Small Wars

This Week At War: Enough Talk, Obama

Failures in Syria and Iran show the limits of diplomatic negotiation.

JOSEPH EID/AFP/GettyImages
JOSEPH EID/AFP/GettyImages

Over the past week, the Obama administration’s hopes for negotiated resolutions to the violence in Syria as well as the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program have slumped. A particularly brutal massacre in al Houla, Syria that left over a hundred civilians murdered and that resulted in the expulsion of Syrian diplomats around the world, is increasingly calling into question the value of continued talks with President Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, talks in Baghdad over Iran’s nuclear program ended badly, and with Tehran pledging to sustain production of 20 percent enriched uranium in spite of international pleas to suspend such work. Meanwhile, fresh satellite imagery showed that Iran continued this week to cleanse its Parchin site, where analysts suspect it tested components for a nuclear weapon.

Both cases show the increasing risk the Obama administration may be assuming by maintaining a commitment to further talks. This commitment in the face of belligerent actions by Syria and Iran will increasingly be viewed as a display of naiveté and weakness rather than prudent patience. Acquiring such a reputation could hurt the administration’s credibility on other foreign-policy issues as well.

To prevent its reputation from slipping further, the Obama team will come under pressure to get tougher over Syria and Iran. But how? With further economic sanctions either tapped out or blocked at the U.N. Security Council by Russia, the question of using military force in Syria and Iran will inevitably return to the surface. When it comes to deciding whether it is time to start using military tools against Syria and Iran, the Obama administration will likely arrive at two very different answers.

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, produced a grim prognosis for Syria. With no hope for self-restraint by Assad’s enforcers, Rice concluded that the "most probable" case is a sectarian proxy war, with arms flowing into the conflict from other countries in the region. To avert this outcome, Rice urged the Security Council to place additional pressure on the Syrian regime, a course that would require Russia’s acquiescence.

Rice’s diagnosis was aimed at Moscow and implied that if her forecast proved true, Russia stood to lose both its ally in Damascus and any future influence in the country after the rebels eventually gained power. Rice was thus attempting to create an incentive for the Russians to cooperate on either pressuring Assad or helping to establish a post-Assad Syria.

But if the Obama administration is to obtain leverage over Moscow, it will have to show a willingness to help create the grim scenario Rice described, something the White House seems unwilling to contemplate, at least yet.

Direct U.S. military intervention in Syria is not required. Nor is the United States required to organize its own covert operation inside Syria to support the rebels. At this point, the United States need merely get onboard with allies such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and others which are apparently already arming the Syrian opposition. The U.S. government could provide certain items and services — specialized communications equipment, portable anti-tank weapons, night-vision optics, and intelligence data — and leave the provision of more common categories of weapons and supplies to the other suppliers.

U.S. willingness to escalate its assistance in this manner would bolster its credibility with its allies and the rebels, something that will be valuable in post-Assad Syria. And for little risk, it will provide Washington with some negotiating leverage over Moscow. For the United States, Syria is a case where a willingness to step up military support, even if indirectly, will boost its diplomatic leverage.

The administration faces a tougher calculation on Iran. In Syria, military assistance to the rebels will bolster the prospects for negotiations with Russia and with Assad himself. In Iran, there does not seem to be a similar entry-level military action the United States could take to increase its negotiating leverage. And the only other alternative military action — a large-scale air campaign against Iran’s nuclear complex — is a step the White House wants both itself and Israel to avoid, at least until next year.

On Friday morning, the New York Times confirmed long-held suspicions that the U.S. government has waged a prolonged cyberwar against Iran. According to the article, President Barack Obama took up this war from the Bush administration and urged its acceleration. This week we also learned about the Flame computer virus, a large and sophisticated reconnaissance program that has listened in on Iran’s computers for at least two years.

Yet in spite of all of the computer engineering talent put into Flame and Stuxnet, its more destructive sibling, Iran’s nuclear fuel production continues to advance, with output currently triple its pre-Stuxnet rate, enough for two atomic bombs per year. Cyberwarfare, one type of entry-level military action, has neither held back Iran’s nuclear production nor provided negotiating leverage over its leaders.

The White House faces a grim dilemma over Iran. In the midst of a reelection campaign, the Obama team is desperate to avoid the severe economic and financial market disruption that an air campaign against Iran would trigger. Tehran knows this, which encourages its obstinacy at the bargaining table. This in turn should give the White House an incentive to walk away from further negotiations to avoid the embarrassing spectacle of unanswered Iranian belligerence. But should the United States admit that negotiations are dead, Israel may conclude that it has to attack, which would cause the chaos the Obama administration is strenuously trying to avoid.

If the White House is to continue negotiations with Iran, it will need to come to the next round with more leverage and credibility than it has possessed thus far. Beyond the goal of actually making progress with Tehran, it will want that leverage to keep face and to persuade Israeli leaders to hold their fire.

Is there any leverage the Pentagon could provide that would be more effective than Flame and Stuxnet, but less dramatic than a large air campaign? In a recent interview, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared that his forces were "prepared for any contingency." A full list of contingencies should include options to support diplomacy, in addition to wrecking Iran’s air defense system and nuclear complex.

When faced with the Iran problem, it is undoubtedly the case that both Obama and George W. Bush pleaded with the Pentagon to come up with options in addition to a major air campaign. Generating additional options has apparently not been easy. The United States has not taken military action against Iran because policymakers have concluded that the estimated costs and risks of the big air campaign — the option that seems to get the most attention — has thus far exceeded its perceived benefits.

But a dearth of options has left U.S. negotiators with Iran with little support, at least from the Pentagon. In spite of their sharpening intensity, Iranian leaders seem unimpressed with the economic sanctions now imposed on their country. Pentagon planners have options, such as indirect support for Syria’s rebels, that will help U.S. negotiators there. They should come up with some ideas other than a big air war to support U.S. diplomacy with Tehran.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola