There are strong moral and political arguments on both sides of the intervene/don’t intervene debate on Syria. From one side, we hear that it is simply wrong to let the carnage continue, that the Bashar Al Assad regime’s days are numbered and that now is the time to get involved if America hopes to have any influence over the civil war’s outcome.
On the other side, one ponders the American public’s lack of appetite for a new war in the Middle East, the deeper question of whether Americans ought to see every Middle East crisis as a problem they alone can solve and the (not insignificant) public diplomacy question of whether the inevitable backlash against any new US military action in the region will outweigh whatever good it might do.
Wherever you stand on Syria these are all good and compelling questions, worthy of careful thought.
There are also, however, dumb arguments for intervening in Syria. Perhaps the dumbest of all was on display last week: US must move aggressively against Al Assad and punish his use of chemical weapons, Americans are now being told, because failing to do so will advance Iran’s drive for a nuclear bomb.
If that sounds like hyperbole, consider this: “I think everyone understands that there is a pretty widespread sense that whether or not the administration responds to this new information about chemical weapons in a way that is consistent with red lines will have important implications for Iran and whether or not the Iranians take seriously the White House’s comments that it isn’t bluffing on Iran.”
That quote comes from Steve Heydemann, a scholar at the widely-respected US Institute of Peace, speaking last week in an interview with Foreign Policy magazine.
OK, you may say, that is just some guy at a think tank. In the American system, however, private think tanks play an unusually large role in the formulation of policy ideas. So it was not entirely surprising to find Senator Lindsey Graham, a hawkish South Carolina Republican who is one of his party’s major voices on foreign policy, on TV last week telling CBS News: “If we keep this hands-off approach to Syria, this indecisive action towards Syria, kind of not knowing what we’re going to do next, we’re going to have a war with Iran, because Iran’s going to take our inaction in Syria as meaning we’re not serious about their nuclear weapons programme. We need to get involved and there’s a growing consensus in the US Senate that the United States should get involved.”
Graham went on to call for a US-led no-fly zone over Syria, the destruction of the country’s air defences and a programme to get “the right weapons to the right people”.
What prompted all of this, as Heydemann’s remarks note, was last week’s announcement that the US intelligence community believes that the nerve agent sarin has been used inside Syria. The administration strove for nuance, noting that this conclusion was viewed “with varying degrees of confidence” (read disagreement) inside the US government, but the reaction was swift. US President Barack Obama said months ago that the use of chemical or biological weapons by Syria’s government would be a “red line”. Now, reporters and critics asked, what did he intend to do about it?
The immediate answer, it appeared, was ‘stall for time’. Speaking to reporters during a visit by Jordan’s King Abdullah he said: “Knowing that potentially chemical weapons have been used inside Syria doesn’t tell us when they were used, how they were used.”
Leave aside, for a moment, the fact that, despite Graham’s glib assertions, it remains unclear whether Iran actually has an active nuclear weapons programme. It is, perhaps, useful at least to be reminded just how fevered all-things-Iran have become among some in Washington.
Iran and Syria, both pose difficult policy problems for which there is no obvious, let alone easy, solution. It is also true that Iran is one of the Al Assad regime’s few remaining friends and weapons suppliers. For better or worse, that gives Iran a stake in whatever eventually happens in Syria and means its interests are likely to come into play if the international community ever decides to try to stop, or at least slow, Syria’s bloodletting. It is even conceivable that Iran can offer cooperation (or at least a lack of obstruction) on Syria in exchange for an easing of nuclear-related sanctions. Such deals are hardly unheard of in the world of diplomacy.
It is, however, a long way from that sort of real-world bargaining to the sort of linkage Heydemann, Graham and others are trying to create. There are good reasons to intervene in Syria (and equally powerful arguments for staying out), proving to Tehran that Washington is ‘tough’ is not one of them.
Gordon Robison, a longtime Middle East journalist and US political analyst, teaches political science at the University of Vermont.