If Congress refuses to support American military action against the Assad regime in Syria, and President Barack Obama declines to strike or strikes meekly, will American power—that marriage of will, resources, and perception—be diminished in the Middle East? If so, will the ramifications be severe? Could President Obama, like Iran-sanctions-supporting liberals and conservatives who don’t want to intervene in Syria, skip this Levantine war and nevertheless come out swinging against the nuke-seeking mullahs of the Islamic Republic? Might the triumph of Sunni jihadists in Syria actually be worse than Bashar al-Assad’s survival?
When it comes to the Middle East, Obama’s presidency has largely been predicated on two ideas: A hegemonic America is a bad thing, and the second Iraq war was a serious mistake. We and Middle Eastern Muslims would coexist more harmoniously, so Obama has thought, if Washington were less bellicose. The fight against al Qaeda and support for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process—once, and perhaps still, the epicenter of the president’s understanding of the region—would both advance if Washington were more dovish and reticent in the Middle East. The president’s vaunted 2009 Cairo speech, which was coolly received by secular Egyptian democratic dissidents, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, was the personal outreach of a man who really believed that he, with his mixed race and religious pedigree, was an ambassador to a new age of better relations between Islam and the West.
Time has been unkind to Obama. The American withdrawal from Iraq has not left that country better off. Political violence has risen as the United States’ mitigating influence on internal politics, especially Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s authoritarian proclivities, evaporated. Sunni terrorism led by al Qaeda has skyrocketed. Iraq’s Shiite community, recovering slowly from Saddam Hussein’s depredations, no longer has an American buffer against Iran’s far greater strength. If American airpower were still in Baghdad, Tehran could not resupply Syria and Lebanese Hezbollah by air, and the Assad regime would lose the two resources most critical to its survival. Al Qaeda and Islamic militancy in general seem to have grown stronger globally even though radical preachers can no longer denounce “American crusaders” along the Tigris and Euphrates. Al Qaeda now boasts, along with Iran and its militant Iraqi allies, that it drove the Americans out of the country.
And then there is the Great Arab Revolt, which has discombobulated the administration. Even in Libya, where the White House finally used some force “from behind” our European allies to down Muammar Qaddafi, it followed through with so discreet a footprint as to leave American facilities and personnel in Benghazi at the mercy of lightly armed Islamic radicals.
In Egypt, the administration’s confused response—from the fall of Hosni Mubarak to the military coup against Mohammad Morsi—has left America seeming hapless, duplicitous, and weak. Any American president would have been in trouble in Egypt, but Obama’s sensibilities—his early friendly outreach to Muslim despots and Iran, his reluctance to apply pressure to authoritarian Muslim rulers, and his obvious discomfort with the moral challenges of American power—made him particularly diffident. George W. Bush, the born-again American liberator who destroyed the Arab world’s most savage tyrant and unleashed a tidal wave of conflicting emotions in the Middle East about imperialism, dictatorship, democracy, Arabism, and sectarian identity, is nearly forgotten in the region—except in Iraq. Barack Obama is now the American everyone in the region loves to hate.
But what the withdrawal from Iraq started and the Great Arab Revolt accelerated, the war in Syria has pushed into overdrive: the omnipresent perception in the Middle East of American listlessness. In part, this is what President Obama intended. He wanted Middle Eastern Muslims to stop viewing the United States as a looming hegemon maintaining a certain (unfriendly) order. He didn’t envision, however, how messy things could become as the Great Arab Revolt worked its way through the region. The United States and Europe needed to lean in, to encourage patiently, with rhetoric, resources, and when necessary coercion, movement toward a basic democratic order, and not to fear the omnipresent Muslim complaint about Western intrusion. Ask an American, European, or Middle Easterner (including Israelis) to identify an American national-security interest from Morocco to Iran that President Obama would unhesitatingly fight for. The president probably would rally to Israel, yet it’s not easy to pinpoint even that case with confidence.
The Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons certainly isn’t one. Take away drones and substitute American Special Forces, and even the battle against al Qaeda wouldn’t be a sure thing. Neither is stopping Iran’s quest for an atomic bomb. And suppose Iran invaded a neighbor in a kind of reprise of the first Gulf war: Given the size of the continuing military cutbacks under Obama, it’s not clear that the United States could successfully repel such an act of aggression, in the event it wanted to. Now imagine Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps with nukes. Keeping the Strait of Hormuz open—Washington’s simplest task in the region—is probably the only sure bet under Obama.
