Sunday, February 19, 2012

Iran's dangerous gamble in Syria

Iran has recently decided to deploy 15,000 troops to help Syria’s dictator Assad. A prominent Syrian lawmaker said that the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force has already arrived in the country to help manage Assad’s regime brutal suppression of an 11-month-long popular unrest.

A number of news sources, including al Arabiya news channel and Jewish newspaper Haaretz have reported the Iranian intervention, but neither has called for involvement of Western or Arab powers to counterbalance the Iranian involvement or to entrap Iran in a civil war. On the other hand, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of Al-Qaida, has called on Muslims in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to join fight against 'pernicious, cancerous regime' of Assad.

The Arab requests for UN involvement in Syria have been stymied by Russia and China, which vetoed the latest resolution of the UN Security Council (UNSC) called for a transition to democracy in Syria. To Syrian people the impotence of the Western powers is indistinguishable from a fundamental lack of concern for human rights.

The side effect of the over-reliance of US to the UN has be to allow Al-Zawahiri, the leader of the Sunni fundamentalists of al-Qiada, to take advantage of the resulting silence of the UNSC and to claim the high moral ground. There's is another cost to this American lapse - Al-Zawahiri's call will further contribute to the increase of sectarian (Sunni-Shiite) tension. It is ironic, but many of the Sunni insurgents who were given free pass by the Syrian dictator Assad to enter Iraq to fight in a jihad against the Americans are now flooding back and joining the Free Syrian Army. These insurgents are turning the weapons and expertise against the Syrians and Iranian regimes, which first set them loose upon the Americans.

Another sign of sectarian conflict is that Sunni Hamas, which had its safe-haven in Damascus, has been forced to find another home for its headquarters. Hamas politburo chief Khalid Mashaal met Jordan king Abdullah II at the Raghadan Palace in Amman at the end of January 2012. King Abdullah refused to take Hamas back onto the Jordanian territory, from which Palestinians were forcibly ejected in late 1970's.

The religious fault-lines between the Sunni majority and the Alawite minority of the rulers in Syria, and its Shiite enablers (Hezbollah and Iran), has the potential to widen the civil war in Syria into a religious conflict that could engulf the Middle East.

Consider this headline from UK's Telegraph : "Assad's gunmen 'murder three entire families in Homs'". Islam is a major force behind the Arab Spring, and has long been of the major elements which define and separate people in the Middle East. When these people think about involvement of Iran in Syria they see them through the prism of religious terms, which I've added in italics into a quote from the article:
[Alawite and Shiite] Gunmen loyal to President Bashar al Assad murdered three entire families [of Sunni's] in Homs on the night of Ferbruary 7th, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
How should the U.S. and Europe act in this situation? To help the Syrian opposition openly, means to become responsible for its conduct, which entails problems such as those of newly liberated Libya. To remain on the sidelines, as the Obama administration has done in 2009 after the Green Revolution in Iran, when the youth protested a stolen election was clearly a lost opportunity, which further diminished the American standing in the region, in terms of both Realpolitik as moral authority. There is a middle ground, which Obama has (inappropriately) pursued in Egypt -- calling for the ouster of a brutal dictator.

Regardless of the eventual outcome of the civil war in Syria, the U.S. should be on the record doing everything possible politically to provide support to the people's right for self-determination. That Syria is becoming an Islamist country, unlike Egypt, would not be such a grave loss for the American interests in the region. Egypt's authoritarian rule was friendly to the U.S., while Syria is a key ally of Iran, and one of the main sources of volatility in the region.

Iran's support of the bloody repression of a civic uprising in Syria showcases the brutal nature of theocracy and its willingness since its inception to export violence outside its borders. The involvement of the Iranian proxy Hezbollah and especially of its handlers in Al Quds Force (a part of the are Republican guard) in helping Assad's forces to butcher his people, presents a unique opportunity for the West to reclaim the moral high ground, and the deliver a strong blow to the Iranian regime.

Iranian hand in suppression of a civil uprising in another country exposes it to similar dangers that entrapped the Americans in Vietnam and the Soviets in Afghanistan. Conflicts against people and ideas are much more complicated to win than conflicts against armies and governments. Syrian diaspora is a reservoir of opposition and a permanent lobby for Arab and Western support at the grass-roots levels, beyond Assad's control. Such a movement is virtually impossible to stamp out. Iran needs to prop-up Syria, but bringing in its forces into the ravaged country holds great risks for the mullahs. It is an opportunity for the Saudis and Turks, among other Sunnis, to push back against the Iranian hegemony in the region.

The West should not miss the opportunity provided by direct Iranian involvement in Syria. The former chief of Mossad Efraim Halevy, said two weeks ago that the Syrian unrest an "enormous opportunity", because "what happens in Damascus will impact all the Middle East." The same day, WSJ columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote about Syria: "It’s not just about freedom".

I would go further - the Syrian situation should be viewed by the West through the prism of national security - it is an opportunity to deliver a body blow to Iranian theocracy. It is important for the West to act in accordance with its belief in the right of people for self-determination; however, such altruism is not sufficient to warrant action by itself. Furthermore, West has a terrible record trying to transplant democracy in the Middle East (and is struggling even to maintain democracy in its own lands). The only thing the West can do is to provide a principled stance - to deny the murderous Assad's regime any legitimacy, and deliver a potentially fatal wound to the Iranian theocracy.

For the US to really take bring pressure on Assad would require the Obama administration to admit that it's hopes to turn Assad into a 'reformer' of Syria were completely naive, as was its cuddling of Russia and soft approach to Iran. The opinion of the top Republican on the Armed Services committee, Arizona Senator John McCain, that the U.S. should consider "all options including arming the opposition" did not sway the Obama administration, however. "We never take anything off the table. The president does (or) doesn't. However, as the president himself made absolutely clear and as the secretary has continued to say, we don't think more arms into Syria is the answer," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

This is the cheap defense of an equivocation trying to conceal a negative answer - the administration refused even to send medicine to the embattled Syrians.In a recent article in The Huffington Post, Marc Ginsberg, former U.S. Ambassador to Morocco, wrote that there is a double standard in the United States' reaction to the unrest in Syria compared to Libya: "We're not doing enough." "It's clear that this administration is sitting back on its laurels in Libya, and as a result the Syrian people are paying the price for the administration's reluctance under the argument it doesn't want to militarize the situation any further. It really needs to get more involved".

'Stimulus', Iranian-style.
There is no shortage of naivete in the West, so its leaders may not wise up to the dual benefits of siding with the majority of the Syrian people in time. It's ironic, that almost exactly five years ago the Syrian dictator Assad repeated his lies about lack of involvement in facilitating terrorism in Iraq to ABC's Diane Sawyer. Assad said, "If you stoke [terrorism], it will burn you. So if we have this chaos in Iraq, it will spill over to Syria … So saying this [that Syria aids Iraq's insurgency], it's like saying that the Syrian government is working against the Syrian interest."

The Iranian's made a great strategic mistake by getting involved in Syria, because now the Sunni insurgents have something truly worthwhile to do - save their coreligionists from butchery by apostate Shiites and Alawites. The two dictatorships will stoke the antagonism of the Sunnis and undermine their standing in the region. Fortunately, the West cannot cut any deals with either the butchering Syrians or the intransigent Iranians to muck this up.

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