The inauguration of Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s new president, offers some hope of a diplomatic settlement that eliminates the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran. But Rouhani will need the approval of Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who has made confrontation with the United States the centerpiece of his rule. Only internal pressure and the threat of U.S. military action will cause Khamenei to accept a nuclear deal. That is why Presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton have emphasized that all options — including the use of military force — are on the table.
Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly and flagrantly crossed a U.S. “red line” by using chemical weapons against his own people. If the United States does not take military action, how credible will be the U.S. threat to use military force if the Iranian regime continues to pursue nuclear weapons? If that threat is not credible, then only months from now our nation could face the prospect of accepting a nuclear-armed Iran or having to resort to military force to prevent it.
If the Obama administration had aggressively trained and armed moderate elements of the Syrian opposition during the past 18 months, our country probably would not have to contemplate military action now. But one does not have to concur with past Syria policy to agree that, once established, U.S. red lines cannot be crossed without consequence.
Enforcing the red line against chemical weapons use is not the only U.S. national interest at stake in Syria. There is the moral claim presented by a humanitarian disaster that has killed more than 100,000 people, created more than 2 million refugees and internally displaced an additional 4 millionpeople. Refugee flows and the increasingly sectarian conflict could destabilize Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey — creating a regional war pitting Sunni against Shiite. There is the real prospect of al-Qaeda establishing a haven in Syria from which to launch attacks against U.S. allies — and Americans. Or Iran and its Hezbollah allies could succeed in saving the Assad regime and establishing a broader hegemony in the Middle East, thereby threatening U.S. allies, including Israel.
To protect these U.S. interests, U.S. military action in Syria must go beyond a few missile strikes designed to deter or degrade future chemical weapons use. It must be robust enough to erode the Syrian regime’s military advantage.
This does not mean U.S. troops on the ground or a Kosovo-style weeks-long bombing campaign. But it does mean hitting aircraft, missile and artillery systems and their bases — the weapons Assad uses to cause mass casualties among innocents.
Responsible people have called for diplomacy and negotiations, but those have been tried and failed. Assad is not willing to negotiate because he is too strong, the opposition because it is too weak.