Grasping the realities of the Middle East is never easy. This is not primarily because they change quickly, but because so much time, effort, and money is spent to prevent reality from breaking through. Fifteen Saudis kill 3,000 Americans on 9/11, so the Saudis spend even more millions to persuade Americans they are friends and allies. Egypt under Hosni Mubarak presents itself as the very model of stability. There is a vast industry presenting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as requiring only some tough American pressure for Israeli concessions before peace breaks out—not only for the Palestinians but the entire Middle East, whose central problem this is alleged to be.
Our own government has a hard time too. It took George W. Bush enormous effort to break through the false descriptions of the war in Iraq his own generals were giving him, and to insist on the surge so that we did not lose the war. When in 2007 Israel proved to us that North Korea was building a nuclear reactor in Syria, unconnected to any electric grid and obviously part of a nuclear weapons program, the CIA would only say officially that it had “low confidence” of this, because it had not only missed the reactor but could not find the other parts of that program. How many secretaries of state have seen Syria’s Assad as a potential “reformer,” spoken of their admiration for Mubarak, or seen an Israeli-Palestinian peace only “inches” away?
With this background, it is not so shocking that we are not grasping the reality facing us in Syria. That reality is a humiliating defeat of the United States at the hands of Iran and Hezbollah, aided by Russia, in a manner that destabilizes and weakens all our allies and our influence in the Middle East, emboldens our worst enemies, and has a significant geopolitical impact.
The “prudent” approach the Obama administration is taking is detached from reality and (this is the only good news) backed by a decreasing number of supporters. It might be summarized as follows:
“Syria is a humanitarian tragedy, but there are no good answers. It is so complex. The rebels are such a mixed bag; there are thousands of jihadists, so how can you really support giving arms to that side? You’d never know who was getting them. And we don’t want to raise the level of violence. We do support them; we give them money and other things, and we are in contact all the time with them through our embassies, and now through the CIA too. The answer here is to persuade the Russians that Assad must go in the end, and get them to ease him out; those discussions with the Russians continue. Lots of countries have interests here and they need to be balanced. American intervention would be a nightmare; after all, the Syrians have a very developed air defense system and we could lose pilots. And in the end Syria will be a mess. Anyway, what legal basis do we have to intervene, without a Security Council resolution?”
The administration has been saying this sort of thing for two years now, changing the talking points when useful (for example as the number of jihadists grew, despite the fact that they grew because Sunnis were being slaughtered by Shiites and no one was acting to help them defend themselves). When reality appeared to contradict its line—when for example the president established a red line on chemical weapons, and the Assad regime crossed it; or when the Israelis repeatedly attacked Syria and did not lose any planes—the administration stuck with the line. Reality was not permitted to change U.S. policy.
That may yet happen. One reality the administration appears to be wrestling with is the impact on Jordan of a million refugees, a number that could be reached in a few months. More chemical weapons use by Assad might embarrass the president into action, as might more Israeli air attacks. But so far, nothing—and certainly not the mere fact of 80,000 dead and 1.5 million refugees and millions more displaced persons inside Syria—has moved him.
Compare now the Iranian/Hezbollah approach of shipping arms and fighters, while Russia provides protection at the U.N. The humanitarian toll doesn’t interest them. What interests them is winning. Look at it from their point of view:
“We cannot afford to lose this one. A Sunni government in Syria would align with Turkey or the Gulf Arabs or the West, or some combination of them, against us. The bridge between Iran and Hezbollah would be lost. Hezbollah would be badly weakened, thus weakening our ability to threaten Israel. Israel would be more likely to attack our nuclear sites for this very reason—because it would think Hezbollah and Iran are weaker. Our influence in Iraq would fall too. People would say the rise of Iranian and Shia influence in the region was now over. Hezbollah’s enemies in Lebanon, the Sunnis above all, would be energized. People would realize Russia is no match for the Americans. So we must win, and we will dedicate to winning any resources that are needed. As to the humanitarian toll, we don’t care about Sunnis in Syria, or about weakening Turkey or especially Jordan; in fact, those would be nice side benefits from the struggle in Syria. There is only one point here: Do we win or do we lose? We have decided to win.”
