day. The White House remains passive as Bashar al-Assad continues to up the military ante against the opposition. And it continues to send high level officials to Jerusalem bringing gifts of more military machinery that, it is hoped, will assuage the Israelis for the next few months.
Despite assistance from Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular, with some sotto voce help from Turkey as well, after eighteen months the rebels still have been unable to dislodge Assad. Supported by Iranians on the ground, and the Russians and the Chinese in the UN, the Syrian dictator has shown no compunction about killing as many men, women and children as it takes to quell the rebellion. He continues to play the ethnic card as well: his Kurdish PKK allies have stepped up their terrorist attacks in southeastern Turkey, while Syria’s Christian communities, long protected by Assad and his father, remain nervously neutral.
At the same time, Assad’s Alawi supporters are hedging their bets. They have begun a process of ethnically cleansing those enclaves where they are in the majority. It is presumed that if all else fails for the Alawis, they will withdraw to their mountain fastnesses, and take Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons with them, so as to deter any attacks from the majority Sunnis that will have come to power. Indeed, the increasingly ethnic nature of the Syrian conflict has already spilled over into both Lebanon and Iraq, promising a major regional convulsion that would likely drag in Iran, Turkey, the Gulf States and perhaps Israel as well.
Israel, in the meantime, continues to express its frustration with the lack of progress in the diplomatic talks with Iran, even as Tehran continues to upgrade its centrifuges, build more of them, and increase the number of cascades to enrich its uranium; fortify its facilities, especially at its underground Fordo site; and play cat-and-mouse with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) whose reports increasingly are confirming Israel’s worst fears. As if that were not enough, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have stepped up their exterminationist rhetoric, calling for the removal of the cancer that is Israel.
Washington’s passivity has only aggravated both situations. The Syrian civil war calls for more drastic American action. After all, when rioters initially threw stones at Assad’s men, his forces responded by using light weapons against the demonstrators. When the rebels obtained light weapons, Assad’s military resorted to heavy weapons. As the rebels began to use mortars, the Syrian Army attacked with tanks. And so it has gone until now, when Assad has called in his air forces to bomb the opposition into oblivion. While there is no immediate need for American military intervention, the United States could certainly do more to strengthen the hand of the rebels. Washington could ship more, and more sophisticated, arms to the rebels via their allies, who certainly can afford to pay for American equipment. And the United States could also provide more intelligence support, if not directly to the rebels, then indirectly through Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. By failing to step up its support of the rebels, the Administration undermines its credibility, both with the rebels whom it professes to support, and with Assad, whose departure it so vocally seeks.
As for the impasse with Iran, here too, the key to achieving American objectives is the credibility of American pronouncements. There is more than Washington can do as it attempts win the trust of Israel’s key decision makers on any Israeli attack-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Supplying missile defense systems is simply not enough for a nation that cannot tolerate even the most minimal probability that a nuclear weapon could penetrate those defenses.
To begin with, the Administration should not backslide on the question of Iran’s ability to enrich uranium. The original US position was that enrichment should terminate; any indication of a more pliable position simply reinforces the view in both Tehran and Jerusalem that Washington is not serious about stopping the Iranian program. In addition, the Obama Administration should close the massive loopholes that it has created in the sanctions program: there is no reason why exceptions should be made for China or any of the other seventeen countries that continue to buy Iranian oil without penalty. Washington’s willingness to look the other way further intensifies Israeli fears that, at the end of the day, Iran will develop a nuclear capability while America and the West wring their hands.
An Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities is likely to prove counterproductive. Even an American attack may not shut down the Iranian program. As with Syria, so with Iran and Israel: the only way to achieve American objectives is to restore American credibility in the region. It does not help at all that the Administration not only continues to talk of a "pivot" to Asia, but is prepared to tolerate a massive reduction in American defense capability, which will surely signal an abrupt end to American presence in the region. Unless and until the Administration recognizes that it is futile, and dangerous, both to tread water until November, and treat the U.S. defense program as a hostage to tax increases, the situation in the Middle East will continue to deteriorate, to the point where, possibly as soon as October, it may well spin out of anyone’s control.