Taking Opposite Tacks on Iran and Syria

Syrian rebels stand next to weapons that were captured from the 46th Regiment base—a major pillar of the government's force—near the northern city of Aleppo, Syria. Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012

From the Gulf metropolis of Dubai, Iran is barely 90 miles across the water, less than the driving distance from New York to Philadelphia. On a clear day, the country’s coastline can be seen from the city’s skyscrapers; at night, diners in the city’s highest restaurant can look out across the Persian Gulf and see lights on the Iranian side. Ties of family, friendship, and business connect Iran with its Arab neighbors, but that proximity also focuses the minds of Arab leaders on the consequences of Iran gaining a nuclear weapon. Even now, Iran is often unnecessarily provocative: At the start of this year, it threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow strip of water between the United Arab Emirates, where Dubai is the largest city, and Iran, through which millions of barrels of oil are shipped daily. Iran also continues to occupy three islands that the UAE claims sovereignty over, and Gulf countries fear a nuclear-armed Iran would be even more belligerent.

Then there is Syria, a country sandwiched between Israel, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq that is being ravaged by civil war. Syrians are fleeing and neighbors are turning against neighbors. Businessmen have departed for the stability of the Gulf, and families have left for the safety of Europe or Lebanon. Beirut’s private schools now swell with the children of well-to-do Syrian families, and its streets play host to those who can only beg. With each passing day, Syria’s conflict risks dragging in the rest of the region: A stray mortar shell that landed near an Israeli army post led to a retaliatory attack on Syrian tanks. Syrian Kurds, who are pushing for self-governance, are being watched closely by Turkey and Iraq, countries that also have restless and independence-minded Kurdish populations. In Lebanon, there have already been deaths from clashes between supporters and opponents of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. 

As President Barack Obama prepares for his second term, and even as his administration is called on to help broker a cease-fire between Israelis and Palestinians, Iran and Syria remain two of the biggest foreign-policy challenges he faces. From the point of view of many in the region, the situations in both countries require American involvement but in quite different ways. Indeed, for Obama to successfully tackle the conflicts, he will need to shift the strategy of his first term and pursue apparently opposing policies: speeding up his approach toward Iran while changing his thinking completely on Syria.

Obama’s course of action on Iran over the past four years has been slow and steady. The extended hand he offered in his 2008 inauguration speech has not been firmly grasped by Iran’s leaders, and his administration, in tandem with Europe, has gradually tightened economic sanctions against the country. Those sanctions have inflicted significant economic pain on Iran—and, unfortunately, on ordinary Iranians. The rial has fallen sharply, and prices for staple goods have skyrocketed. Whether that economic pain eventually forces Iran to come clean over its nuclear intentions remains to be seen. But this diplomatic, nonmilitary strategy at least has a chance of success: A strike on Iran would only empower the hard-liners, whilst rallying ordinary Iranians behind what is now an unpopular government. 

Obama has pledged to continue his administration’s policy of tough economic sanctions, but more needs to be done. Direct talks—such as those mooted in the last month—could yet halt any nuclear program. The Islamic Republic is not so intransigent as it is often depicted, and with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in his final term as president, Obama will have more flexibility in what he can do. Ahmadinejad, too, wants to leave a political legacy.

But if Obama’s slow and steady approach seems to be working on Iran, it will not work for Syria, where civil war still rages after 20 months.

So far, Obama has called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose troops have targeted civilians with impunity in an attempt to re-establish control over the country, to step down. But this is not enough. Syria is imploding as the world watches. Every day brings more dead. Hundreds and hundreds die every week, with up to, by some estimates, 40,000 Syrians dead since the uprising began in March last year. Unlike with Iran, Obama needs to commit to military action. What form that involvement could take is still debatable. When he appeared before the U.N. Security Council in September, Obama talked of intervening in Libya “alongside a broad coalition and with the mandate of the United Nations Security Council.” The U.S. would need at least to be the first to get involved in Syria. 

But a full-scale ground invasion, of the sort seen in Iraq in 2003, is almost impossible to imagine. Arab leaders have no appetite for such an expedition, and the U.S., after 11 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, is battle-weary. But there are many shades of intervention short of that. A limited air campaign, backed by special forces on the ground as happened in Libya, could effectively topple the Assad regime. Even enforcing a no-fly zone over the country, such as the one Western nations imposed on northern and southern Iraq after the Gulf War, would aid the rebels, although, given Syria’s formidable air defenses, it would not be without risks. Arming the rebels with heavy weapons that would allow them to at least hold some ground against the regime is another option. While rumors abound that some Arab governments are already doing this, the U.S. and the broader West are hesitant to take such a step, for fear the weapons would eventually end up in the hands of terrorists.

For the United States, even a limited intervention in Syria will not be easy, with the legacy of Iraq still haunting the region. But Syria in 2012 is not Iraq in 2003, and the key to wide acceptance of a limited intervention is political support, which it seems clear Obama could garner. Regional heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Turkey favor international intervention, perhaps to forcibly establish and defend safe zones within Syria. Egypt’s president, Mohammed Morsi, has said he would like to see Assad go, but without intervention. If a coalition of Arab countries could be assembled, or if the U.N. Security Council provided a resolution, Morsi may yet be persuaded to give at least tacit approval to a no-fly zone or to the arming of the Syrian rebels.

Without a cohesive political opposition, it is difficult to ascertain what Syrians within the country believe. Media portrayals of anti-Americanism may make it seem that U.S. involvement would be unwelcome, but it is not that simple. In Libya, following the September attack that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, thousands of Libyans took to the streets in a show of support for the slain diplomat and in defiance of the militias responsible. A few men of violence rarely speak for the silent majority. 

In reality, what is often called anti-Americanism is a feeling that U.S. politicians fail to live up to their rhetoric or publicly invoked values. Amal Hanano, a Syrian American writer, detects some of this among the opposition inside Syria. “The opposition on the ground is disappointed by America’s weak support of the revolution and the aspirations of the Syrian people fighting for their freedom,” she says. “They consider American support of other Arab uprisings and not Syria’s as proof of their hypocrisy.” That does not mean the opposition—which is, in any case, notoriously fractious—would welcome a ground invasion, although, Hanano points out, many inside the country “believe that arming the opposition fighters and implementing a no-fly zone would level the playing field between the regime and the opposition.” Such talk of war, even of limited intervention, is not easy to speak of in a region already so scarred by conflict. But, from the Middle East, it does sometimes appear to be the lesser of the available evils.

Despite the formation of a new Syrian opposition coalition, for now, the Syrian civil war will not be solved by political negotiation, and already it feels as if Syria, one of the most cultured, sophisticated, and ancient Arab countries, is tipping into an abyss that will consume it for a generation. Avoiding that would be a worthy legacy for Barack Obama. 

But can the re-elected president sanction effective military action? Obama often seems more comfortable with long, deep shifts in policy than with short, sharp shocks. Witness the tentative reset with Russia and the long pivot toward Asia. On Iran, that sort of chess game works best: By offering the hand of friendship, he gradually exposed the hard-liners in the Iranian regime as intransigent. But on Syria, those instincts don’t fit with an escalating situation, and as the president starts his final term in office, he must change his approach on the Middle East. Within months, he will need to decide whether to commit America’s military, in some form, to the conflict in Syria or to leave Syrians to their own devices. If the United States doesn’t intervene, no amount of political language will obscure a de facto decision to leave Syrian civilians to the guns of Bashar al-Assad.

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