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International Politics

Bye Bye Bashar

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For over a year, the regime of Bashar al-Assad has clung to power in Syria through a policy of naked force and repression.  Mr. Assad has shown himself capable of ordering the most ruthless acts of violence against his own citizens. He has not hesitated to send tanks and aircraft to bomb neighborhoods, using snipers to disperse civilian protesters, and launching mortar attacks against funeral processions. The catalogue of heinous crimes grows longer by the day.

Arab League observers, even from such heavy-handed states as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, have been repelled by the sadistic nature of the repression. That’s saying a lot.

It’s time to say bye bye to Bashar.

The Case for Intervention

Is it even necessary to go into this? Europe was keen to intervene in Libya on far shakier humanitarian grounds – Qaddafi’s forces had killed a fraction of the demonstrators that the Syrian leader has before bombs started falling on his head.

Estimates are that approximately 7,100 people (1) have been killed through government repression since the start of the insurrection and the casualty list grows every day. Syrian military units have deserted en masse and the country is quickly spiraling into chaos and civil war.

While it’s true that there are no oil contracts waiting to be re-written in favor of European or American oil majors, even the most cynical practitioner of realpolitik need not rest their case on humanitarian grounds alone in order to justify an intervention. In fact, there are several extremely potent reasons for the United States to risk leading an armed intervention in Syria during an election year.

It’s all about Iran

The crisis over Iran’s nuclear program continues to simmer, and as the year grows older, the possibility of it boiling over completely increases greatly. The Israelis have made it clear that they will not tolerate a nuclear armed Iran, and while the US says the same thing, Israel has more “skin in the game” and is likely to react much sooner than the Americans.

A unilateral Israeli strike would be a mistake. Israel hopes to repeat the success of the Osirak strike that crippled Iraq’s nuclear program for a decade. This is utterly unrealistic. For one thing, Iran has learned from the Osirak experience. Its processing and storage facilities are dispersed and many of them are hardened. Iran has upgraded its air defense capabilities with modern Russian SAM and radar systems precisely to defend against an Israeli air raid. And Iran is much further from Israel than Iraq – to arrive on target with a heavy payload would require mid-air refueling over Iraq; how do the Israelis expect to keep all of this secret?

 

 

 

 

 

 

In fact, a failed raid would be far worse than no raid at all. The Iranians have the capabilities to respond by launching missile attacks from their territory against Israel. They have the intelligence assets in place to launch covert operations against Israeli and Jewish assets overseas. They have great leverage over Hezbollah, which is even better placed than the Iranians to harass Israeli territory and probably eager to show that their defeat of the IDF in Lebanon two years ago was not a fluke.

Israel knows all of this. Why then would they take such a long gamble? Israel believes that, when the chips are down, the US will back them. Either Iran will force our hands by trying to close the Straits of Hormuz to oil tanker traffic, or else the US will simply follow the Israeli lead once war has broken out. They are probably right on both counts.

The US would eventually win a war with Iran. However, the cost would be terrible. Oil would skyrocket (does anyone want to see crude top $200 per barrel? Not even the oil companies), leading to a worldwide economic recession. The extent of the damage to the US and world economy would depend almost exclusively on how long it took US forces to destroy the Iranian Air Force, Navy and all of the small craft that the Revolutionary Guards plan to use to plant mines and attack shipping. Then there are the direct costs of war arising from a long and intense air campaign and potentially the need to occupy parts of Iran temporarily (to clear the ports of attack craft and mines and to capture the nuclear facilities to ensure their destruction). We’re talking of hundreds of billions of dollars in military expenditures at a time when the government is strapped for cash. Perhaps this would finally convince Republicans in Congress to vote for a tax increase.

Common Sense believes that war with Iran would be a mistake at this point, for all the reasons listed above. The only alternative is to convince Iran to voluntarily give up their nuclear program. Economic sanctions have not worked so far. Is reliance on them a fool’s hope?

Perhaps not. The whole point is to isolate Iran. More specifically, we are attempting to isolate President Ahmadinejad and the pro-nuclear faction in power. It is important to understand that the government of Iran is not monolithic. Ahmadinejad is opposed by the conservative Ayatollahs and liberal elements in the country. Economic sanctions are an attempt to drive a wedge between Ahmadinejad and his opponents (“get rid of Ahmadinejad and we’ll be friends again” or something to that effect).

Anything that makes the Iranian pro-nuclear faction feel lonelier is therefore a good thing. The Israeli assassination campaign against Iranian nuclear physicists, while immoral, is nonetheless very effective in this respect. It removes the friends and collaborators of the regime from play.

Iran’s Back Door

Which brings us back to Syria.

Iran has few friends: Russia, China, North Korea, Pakistan, Venezuela, Syria and Hezbollah – that’s pretty much it. In the event of an Israeli-Persian conflict, only Syria and Hezbollah are in a position and are likely to take direct action against Israel.

A military intervention in Syria would accomplish the following:

  • It would remove the pro-Iranian Assad regime from power;
  • It would severely degrade Syria’s military capabilities for years, preventing them from intervening in an Israeli-Persian conflict even if they wanted to;
  • It would create immense pressure on Hezbollah to “play nice” and would make them more vulnerable if they decided not to;
  • It should increase Israel’s security which could buy time for sanctions, isolation and negotiation to take effect;
  • And needless to say, it would say the lives of thousands of innocent civilians now being brutalized and murdered by their own government.

The overthrow of the Syrian regime should immediately be followed by a clear message to the Ayatollahs – get your house in order, dump Ahmadinejad and end your nuclear program and you won’t join brother Bashar in exile or the grave.

Easier Said than Done

The above reasons may or may not be valid, but even if they are, putting together an international coalition to depose Assad will be more difficult than it was to do the same for Qaddafi. France and Britain are unlikely to show as much enthusiasm this time around thanks to the “ever closer crisis” in Europe. Sarkozy will be severely distracted by the upcoming French elections, and a Socialist Hollande government may not be as hawkish. Germany is unlikely to support military action, while Russia and China will outright oppose it.

The key would be to secure support from Turkey and the Arab League, but both have shown themselves extremely reticent of supporting military action. It might nevertheless be possible, given the extreme suffering of the Syrian people.

In any case, putting a coalition together takes time and time is a luxury in short supply, both for the Syrian martyrs and to avoid a war with Iran. The US was content to let France and Great Britain lead the way against Libya, but this time we must be at the forefront. It is in our best interest to do so, if we hope to avoid a costlier and bloodier conflict in the Gulf.

Sources:

(1) Malas, Nour and Lauria, Joe, “Syria Fight Widens as U.N. Talks Persist”, The Wall Street Journal, 2 February 2012

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  1. […] in Syria. I have argued in favor of it in previous articles of the “Bye Bye Bashar” series (I, II and III). Even though I believe that the optimal solution is the downfall of the Assad regime, […]

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