Three news stories last week illustrate this. From the May 22 New York Times we learned that
Qassim Suleimani, the Quds Force commander, recently ordered Iranian artillery and armor officials to help Mr. Assad’s regime, American officials say. And Mr. Suleimani has also requested that several hundred fighters from Asaib al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah, two Iraqi Shiite militias that have been trained by the Iranians, join the war effort in Syria, according to officials familiar with the intelligence assessments. Iran is heavily involved in training thousands of members of Mr. Assad’s militia, the Jaish al-Sha’bi, including in Iran.
The Washington Post reported on May 21 that “Iran has sent soldiers to Syria to fight alongside forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and those of the Lebanon-based Hezbollah militia, a senior State Department official said Tuesday. An unknown number of Iranians are fighting in Syria, the official said, citing accounts from members of the opposition Free Syrian Army, which is backed by the United States.”
The Economist in London reported,
Mr Assad’s allies, Iran and Hizbullah, the Lebanese Shia movement, have backed the regime with more dedication than the Gulf Arab and Western states have helped the opposition. . . . Hizbullah and the Iranian al-Quds force are helping to train a new “national defence force” of 50,000 drawn from the mainly Alawite militias. Recent sectarian killings in and near the port of Banias suggest a plan to cleanse some of those areas of Sunnis. Hundreds of them have been killed in what seem to have been premeditated massacres.
A good summary of where things stand: They have decided to win, and we have not.
Prudent voices will say that “winning” is a ridiculous concept in the context of Syria today. Not to Hezbollah and Iran it isn’t; “winning” means Assad stays in power. So far, so good for their side. Many people (myself included) did not think the regime would last this long, but that miscalculation was due to underestimating the willingness of Iran and Hezbollah to make this their fight, by sending unlimited quantities of money and arms, and then sending thousands of fighters. And due to a further miscalculation: thinking that with this high a humanitarian toll, and the rising threat to stability in Jordan, and the violation of the chemical weapons red line, and the direct Iranian and Hezbollah role, the Obama administration would be forced to do something serious. So far, so bad for our side. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and Hezbollah probably wondered if we would really tolerate their sending an expeditionary force to Syria, which in effect they are doing. They have their answer now; we would.
This amounts to a kind of Khamenei Doctrine, in memory of the Brezhnev Doctrine. For those too young to remember, Brezhnev said this in November 1968 in Poland: “The weakening of any of the links in the world system of socialism directly affects all the socialist countries, which cannot look indifferently upon this.”
This was stated three months after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the meaning was clear: No one leaves the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet camp. Today, substitute Shia for Soviet—and the Khamenei Doctrine holds that a country that is part of the Iranian security system, what King Abdullah of Jordan once called the Shia Crescent, will be kept in that system. At all costs. That is what winning means for Iran.
Are we going to accept that—coming now not from a global superpower with a gigantic nuclear arsenal, but from a Third World country of 75 million? Reality forces us to answer “maybe.”
Iran’s ayatollah does not suffer from our own problems grasping reality. Losing Syria would be a disaster for him, so he will do what he must to prevent it. Period. No hand-wringing, no worrying about the cost and the risks, no concern about the U.N. Security Council and its resolutions, no worries about the human toll. He wants to win and he understands that whether he wins or loses is immensely important.
Our own Syria policy seems based in wishes and speeches and worries, risk avoidance, politics, and conferences. It is no wonder we are losing, as we will continue to lose until the president and secretary of state grasp that the outcome in Syria is immensely important, that the entire world of our allies and friends and enemies is watching very closely and judging our level of comprehension and our willpower—and decide to win.
Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.