Opinion

The Great Debate

Learning the wrong lessons from Israel’s intervention in Syria

Israel’s recent attacks on military targets in Syria have made clear the widening regional dimensions of Syria’s civil war. They have also fueled debate about whether the United States should intervene. Look, some say, Israel acts when it sets red lines, and Syria’s air defenses are easy to breach. Israel’s involvement has energized those, like Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who argue for U.S. military intervention in Syria. Unfortunately, the interventionists are drawing the wrong lessons from the Israeli actions.

The first misconception is that the Israeli strikes showed how Israel stands by its red lines in ways that bolster its credibility – a sharp contrast to the perceived equivocation of President Barack Obama’s stated red line that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a “game changer.”

Israel has stated that it views any transfer of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad’s regime to Hezbollah as unacceptable. So its targeting of missile arsenals believed to be capable of delivering such weapons appears to be making good on the threat. But while such Israeli action against Hezbollah within Syria is an escalation, it is not new. Israel targeted such missiles earlier in the year and has been targeting Hezbollah arsenals in Lebanon for years. It also fought a costly war with Hezbollah in the summer of 2006 largely to degrade (unsuccessfully, it turns out) the group’s missile capabilities. Israel was thus not acting in Syria to maintain the credibility of its red lines, but acting on specific perceived threats to its national security.

If Israel always acted on the basis of maintaining its credibility — a murkier concept than many in Washington like to believe — it would likely already have launched an attack on Iran’s nuclear program. Iran has crossed countless “red lines” with no Israeli response. Some former Israeli military officials believe Iran has already crossed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s most publicly declared nuclear red line — the one he famously drew at the United Nations last September. Israel has not acted because of concerns and debates among its security establishment about the ability of Israeli action to effectively neutralize Iran’s program. The lesson here is not that countries should act for the sake of maintaining credibility but that they should act when they believe it serves their interests and might make a difference.

A second potential mistaken lesson is that Israel has weighed in decisively on the side of the rebel forces and that U.S. intervention to oust the Assad regime would help Israel. The Israeli intervention was aimed at Hezbollah and its missile capabilities – not at helping the Syrian rebels, particularly given that many of the opposition fighters are Sunni Islamic extremists who may over time pose as serious a threat to Israel as the Assad regime.

from David Rohde:

The devil who can’t deliver

Picture of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad riddled with holes on the Aleppo police academy, after capture by Free Syrian Army fighters, March 4, 2013.  REUTERS/Mahmoud Hassano

MOSCOW – After marathon meetings with Secretary of State John Kerry here Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov hinted that Moscow may finally pressure Syrian President Bashir al-Assad to leave office.

“We are not interested in the fate of certain individuals,” Lavrov said at a late night news conference. “We are interested in the fate of the Syrian people.”

A ‘Game of Thrones’ in Damascus

In last Sunday night’s episode of Game of Thrones, Lord Baelish and Lord Varys, perhaps the show’s most Machiavellian characters, discuss their political philosophies. While admiring the <a “href=”http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/Iron_Throne”>Iron Throne, the show’s iconic symbol of absolute power, they debate the true nature of the realm: What power, they ask, holds the seven kingdoms of Westeros together?

Lord Baelish: “Do you know what the realm is? A story we agree to tell each other over and over until we forget that it’s a lie. But what do we have left once we abandon the lie?”

Lord Varys: “Chaos. A gaping pit waiting to swallow us all.”

It might be bleak and melodramatic, but this resembles today’s global order. In the wake of the financial crisis, the first Group of 20 summit helped save the financial system, but it was fear for survival rather than fealty to a common worldview that drove progress. Since then, it’s become all too clear that the G-20 is more of an aspiration than an institution: There are simply too many member countries with too many conflicting interests.

Sarin: The lethal fog of war

The Syrian government’s reported use of sarin in its war against rebel forces is ominous. It suggests dissemination of the nerve agent could become more frequent there — whether by the Syrian military or by opposition forces in possession of captured stockpiles. If this happens, many more people will likely suffer the tortured effects of the chemical.

This could weaken the international taboo against such weaponry. No wonder President Barack Obama has warned that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of sarin would be a “game changer.”

For sarin is considered a weapon of mass destruction. As with all chemical agents, effectiveness depends on the purity, the means of dissemination and vulnerability of the exposed population. At worst, chemicals can be devastating agents of death, even if less expansive in their effect than a biological release or a nuclear detonation.

Preventing mass atrocity after Assad

As the second anniversary of the Syrian uprising approaches, close to 80,000 people have been killed, a million are refugees and several million are displaced. The Syrian army and air force are under severe stress and attacking civilian populations, the revolutionaries are increasingly radicalized in a Sunni Islamist direction and Lebanese Hezbollah as well as Iranian Revolutionary Guards are getting deeply engaged in the fight.

