Don’t bomb Syria — talk to Iran

When asked by a journalist this morning whether there was anything Bashar al-Assad could do to avert American military strikes, John Kerry answered: “Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week — turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done.”

To predict Syrian intransigence is one thing, but to suggest “it can’t be done” seems to imply that the Obama administration is so strongly committed to attacking Syria that it is now unwilling to consider any alternative. At the same time, this commitment is to what Kerry describes as “an unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.”

U.S. policy towards Syria as it is currently being articulated is a resolute commitment to engage in military action that will have no effect on the outcome of the war. Is this a policy? Or an affectation? Is this about sending a message or striking a pose?

Ten days ago, the Los Angeles Times reported:

One U.S. official who has been briefed on the options on Syria said he believed the White House would seek a level of intensity “just muscular enough not to get mocked” but not so devastating that it would prompt a response from Syrian allies Iran and Russia.

“They are looking at what is just enough to mean something, just enough to be more than symbolic,” he said.

It’s hardly any wonder that when the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, was asked in the Senate last week what the U.S. is seeking in Syria, he said: “I can’t answer that, what we’re seeking.”

President Obama and his accessories are treating this moment as a test of the conscience of the world. And now it appears even Russia and Syria are willing to participate in the charade.

Following Kerry’s offhand remark about what he regarded as a purely hypothetical situation, Russia seized on the opportunity. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of Russia, one of the strongest supporters of the Assad regime, urged Syria to comply with Mr. Kerry’s call.

“We are calling on the Syrian leadership not just to agree to put chemical-weapons stores under international control, but also to their subsequent destruction, as well as fully fledged accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention,” Mr. Lavrov said.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, in comments to reporters in Moscow, didn’t provide any specifics, other than to say that Syria welcomed the Russian proposal.

“The Syrian Arab republic welcomes the Russian initiative, motivated by the concerns of the Russian leadership for the lives of our citizens and the security of our country,” Mr. Moallem said, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency.

Mr. Moallem didn’t provide any further details of whether Damascus supported both turning over its chemical weapons to international monitors and ultimately destroying them, as Mr. Lavrov proposed.

Mr. Moallem didn’t address Russia’s call for Damascus to accede to the global convention banning chemical weapons.

He said Syria’s position on the Russian proposal was motivated “out of our faith in the wisdom of the Russian leadership, which is striving to prevent American aggression against our people.”

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said Syria should be encouraged to put its chemical weapons beyond use, but added that the international community must be wary in case it uses any such offers as a diversionary tactic.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon added his support to the proposal, and said he is drawing up plans for Syria’s chemical weapons to be moved to a secure location within the country where they could be eliminated under U.N. supervision.

Slim as the odds might currently seem, let’s suppose that Syria follows through. After all, given that the use of chemical weapons was Obama’s only red line and the Assad regime has had little trouble killing 100,000 of its citizens by conventional means, getting rid of these weapons might now seem like a relatively small trade-off in exchange for enjoying continued free rein in the ongoing task of wiping out the opposition.

In the event that Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles are destroyed, President Obama, John Kerry, Samantha Power and the other self-appointed guardians of the world’s conscience can declare a great success and yet the misery of Syria’s people will not have been alleviated in the slightest.

But were Obama to set his vanity aside and forget about an offhand remark on red lines he made in a news conference a year ago, he might pause to remember a much more significant commitment he made five years ago when he was trying to persuade Americans that he had what it took to become a strong president:

Russia might be Syria’s most powerful supporter, yet because of the roles that the Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah play in defending the Assad regime, it is Iran that wields the greatest amount of influence with its closest regional ally.

Unlike Israel, which has become increasingly transparent in expressing its desire for the war in Syria to continue — “let them both bleed, hemorrhage to death,” as a former Israeli diplomat put it last week — Iran has a much greater interest in arriving at a political solution to the conflict.

As Time notes:

Much like Washington, Tehran finds itself debating what to do with Syria.

Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threatened several times to wipe Israel from the face of the earth and under him Iran’s nuclear program has grown enormously in defiance of international sanctions. But Iran has a new president. Hassan Rouhani won a resounding victory in June, in part due to his promises of engagement with the West.

Certainly, the tone out of Tehran has taken a 180. Last week, Rouhani tweeted a happy new year to “all Jews, especially Iranian Jews” celebrating Rosh Hashanah. And his newly appointed Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is widely expected to lead the new round of nuclear talks with the West later this month, tweeted at House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s daughter that Iran “never denied” the Holocaust and “the man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone.” He was presumably referring to Ahmadinejad.

Rouhani’s tone on Syria has also been different, not so much in what he’s said but in what he hasn’t. In a speech before the Assembly of Experts on Wednesday, Rouhani said if Syria is attacked by the West, “the Islamic Republic of Iran will do its religious and humanitarian duty and send food and medicine.” He notably didn’t threaten bombs or retaliation. In other speeches, Rouhani has noted that Iran has bitter experience with chemical weapons: some 20,000 Iranian soldiers were killed and upwards of 100,000 Iranians were injured by Iraqis using chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War. “We completely and strongly condemn the use of chemical weapons, because the Islamic Republic of Iran is itself a victim of chemical weapons,” Rouhani said on Aug. 24, according to the ISNA News Agency.

Former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a reformist who threw his support behind Rouhani before the elections, went so far as to blame the Assad regime for the attack, while most Iranian hardliners have blamed the Syrian opposition. The remarks were censored and he later issued a statement supporting the Syrian regime. Still, his remarks reflect the raging debate within Iran about Syria.

Few in Washington can be blind to the changes taking place in Iran right now, yet from Obama downwards, virtually no one has the courage to advocate seizing the most significant diplomatic opportunity to have emerged in a decade. Dialogue with Iran not only holds the key to a possible end to the war in Syria but also the beginning of a path leading to a deescalation of tensions with Israel. Moreover, as Iran’s international isolation diminishes, Saudi Arabia will have less freedom to fuel Sunni-Shia sectarian tensions which have flared across the region.

Could talking to Iran yield so many benefits? Not all at once and not quickly, but the opportunity is there and the biggest obstacles lie in the United States and in Israel.

Since the end of the Cold War, the national security economies of both countries have thrived through the continuation of conflict in the Middle East. War and the threat of war have been good for business and good for bloated defense budgets.

Moreover, a region that seems locked in interminable conflict, serves as a convenient foil behind which Israel’s occupation of a future Palestinian state becomes ever more entrenched and the so-called peace process becomes a sideshow bereft of any credibility.

Maybe there’s one useful lesson Obama can draw from the last few days: When the supposedly all-powerful Israel lobby pulls out all the stops in order to rally the kind of Congressional support that only this lobby holds in its power, it looks like AIPAC and its allies can’t actually deliver.

Has a corner been turned? Has Washington discovered it no longer needs to live in fear of retribution from the lobby?

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