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No Regime Change—and Maybe No Strike At All

Obama isn’t angry at Assad, just disappointed.

1:33 PM, Aug 29, 2013 • By LEE SMITH
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Having invested so heavily in Assad’s survival, Khamenei has made it plain that Syria is a central part of Iran’s expansive regional project. Obama on the other hand sees the issue narrowly, as if Syria isn’t a chief concern of our regional partners, as if Damascus hasn’t been part of a larger war against the American order of the Middle East for the last decade that jeopardizes our allies Turkey, Jordan, Israel, and the Gulf states. For Obama, it’s just about how Assad put him in a bad spot by gassing his own people. Obama’s not angry with Assad; he’s just disappointed in him. So, he may have to punish him, which, the way Obama sees it, is likely going to hurt him more than it does Assad. In fact, it may not hurt Assad much at all, because in announcing that he means to target the military, Obama has given Assad plenty of time to move equipment and personnel out of harm’s way and insulate potential targets with human shields. The U.S.

president is keen to let Assad know that this isn’t about regime change, and in fact it’s not really even about chemical weapons and gassing children in their sleep—it’s about Obama, who no doubt wishes he’d just kept his mouth shut last August when he said the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus.

Over the last week, a number of former U.S. policymakers and Middle East experts (among them Elliott Abrams, Eliot Cohen, Michael Doran) have urged the administration to think strategically about a strike on Syria. What’s the next step after airstrikes? Topple the regime? How do we want to shape the outcome? How does this enhance the American position in the Middle East at a moment when even our allies say we’re losing the ability to project power? None of these concern Obama. If there are strikes on regime targets, that’ll be the end of it—“limited, tailored approaches,” he told Newshour, “not getting drawn into a long conflict, not a repetition of, you know, Iraq.”

If Obama does see a bigger picture here, he’s concerned that even a brief campaign against Assad may keep Iran from sitting at the negotiating table to make a deal over the nuclear program—and just when things were looking so good with the election of Hassan Rouhani, a moderate! Perhaps someone in the White House is telling the commander-in-chief that the best way to get Iran to sit for talks is to show them the United States is serious and dangerous, that it has the will and the wherewithal to compel adversaries. It’s only by punching someone in the nose, Mr. President, that we can get Iran to believe that we really have kept the military option on the table.

Obama had the chance to show Tehran he was serious two years ago, when the Syrian opposition first took up arms in its own defense. But rather than backing a proxy force to break the weakest link of Tehran’s resistance bloc, the White House signaled it accepted Iran as the alpha dog. Obama, the Islamic Republic surely understands, would be content with a piece of paper allowing him to pass the nuclear issue on to the next administration.  The problem is that he might not be able to. The latest Institute for Science and International Security report shows that Iran will be ready for a nuclear breakout by mid-2014 or sooner.

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