The president’s forward-leaning hollow rhetoric also hasn’t helped. He told the Syrian dictator in August 2011 that he must go but failed to authorize the CIA, let alone the U.S. Air Force, to do anything untoward. He ignored his first self-imposed red line on the use of chemical weapons, then declared in June 2013 that in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons the United States would start delivering weaponry to the Syrian opposition—but didn’t follow through. The president wants to diminish American power in the Middle East while making demands of a dictator who was weaned on Machtpolitik.
The denizens of the region have a much clearer understanding of what’s at stake in Syria. This is not just a sectarian civil war between a heretical Shiite Alawite dictatorship and the country’s Sunni majority (roughly 75 percent of the population). It’s the frontline in a struggle between two blocs: conservative Sunni Gulf states (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates) and Turkey (Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan sees himself as the godfather of a new Muslim Brotherhood-dominated order) versus Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah, and, somewhat reluctantly, Shiite Iraq.
Above all, it’s the second great tug of war between the Islamic Republic and Saudi Arabia. The first occurred just after the Islamic Revolution and continued in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88). Saudi Arabia, which backed Iraq, decisively won that engagement. The Great Arab Revolt has forced Tehran to fight the second round early, before its nuclear program produced a bomb.
If Iran loses Syria, it loses 34 years of westward-looking foreign policy that sought to make the Islamic Republic a player in the war against Israel and, more important, the war against the West’s (read America’s) “cancerous” intrusion into the Middle East. It loses its all-critical lifeline to Hezbollah, the only true child of the Islamic Revolution. Already, the dominant position of Hezbollah within Lebanese society is in question. Spiritually, it’s impossible to overstate how important the Syrian dictatorship and Lebanese Hezbollah are to the Islamic regime’s self-worth and unquestioned supremacy over Iranian society. When senior Revolutionary Guard commanders and clerical VIPs threaten the United States if it intercedes militarily against Assad, they are telling us how vital Alawite rule is to them. Russia, too, is there, uninhibited about interceding in someone else’s internecine strife. Putin has comparatively little at stake in Syria: It’s merely the last outpost of the Soviet Union’s Arab client-states, and Russian aid to Assad diminishes the United States, something Putin acutely enjoys.
Until recently Obama appeared to have grasped only vaguely the regional dynamics at play in Syria, or to have grasped them but not to care. One has the impression that his concern about Iran’s role in Syria has only become serious since Assad again flouted the White House’s red line on chemical weapons. Since then, Secretary of State John Kerry—who as a senator, on behalf of President Obama, tried to make nice with Bashar al-Assad and his cosmopolitan wife—has much more sharply drawn the battle lines between the United States and Iran. It really shouldn’t be that hard for the administration and the legion of Republicans and Democrats who utter the phrase “civil war” as if it were a talisman against American involvement to draw helpful historical parallels. The Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 pitted leftist Republicans against rightist Nationalists and was, as all schoolchildren were once taught, a testing ground for Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, which gave critical aid to Francisco Franco’s ultimately victorious Nationalists. Spanish Republicans were often an ugly, vicious fighting force, with morally repellent backers (the USSR). And as fascist dictators go, Franco was certainly not in the same league as his German patron. But the overarching imperative should have been to deny Hitler and Mussolini a victory. It never gained traction. Instead, the United Kingdom and France showed complacency about a fascist triumph in Spain. It was a complicated struggle between unwholesome adversaries. Britain and France basically sat it out, to their later regret.
The Syrian civil war is as international as was the Spanish conflict. It started as a rebellion against a savage dictatorship, and the Assad regime successfully turned it into a battle between two religious communities. The Syrian Sunnis are strongly backed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, two Wahhabi states that have done untold damage to the modern Middle East with their well-funded Islamist missionary activity. In the Syrian conflict, they have backed cruel Islamic radicals, some of whom are affiliated with al Qaeda. Sunni jihadists will unquestionably be a big problem in post-Assad Syria since the Assad regime has done its best to destroy the Sunni social order. But Syria’s 17 million Sunnis are not Afghan Pashtuns, whose village ethics mirror pretty closely the primitive mores of the Taliban. Syria’s Sunnis culturally are much more cosmopolitan than Iraq’s Shiites, and in most places even the Iraqi Shiites have successfully fought off the radical ethics of the Shiite Islamist hard core. Militarily, Sunni jihadists in Syria, especially those who are foreign, are likely to encounter extreme resistance and enmity from the vastly more numerous mainstream Sunnis the day after Alawite power is broken.