It may seem superfluous to worry about what happens to the Alawite community — the mainstay of Bashar Al Assad’s regime – after he falls. But revenge killing is common after an uprising of this sort, and few regimes born in mass atrocity survive as democracies. A massacre of Alawites could be prelude to state collapse, an extremist regime and regional warfare far worse than the spillover we have seen thus far.

How can mass atrocity in the aftermath of the Assad regime be avoided? Above all, it is Syrians who will need to make sure it does not happen. The Syrian Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces has already made clear that it intends to construct a multi-sectarian, multi-ethnic and democratic regime post-Assad. What needs to be accomplished to achieve that goal?

Weighing U.S.intervention: Syria v. Congo

President Barack Obama, in a January New Republic interview, was asked bluntly if the United States should actively intervene in Syria’s civil war. He thoughtfully explained his reservations. Several concerned Syria, but the last one pointed to larger ethical issues. “And how do I weigh,” Obama asked, “tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?”

With this comment, Obama cut to the heart of an age-old dilemma about humanitarian military intervention — whether it is worth addressing some conflicts when you know that others continue to simmer, or boil over, at the same time?

This was the case in the 1970s when wars in the Horn of Africa, Uganda, Cambodia and elsewhere killed many hundreds of thousands. It was true in the 1980s when conflict intensified in places like Afghanistan, Angola and Central America. And in the 1990s when the Balkans and Rwanda and parts of West Africa blew up, while Sudan, Somalia and other wars continued.

Has Obama administration gone wobbly on Syria?’

Syria, chemical weapons and the United States. If nothing else, President Barack Obama last month was emphatic. “I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad,” Obama declared at the National Defense University in early December, “….The world is watching. The use of chemical weapons is…totally unacceptable….[T]here will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”

But what a difference a New Year makes. At a January 10 news conference, the administration’s senior security officials, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff head Martin E. Dempsey, recoiled: Consequences won’t involve the Pentagon. Better wait to secure the arsenal after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad falls, Panetta said. Dempsey stated: “Preventing the use of chemical weapons would be almost unachievable.” The result, as Panetta explained: “We’re not working on options that involve boots on the ground.”

Assad must have smiled. Washington had gone wobbly on chemical weapons. With the deterrent value of the president’s remarks in question – and one unconfirmed report that Syria used a chemical agent in Homs on December 23 – the chemical specter remains. This raises the key question: Would Obama really stand by if the Syrian government gassed thousands of its citizens?

Washington’s next steps on Syria

The United States has officially recognized the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. It has also designated al Qaeda in Iraq-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, which often leads the fighting effort in Syria, as a terrorist organization, thus making it illegal for anyone to buy it even a cup of tea. This double-barreled political action, after months of hesitation, is intended to convey the message that Washington supports the relative moderates of the Syrian opposition wholeheartedly but wants to exclude from its ranks Sunni extremists.

The trouble is both moves come late in the game. At this point, U.S. influence may not be sufficient to accomplish the objectives.

A lot depends on the Syrians themselves. Most Syrians do not want to see sectarian slaughter following the current civil war. The question is whether they will be willing and able to restrain the Sunni extremists in their midst. It will take courage and commitment for today’s revolutionaries to speak up and protect Alawites, Christians, Druze and Shia who are suspected of supporting the Assad regime. Mass atrocity in the aftermath of political upheaval is more the rule than the exception. There is little sign that the international community will be able to mount a serious protection effort.

Obama faces only hard choices in Mideast

The conventional wisdom in Washington these days is that a newly empowered president, freed from the political constraints of reelection, will have more discretion, drive and determination to take on the Middle East’s most intractable problems.

Don’t believe it. This looks a lot more compelling on paper than in practice. Should President Barack Obama be tempted to embrace it, he may well find himself on the short end of the legacy stick.

Once again many on the left are summoning up the spirit of Obama unchained. Those who saw a new kind of American president in the Middle East – tough on Israel; sensitive to the Islamists and the Arabs (see his March 2010 Cairo speech), and bent on engaging the world in a spirit of mutual tolerance and respect – hope for his return.

Mideast’s WMD ‘red line’ gauntlet

“Red lines” are all the rage this year. Even as the swirl of Middle East headlines focus on Gaza and Egyptian politics, the region remains under two “red lines.” If Iran and Syria, respectively, cross the nuclear and chemical weapons thresholds, it would generate a strong, if undefined, Israeli and American response.

Washington’s red line, however, lays bare another issue: Should the executive branch have carte blanche to commit the country to military action? Secretary of State Hilliary Clinton Monday appeared to suggest so. She declared, in public remarks in Prague, that the Syrian government’s use of its chemical arsenal would be a “red line” for Washington to act.* Or is it time for Congress to make its own evaluation before the country again turns to the gun?

Let’s first recall how the red lines emerged (one literally) and why the line issued against Syria is now most concerning.

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