Two significant events yesterday suggested the president’s position on Syria — inert — is getting more untenable by the day.
The United States has new evidence that Iran and Hezbollah have direct involvement with the Syrian regime, a senior State Department official told reporters traveling with Secretary of State John Kerry in Oman.
The official said that, according to the Free Syrian Army, Hezbollah and Iranian fighters have been helping the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad in Qusayr, near the opposition stronghold city of Homs.
It is the most visible effort we have seen of Hezbollah to engage directly in the fighting in Syria as a foreign force. We understand there are also Iranians up there,” the official said. “This is an important thing to note – the direct implication of foreigners fighting on Syrian soil now for the regime.”
It may be important to note, but not to do anything about it. In short, Iran is fighting a proxy war — as it has for decades — against the United States, and the administration is doing nothing of consequence.
Congress however is acting. The Hill reports:
A bill to arm the Syrian opposition cleared its first legislative hurdle on Tuesday, easily passing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by a vote of 15 to 3.
The lopsided vote is a bipartisan rebuke for President Obama, whose administration has consistently raised concerns that such weapons could fall into the hands of Islamist militants. Lawmakers, however, say the ongoing violence in Syria – more than 70,000 people have been killed in the 26-month-old civil war – and fears that Islamists are gaining the upper hand among the rebel groups supersede those concerns
The bill simply authorizes the president to make arms available to rebels who have been vetted, but even that is objectionable to the president, who is studiously attempting to remain inactive.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) made several incendiary claims. First, he labeled the effort a “rush to war” despite the bill’s specific language that is not an authorization of the use of force. Certainly, this president is not contemplating the use of U.S. troops. There already is a war, with 70,000 dead. Second, he accused his fellow senators of aiding “allies of al-Qaeda.” (“You will be funding today the allies of al-Qaeda. It’s an irony you cannot overcome.”) He even went so far as to assert that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s tenure had been good for (and presumably would be preferable for) Syrian Christians. At times he seemed to sing Assad’s praises for housing Christians and opposing al-Qaeda.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) informed Paul that if al-Nusra succeeds, the Christians certainly would be exterminated. And Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) rebuked him, citing Assad’s role in harboring terrorists who have inflicted violence on Christians and others.
The rebuttal to Paul was bipartisan and harsh:
Paul’s two amendments constituted his first legislative act to soften the Menendez-Corker bill, which earned the support of powerful lawmakers from Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — all of whom rejected Paul’s allegations. “I don’t think any member of this committee would vote for anything we thought was going to arm al Qaeda,” said Rubio. “Al Qaeda, unfortunately, is well-armed,” added [Sen. Robert] Menendez. “That is the present reality in Syria.” . . . Corker added that not arming rebel groups such as the more moderate Free Syrian Army would ensure the dominance of the better-equipped al-Nusra Front.
In truth, we have no good options now because the president has remained passive for so long. Had President Obama acted swiftly to help oust Assad or to support Syrian rebels before the influx of jihadists, we would not now be facing a Hobson’s choice. Had he acted swiftly to inflict damage on the regime after the use of chemical weapons was discovered, Iran might have thought twice about aiding Assad. But now we sit, with only rotten alternatives and the widespread impression of U.S. weakness.
If we do nothing, Assad, with his chemical weapons and Iranian protectors, may well survive. Alternatively, our passivity may hand the reins to al-Nusra Front. And, having done nothing to alleviate their plight, we will certainly earn the enmity of the Syrian people.
Is arming the “better” rebels preferable to doing nothing, allowing either Assad or al-Nusra to prevail? Yes. Is there a great risk that by doing nothing we will confirm Iran’s suspicions that we are willing to assent to their dominance in the region? Yes.
The real lesson here is that we should not elect as commander in chief someone who lacks the ability and will to defend U.S. interests. And, moreover, it is critical to find a president who won’t concede Iranian hegemony in a region in which a resolute U.S. presence once prevailed.