September 9, 2013

Dennis Ross, a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was a senior Middle East adviser to President Obama from 2009 to 2011.

The opponents of congressional authorization for military strikes against Syria are focused on one set of concerns: the belief that the costs of action are simply too high and uncertain. Syria for them is a civil war, with few apparent good guys and far too many bad guys. The use of chemical weapons is, in their eyes, terrible, but ultimately it is not our problem — unless, of course, we make it our problem by reacting militarily. If we do, they see a slippery slope in which the initial use of force will inevitably suck us into a conflict that we cannot win. Coming on the heels of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which cost us so much in blood and treasure, the U.S. public, as polls show, is both weary and wary of any further involvement in Middle East conflicts.

The wariness is understandable, but it does not make the cost of inaction any lower. Opponents in Congress, who can be found in both parties, seem to feel that if we simply don’t act, there will be no cost for us. President Obama and Secretary Kerry have pointed out that there will be a great cost to international norms that prohibit the use of terror weapons such as chemical weapons. And surely they are right that if Bashar al-Assad can gas his own people and elicit only harsh words but no punitive action, he will use the weapons again. The price in Syria and the potential for spillover in the region are certain to be high. Additionally, other rogue actors may also draw the conclusion that chemical weapons are not only usable but that there are no circumstances, no outrages, no genocidal actions that would trigger a meaningful reaction from the so-called civilized world.

Still, for the opponents of authorization, these arguments are portrayed as abstractions. Only threats that are immediate and directly affect us should produce U.S. military strikes. Leaving aside the argument that when the threats become immediate, we will be far more likely to have to use our military in a bigger way and under worse conditions, there is another argument to consider: should opponents block authorization and should the president then feel he cannot employ military strikes against Syria, this will almost certainly guarantee that there will be no diplomatic outcome to our conflict with Iran over its nuclear weapons.

I say this for two reasons. First, Iran’s President Rouhani, who continues to send signals that he wants to make a deal on the nuclear program, will inevitably be weakened once it becomes clear that the U.S. cannot use force against Syria. At that point, paradoxically, the hard-liners in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and around the Supreme Leader will be able to claim that there is only an economic cost to pursuing nuclear weapons but no military danger. Their argument will be: Once Iran has nuclear weapons, it will build its leverage in the region; its deterrent will be enhanced; and, most importantly, the rest of the world will see that sanctions have failed, and that it is time to come to terms with Iran.

Under those circumstances, the sanctions will wither. What will Rouhani argue? That the risk is too high? That the economic costs could threaten regime stability? Today, those arguments may have some effect on the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei precisely because there is also the threat that all U.S. options are on the table and the president has said he will not permit Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. Should he be blocked from using force against Syria, it will be clear that all options are not on the table and that regardless of what we say, we are prepared to live with an Iran that has nuclear arms.

Israel, however, is not prepared to accept such an eventuality, and that is the second reason that not authorizing strikes against Syria will likely result in the use of force against Iran. Indeed, Israel will feel that it has no reason to wait, no reason to give diplomacy a chance and no reason to believe that the United States will take care of the problem. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sees Iran with nuclear weapons as an existential threat and, in his eyes, he must not allow there to be a second Holocaust against the Jewish people. As long as he believes that President Obama is determined to deal with the Iranian threat, he can justify deferring to us. That will soon end if opponents get their way on Syria.

Ironically, if these opponent succeed, they may prevent a conflict that President Obama has been determined to keep limited and has the means to do so. After all, even after Israelacted militarily to enforce its red line and prevent Syria’s transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Assad, Iran and Hezbollah have been careful to avoid responding. They have little interest in provoking Israeli attacks that would weaken Syrian forces and make them vulnerable to the opposition.

For all the tough talk about what would happen if the United States struck targets in Syria, the Syrian and Iranian interest in an escalation with the United States is also limited. Can the same be said if Israel feels that it has no choice but to attack the Iranian nuclear infrastructure? Maybe the Iranians will seek to keep that conflict limited; maybe they won’t. Maybe an Israeli strike against the Iranian nuclear program will not inevitably involve the United States, but maybe it will — and maybe it should.

If nothing else, it is time to ask the opponents of authorization of strikes in Syria if they are comfortable with a position that is very likely to rule out any diplomatic outcome on the Iranian nuclear program. Even in their eyes, the costs of inaction may then not appear so low.