Thursday, September 05, 2013

Let's Widen the Circle of Analysis on Syria

Many people oppose dealing harshly with Assad out of the conviction that we'd just empower al Qaeda to take over Syria. When analyzed at that simple two-party level, it can make sense. But that is too simple an analysis.

This is a battle between the West and Syria backed by Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia, with China looking on sympathetically and Iraq stuck in the middle under pressure from Iran.

Even in the simple "either Assad wins or jihadis win" I think we should help rebels defeat Assad.

One, I think it serves a good lesson to bad guys who mess with us that when we get a chance, we'll take you down.

Two, I don't insist that all our foreign policy actions neatly deliver a final victory nicely wrapped up with lovely ribbons, wax seals, and official documents in both English and French.

I accept that foreign policy continues and that after the good thing of seeing Assad ousted and killed/executed after a trial we will have to fight for the post-Assad Syria against the jihadis.

But there is more involved than just the Syrian factions.

Consider too that after the Russians have discovered contempt for us that making them lose a hand could be a good antidote to thinking that President Obama's ineptitude means we can be pushed around at will. If a little doubt creeps into Moscow's calculations for a few more years, that's useful.

China won't like the idea that the West can intervene in what the Chinese consider a purely internal matter and thus out of bounds for UN consideration. China's Moslem West, Tibet, and even de facto independent Taiwan are considered internal matters that the West shouldn't have one damned thing to say about, in China's view. So regime change in Syria sets a worrisome precedent from Peking's point of view.

Hezbollah, of course, loses a supply line from Iran through Syria and safe office space in their deep rear. Without Assad, all of a sudden a fight with Israel could be much more final for Hezbollah leaders with no place safe to run when the couscous hits the fan.

And without a strong Hezbollah, Hamas is a much less worrisome threat to Israel.

Iran, of course, loses tremendously if Assad falls after going all in for Assad. Money and reputation will be flushed away and Iran loses a foothold on the Mediterranean for their Israel front. Supplying Hezbollah and Hamas becomes far more vulnerable to Israeli interception.

And with Syria out of the way, Iran moves up on the target priority list and makes Iranians worry that they might be next.

For bonus nuance, Iran loses just if they have to fight us a little harder if we intervene against their ally Assad:

If one thing could scuttle Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's big plan - to fix Iran's economy by winning some relief from Western sanctions - a U.S. strike on Tehran's ally Syria is it.

Rouhani's June election landslide won him the cautious backing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to pursue his pledge to engage with Western countries and attempt to ease Iran's isolation over Tehran's nuclear program.

But the hardliners Rouhani defeated at the polls still dominate parliament and the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and are poised to return Iran to the familiar posture of defiance if the president's message of moderation falls on deaf ears abroad.

As the president prepares to travel to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly this month, U.S. military strikes on Syria could derail Rouhani's diplomacy before it even starts.

I deny that any real moderates are allowed to win in Iran. But the image-polishing effort to buy time for going nuclear is real and it will not survive a tougher fight over Syria--which Iran's hardliners need for their ambitions to dominate the region and lead Islam as a whole.

Iraq gains a little breathing room with Iran taken down a peg, too. Which might help us restore a more stable path to democracy and real alliance with Baghdad.

Lebanon gets a break too, with Hezbollah weakened and Syria unable to project power into Lebanon for a while.

And let's be really cynical and go back to the empowering jihadis argument against defeating Assad.

If we help rebels overthrow Assad and foreign jihadis do manage to take control of the government offices in Damascus despite the hatred of most Syrians, we have a strong Turkey and strong Israel on Syria's border with a lot of incentive to defeat the jihadis. We may not be able to lead them from behind, but if jihadis and chemical weapons arsenals are in front of them, they'll act to kill them. So we won't have to act alone.

One problem at a time, eh? Think ahead, of course. But don't let the idea that we can't get a perfect outcome all at once stop us from achieving a small victory right now.

UPDATE: Stratfor sees opportunities for Iran in American military intervention. But it seems to lie mostly in the realm of exploiting ineffective military intervention that seeks to send messages rather than affect Assad's capacity to fight or maintain his faction's support base.