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The Muddle East

Every idea President Obama had about pacifying the Muslim world turned out to be wrong.

Sep 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 02 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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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. 

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