If Assad’s regime falls, the bulk of the Sunni Syrian officer corps, currently held in check by the regime’s security services, will enter powerfully into this equation. There is no evidence that these men are jihadist sympathizers. In Iraq jihadists have fed off minority Sunni grievances and revanchist sentiments. The opposite is going to happen in Syria, where the next government, whatever its shape, will be overwhelmingly Sunni in composition. The future for holy warriors in Syria isn’t at all bright.
The overarching foreign issue in Syria is Iran’s determination to maintain its strategic position in the Middle East while it develops its nuclear capacity. Anything the United States can do to upset the mullahs’ plans while the Muslim Middle East remains nonnuclear is worth the effort. The odds are not great that a peaceful, diplomatic path exists to negotiate away the Iranian nuclear threat, but we do know that the only serious delay in Tehran’s nuclear program occurred after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. The display of American power has always made the clerics and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, who oversee the nuclear program, take notice. The best odds for countering Iran in the Levant without the Quds Force, the expeditionary branch of the Revolutionary Guards, resorting to terrorism against the United States come from a massive American strike against Assad. President Obama ignored the Quds Force’s role in an attempted bombing operation against the Saudi ambassador in a Washington, D.C., restaurant in 2011—a serious mistake.
The United States has always had the capacity to recover from its bouts of listlessness and depression through its unrivaled capacity to bring pain to the enemy. But it certainly cannot signal Tehran, or other aggressive regimes, its serious intent by shooting cruise missiles at dispersed and buried chemical weapons. Given what happened in London when Prime Minister David Cameron lost a war vote in Parliament, both Syrian and Iranian leaders already view Obama’s decision to go to Congress as confirmation of America’s weakness. Assad apparently thinks he’s already won. The ruling elites of both countries certainly don’t appreciate the twists and turns of democratic politics, but they are probably not wrong to see Obama’s caution as timidity.
It’s possible, of course, that the president and Congress could stand down in Syria and then stand up against Iran’s nuclear program, as some now argue. We could avoid a small war but commit ourselves to the possibility of a much bigger one. But does this pass the pinch test? The American desire to avoid war in Syria overlaps rather well with the desire to avoid any U.S. military threat against the Islamic Republic. The fear of the ripple effect, of quagmire, of terrorism, of years more of Middle Eastern Islamic messiness, of the unknowns that always accompany military conflict is certainly much greater with preemption of Tehran than intervention in Syria. The two issues are not analogous to the collapse of Vietnam and the defense of Western Europe in the 1970s (and many Democrats who turned away from Vietnam also became increasingly accommodationist with the Soviet Union everywhere else). Syria and Iran are near neighbors. As the late Samuel Huntington might have put it, it’s the same oikoumene, for Allah’s sake. If we cave on one, we will, in all probability, cave on the other.
Only one thing is crystal clear: Assad used chemical weapons because he needed to. They are the ideal terror weapon for a regime with limited manpower fighting a rebellious population. Conventional weapons have been deadly in Syria, but bombs, bullets, and artillery shells haven’t quieted the opposition, which in some places (including the suburbs of Damascus) is still gaining ground. Chemical weapons could well do the trick. Terror weapons accomplish a lot with a little, and chemical weapons offer the possibility of graduated escalation—also ideal if a dictator is feeling out the resolve of outraged Westerners. The odds are excellent that Assad will use these weapons again and again until the opposition cracks. If we are to stop their use, then Assad must fall. That so many in the West don’t see this, and are unwilling to go to war to stop such an atrocity—to send a clear signal to tyrants elsewhere—only shows how far we’ve come since 9/11. The Middle East’s power politics have, again, hit us head on. We are, perhaps, too “fatigued” this time round for the challenge.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, and the author of The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East.