Former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams testified before the House Armed Services Committee today. The essence of his prepared remarks was that Syria is most important as a proxy for Iran and as a battle against Iranian hegemony.
He explains that Bashar al-Assad’s downfall would represent a triple defeat for malicious forces in the region and beyond, namely Russia, Iran and Hezbollah:
Involvement in Syria is already arousing discontent among Lebanon’s populace, including Shia who wonder why their sons are dying for Bashar al-Assad, and a defeat in Syria will undermine Hezbollah inside Lebanon. Its power has been rising there for decades; now, a turning point might be reached and it might start declining. Given Hezbollah’s global reach as a terrorist group, that’s very much in our interest.
Similarly and even more importantly, the rise of Iranian power in the region would be seen to have been stopped if the Assad regime falls. Iran’s influence has also been viewed as growing steadily— partly due to the demise of a hostile Sunni regime in Iraq (at America’s hands) and to growing Iranian influence there; partly to Iran’s perceived role in places like Yemen, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province; partly to Iran’s steadily advancing nuclear program; and partly to the sense that America, the overwhelming power in the Middle East since World War II, lacked the desire or ability to stop Iran. If we defeat Iran in Syria, all this is changed and what King Abdullah of Jordan once called the “Shia crescent” stops being cemented.
I would only add two points. First, we’ve yet to act on the president’s “red line,” and meaningful action to topple a regime that used weapons of mass destruction against its own population is essential to U.S. credibility (such as it is) in stopping proliferation and use of WMDs. Second, the jihadis already are being aided by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, a practice that we should impress upon them is entirely unacceptable. It is not as if our refraining from bolstering non-jihadis risks jihadis getting weapons; they already have them. One way to discourage the practice is to level the playing field with assistance to non-jihadis, demonstrating that funding Sunni jihadis will cost them prestige and treasure.
The risks associated with action are minuscule compared with the risks associated with inaction. (“Many more refugees, threatening stability in Jordan and Lebanon. Iranian ascendancy, strengthening Hezbollah inside Lebanon and Iran throughout the Middle East. An emboldened Iran, seeing a lack of American desire to confront it, is logically more likely to become more aggressive in Bahrain, the home of our Fifth Fleet”).
At the time the red line was crossed, I suggested a surgical strike on Assad. Abrams today makes a strong case for that on practical grounds (i.e. safer than a no-fly zone). Do I think the administration will act in such a fashion? Never in a million years. But those who object vigorously to Obama’s do-nothing routine and the arguments of isolationist Republicans deploring aid to stop a genocide have an obligation to put forth an alternative. Abrams’s recommended surgical strike (not unlike the Israelis have done several times) plus meaningful aid to the non-jihadi rebels is certainly a compelling combination.
When the dead are finally counted in Syria, we can fully appreciate what horrors the Obama administration failed to stop. The boost his inertness has given to Iran is harder to measure but far more important as the Iranian regime’s grip on the region tightens.