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Why Obama Won't Move Against Assad

He fears angering Iran.

3:05 PM, Mar 22, 2013 • By LEE SMITH
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Moreover, the administration left itself open to the simplest of psychological warfare campaigns. Because it is in the interest of the rebels to win Washington over to its side, Assad would need only to claim it was they who had used chemical weapons and blamed the regime for it in order to draw in the United States. Given the nature of chemical weapons and the fact that there is very little objective media working inside Syria at present, it was always going to be difficult, as we see now, to prove that they were used, or who used them. With Assad able to sow confusion at whim, the result is that the administration has shown not resolve or confidence with its Syria policy, but incompetence and incoherence.

Sen. Carl Levin, who sent a letter to the White House with Sen. John McCain calling for air strikes on Syria and a no-fly zone, is among the policymakers (along with Reps. Mike Rogers, Elliot Engel and Brad Sherman who have introduced the Free Syria Act of 2013 ) to call for the White House to take a more active position in fulfilling the policy that Obama articulated in August 2011—Assad’s removal. Other American officials have called for arming the rebels, including Obama’s former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former CIA Director David Petraeus, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey. They seem to believ, in the words of Marine Gen. James Mattis, that Assad’s ouster “would be biggest strategic setback for Iran in 25 years."

With so many now arguing for a forward-leaning Syria policy, is it possible that the president alone is incapable of seeing the matter in strategic terms? Only Obama doesn’t understand how Assad’s fall would constitute a major blow to Iran and its IRGC arm in Lebanon, Hezbollah? The other, and perhaps more likely, possibility is that Obama does see it strategically. Like everyone else, he sees it in terms of the larger game, where, for instance, because Syria and Iran are tied at the hip, Tehran keeps pouring in Quds Force troops as well as Hezbollah fighters to spell and support Assad’s depleted armed forces and overtaxed shabiha militiamen. But if Obama does see it like everyone else then why isn’t the White House investing resources to ensure that Assad is toppled?

Perhaps it’s because, as some former administration officials have let on, Obama wants to keep U.S. forces in reserve in the event they are needed if he decides to attack Iran. When it comes time for the big hunt, as some former Obama aides have put it, we don’t want the dogs distracted chasing squirrels. The problem with this interpretation is that no one is calling for a large commitment of American forces, but rather to aid the rebels. How that would constitute taking our eye off the ball regarding Iran is unclear.

No, if Obama does see the Syrian conflict strategically, perhaps the reason he is not taking a more active position is because he fears that it will anger Iran. It doesn’t matter whether the administration’s negotiating team really believes there’s a deal to be had with Iran, or if Obama simply wants to keep the Iranians at the table for appearance’s sake, it seems he doesn’t want to get the Iranians mad by backing Assad’s adversaries.

Obama came to office in the belief that there was a deal to be had with Iran. There is nothing to indicate he’s changed his mind—even as Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei says he is not optimistic. “Our past experiences show that talks for the American officials do not mean for us to sit down and reach a logical solution,” Khamenei said recently. “What they mean by talks is that we sit down and talk until Iran accepts their viewpoint.”

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