- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Scott Modell and David Asher
Best Defense guest columnists
With presidential support for military action in doubt, America’s power and prestige on the line, and Assad gassing his people, Obama needs to have a plan B on Syria. Outsourcing WMD policy to Vladimir Putin won’t do a thing to stop the Syrian government killing machine.
Fortunately, a strategic option exists that could be even more powerful and effective against Assad, his Iranian backers, and their Hezbollah lackeys. Going beyond sanctions, the Obama administration should assemble a coalition of the willing and begin actively targeting the indispensable elements of Syria’s financial, economic, and logistical support structure, including support from Iran and Hezbollah.
Despite a wide range of sanctions, Syria and its allies are able to rely on critical infrastructure that is compromised, complicit, and corrupted — from ports, border crossings, and airlines to banks, freight forwarders, and shipping companies.
Neutralizing these nodes requires a non-kinetic containment and disruption effort to encircle the Syria conflict zone and stem the critical flow of men, money, and supplies to the Assad regime. Such a strategy, in concert with a sustained precision bombing campaign against key sources of regime support, was effective in Kosovo and could be in Syria as well.
Such a comprehensive effort should include the following measures:
- Pressure on key points of Assad-enabling infrastructure, such as airports, border crossings, and sea ports. The mere threat of curtailing or denying landing rights for airlines flying into Beirut International Airport from the United States would lead to greater cooperation. Responsible Lebanese authorities need to reestablish control over Hezbollah-controlled sea ports, airports, and other critical infrastructure that permits the flow of everything from criminally-derived bulk cash shipments to arms, fighters, and other lethal materiel. The uninterrupted flow of Shia militants into Syria, especially from Iraq and Lebanon, has become a primary driver of this conflict and should be properly addressed.
- A global campaign against the Iran Threat Facilitation Network. Since the Syrian civil war began, senior Iranian military commanders have repeatedly emphasized that Assad would have fallen without Iranian support. This refers not only to Iran and Hezbollah’s military support to pro-Assad forces on the front lines, but also to the vast array of facilitators and lines of communication that enable the Iran Threat Network. With zero tolerance for putting American soldiers in harm’s way, the primary focus should be on disrupting and dismantling the illicit pathways that will exist long after U.S. airstrikes end.
- A greater law enforcement role. Iran and Hezbollah external operational networks need to be approached and attacked via law enforcement, not simply via counterterrorism operations. A "counterthreat facilitation initiative" should target illicit businesses and revenue streams and use strategically planned law enforcement operations to attack Iran and Hezbollah-led crime-terror pipelines through the international trade and banking system. DEA and Treasury have pursued Hezbollah as an international mafia for years — a successful effort that should be expanded.
- Pursue the Assad regime’s finances. Beirut’s banking system is the center of financial gravity for Assad and Hezbollah and a key unguarded conduit for Iran into the global financial system. The fact that Lebanon’s economy is over 70 percent dollarized makes it particularly vulnerable. Its banks can’t survive without corresponding accounts in New York. The fact its banks are notorious money launderers for drug cartels, including in partnership with the Assad regime and its partners in crime, Hezbollah and the IRGC Quds Force, deepens their vulnerability. The power of U.S. financial action against the Iran Action Network in Lebanon was demonstrated when Treasury designated the $5.5 billion Lebanese Canadian Bank (LCB) under Section 311 of the USA Patriot Act in February 2011. This cut LCB off from the United States and rapidly led to it foreclosure. As was revealed by the DEA’s undercover investigations into LCB’s mass money laundering, LCB was Hezbollah’s main bank and had deep ties to Assad and Iran as well. The Department of Justice laid out the facts in an unprecedented $483 million asset forfeiture complaint against LCB’s shareholders, including those fronting for Hezbollah. Such Treasury and DOJ actions could be dramatically extended against all the criminal banks in Lebanon that are fronting for Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah. The U.S. government also should target Assad’s main banker and governor of Lebanon’s Central Bank, Riad Salameh. Salameh was put in place by Hafez al-Assad in 1992 and maintains first-line loyalty to his masters in Damascus.
These are just a few ways in which the United States and its allies can work together more effectively to non-kinetically attack Assad’s Syria and its supporters. As the Obama administration considers next steps on Syria, it should take a close look at resetting its entire approach to the Middle East and ask, what is really going to weaken the strategic foundations, resolve, and external capabilities of Syria and the greater Iran Action Network?
Scott Modell, a former CIA officer, and David Asher, a former State Department official, are authors of Pushback: Countering the Iran Action Network, published recently by the Center for a New American Security.