Wednesday, February 08, 2012

The Achilles' Heel

As former Mossad director Efraim Halevy reminds us in today's edition of The New York Times, there is a viable option for reducing Iran's regional influence; limiting ties to its proxies, and denying access to a key hub neighboring its greatest foe.

And, this option does not require cyber-strikes (or direct military action) against Tehran's nuclear facilities, or the assassination of key personnel in Iran. Indeed, the actions Mr. Halevy describes would be focused on an ally that is rapidly becoming one of Iran's greatest liabilities--the failing Syrian regime of President Bashir al-Asad.

From Halevy's op-ed:

THE public debate in America and Israel these days is focused obsessively on whether to attack Iran in order to halt its nuclear weapons ambitions; hardly any attention is being paid to how events in Syria could result in a strategic debacle for the Iranian government. Iran’s foothold in Syria enables the mullahs in Tehran to pursue their reckless and violent regional policies — and its presence there must be ended.

Ensuring that Iran is evicted from its regional hub in Damascus would cut off Iran’s access to its proxies (Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza) and visibly dent its domestic and international prestige, possibly forcing a hemorrhaging regime in Tehran to suspend its nuclear policies. This would be a safer and more rewarding option than the military one.

As the former Israeli spymaster observes, Asad's eventual collapse seems all but assured. But that leads to the inevitable question of what comes after the dictator departs (voluntarily or involuntarily), and whether Iranian influence in Syria and neighboring Lebanon survives his regime.

Unfortunately, there seems to be little consensus in Israel (or the west) for hastening Assad's departure. He believes the only solution is a united effort involving Israel, the United States, Russia and the Arab Gulf States that recently withdrew their ambassadors and diplomatic observers from Syria. Working together (and making certain guarantees to interested parties), Halevy believes this loose coalition could force Asad from power and deliver a serious blow to Iran's regional ambitions:

Any workable outcome in Syria will have to involve the United States, Russia and Arab countries. America must offer Russia incentives to stop protecting the Assad regime, which will likely fall the moment Moscow withdraws its support. A force with a mandate from the Arab League should then ensure stability until a new Syrian government can take over.

The current standoff in Syria presents a rare chance to rid the world of the Iranian menace to international security and well-being. And ending Iran’s presence there poses less of a risk to international commerce and security than harsher sanctions or war.

Russia and China, both of which vetoed a United Nations resolution last week calling on Mr. Assad to step down, should realize that his downfall could serve their interests, too. After all, Iranian interventionism could wreak havoc in Muslim-majority areas to Russia’s south and China’s west. And a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a serious potential threat on Russia’s southern border.

While this scenario seems tantalizing, it is not without problems. First, both Moscow and Beijing are well aware of the wider regional implications from Asad's fall and so far, they won't support actions that would give a Tehran a black eye. For starters, there's too much money on the table; Iran is a key customer for both Russian and Chinese military hardware, and Tehran has valuable (and vital) energy contracts with Beijing. Secondly, Russia and China have little interest in handing a strategic victory to the U.S. at a time when our influence in the Middle East is perceived to be waning.

Additionally, don't believe all the diplomatic talk about the Gulf States insisting that Asad must go. Pulling their diplomats and observers from Damascus was the correct step (from a foreign policy and public relations standpoint), but readers will note than none of the Gulf nations seem prepared to take additional measures, such as providing support for opposition forces, or imposing more draconian economic sanctions. There is genuine concern about what might follow Asad, and the rulers in places like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE don't want an islamist government in Damascus, fearing that similar movements would re-ignite in their countries.

As for the U.S. and Israel, we're in a similar boat. Everyone agrees that Asad should leave, but no one is willing to do anything beyond diplomatic consultations and carefully-worded communiques. In fairness, the Syrian uprising has lasted much longer (and grown on a scale) that was inconceivable just a few months ago. Conventional wisdom held that Asad's Army was still strong enough to ensure regime survival, and he would muddle through, after a bloody crackdown.

But that calculus has clearly changed. Over the weekend, a high-ranking Syrian military officer predicted that the Army will collapse within the next month or so, as more soldiers join the opposition, or lack the resources to carry on the fight. The defector estimates the Army has current mission capability rates of 35-40% for personnel and similar levels for equipment. That posture is well below what is required to sustain combat operations against the rebels.

To be sure, Asad's end in Syria will be extraordinarily violent and bloody, and the die has been cast. It's up to Israel, the U.S. and other interested parties to determne some sort of way to influence the situation, realizing our impact may be minimal at best. The only other option is to let events in Syria spin totally out of control, raising the scenario of a possible regional conflict.

As we've written before, the battle for Syria represents the future of the Middle East. Iran has already invested heavily in trying to prop up Asad and the U.S. (and its partners) need to develop their own plans. There is simply too much at stake, including the opportunity to strike a telling blow against Tehran, through its failing ally in Damascus.


Ed Bonderenka said...

I appreciate you pointing this out.
Just thought I'd encourage you with a comment.

Anonymous said...

The problem is that Egypt now will serve as the conduit for Iranian arms to Hamas.

And there is no assurance that a Sunni fundamentalist Syria will not support Hezbollah's war on Isreal.