AN IDEA from Efraim Halevy: Saving Syria AND Evicting Iran from its regional hub in Damascus would cut off Iran’s access to its proxies (Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza) and deflate its domestic and international prestige. But Jeffrey Laurenti feels that now Russia and China have the obligation to play a positive game.
Iran’s Achilles’ Heel
By EFRAIM HALEVY from Jerusalem.
The International Herald Tribune online – Published: February 7, 2012 – printed February 8, 2012.
Stung by Criticism, Russia Sends Envoys to Syria to Defuse Crisis(February 8, 2012)
Times Topic: Syria — Protests (2011–)
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 President Bashar al-Assad’s government falters, Syria is becoming Iran’s Achilles’ heel. Iran has poured a vast array of resources into the country. There are Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps encampments and Iranian weapons and advisers throughout Syria. And Iranian-controlled Hezbollah forces from Lebanon have joined in butchering the Syrians who have risen up against Mr. Assad. Iran is intent on assuring its hold over the country regardless of what happens to Mr. Assad — and Israel and the West must prevent this at all costs.
Sadly, the opportunities presented by Syria’s meltdown seem to be eluding Israeli leaders. Last week, Israel’s military intelligence chief spoke of the 200,000 missiles and rockets in Gaza, Lebanon and Syria that could reach all of Israel’s population centers. And there is a growing risk that advanced Syrian weapons might fall into the hands of terrorist groups. Iran’s presence in Damascus is vital to maintaining these threats.
At this stage, there is no turning back; Mr. Assad must step down. For Israel, the crucial question is not whether he falls but whether the Iranian presence in Syria will outlive his government. Getting Iran booted out of Syria is essential for Israel’s security. And if Mr. Assad goes, Iranian hegemony over Syria must go with him. Anything less would rob Mr. Assad’s departure of any significance.
But Israel should not be the lone or even the principal actor in speeding his exit. 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.
Russia’s interests in Syria are not synonymous with Iran’s, and Moscow can now prove this by withdrawing its unwavering support for Mr. Assad. Russia simply wishes to maintain its access to Syria’s Mediterranean ports in Tartus and Latakia and to remain a major arms supplier to Damascus. If Washington is willing to allow that, and not to sideline Russia as it did before intervening in Libya, the convergence of American and Russian interests in Iran and Syria could pave the way for Mr. Assad’s downfall.
Once this is achieved, the entire balance of forces in the region would undergo a sea change. Iranian-sponsored terrorism would be visibly contained; Hezbollah would lose its vital Syrian conduit to Iran and Lebanon could revert to long-forgotten normalcy; Hamas fighters in Gaza would have to contemplate a future without Iranian weaponry and training; and the Iranian people might once again rise up against the regime that has brought them such pain and suffering.
Those who see this scenario as a daydream should consider the alternative: a post-Assad government still wedded to Iran with its fingers on the buttons controlling long-range Syrian missiles with chemical warheads that can strike anywhere in Israel. This is a certain prescription for war, and Israel would have no choice but to prevent it.
Fortunately, Mr. Assad and his allies have unwittingly created an opportunity to defuse the Iranian threat. If the international community does not seize it and Iranian influence in Syria emerges intact, the world will face a choice between a military strike and even more crippling sanctions, which could cause oil prices to skyrocket and throw the world economy off balance. The United States and Russia should wish for neither.
Syria has created a third option. We do not have the luxury of ignoring it.
Efraim Halevy, a former Israeli national security adviser and ambassador, was director of the Mossad from 1998 to 2002.
After the Veto, What Next on Syria?
by Jeffrey Laurenti of the Century Foundation.
After the Veto, What Next on Syria?
by Jeffrey Laurenti
The failed vote in the U.N. Security Council Saturday on a resolution committing the United Nations to the Arab League’s Syria transition plan opens the door to an international free-for-all in which Syrian factions enlist foreign patrons, Russia mortgages itself to a terminally ill regime, and Iran has an opening to forge closer ties with Russia and China.
Worst of all, the delicate mosaic that is Syria threatens to shatter altogether, as Iraq did after the American invasion.
Spooked by Qaddafi’s ghost, the Russians made clear last week that they would oppose any U.N. endorsement of regime change, whether explicit or implied. Western and Arab willingness to remove the specifics of the Arab League plan—in particular the call to ease Syrian president Bashar al-Assad out of power—won over four other council members that had been skeptical of the initial draft.
Certainly the Russians have now put themselves in a cul-de-sac. They can’t expect to come out of this with Assad still on top, and they’ve burned their last footbridge to the anti-Assad forces to serve as a potential mediator. Whether Syria is consumed in long-term civil strife as debilitating as Iraq’s, or the Baathist government collapses under foreign economic pressure and internal violence, Russia risks losing its entire forty-year investment in the Assad family’s rule.
Russian policymakers got so hung up on re-fighting what they not unreasonably saw as the West’s hijacking of the Libya air-protection resolution for “regime change” that they seem not to have thought through the chess moves on Syria that would follow a Security Council deadlock. Even a resolution that went somewhat farther than they would have liked—perhaps “welcoming” the Arab League plan without necessarily “fully supporting” it—could at least have ensured the conflict’s management would be tethered to the U.N. table, where they have a guaranteed place.
They seem not to have noticed that, far from having been gunning to bring down the Assad government from the start of Syria’s crisis, Western countries initially looked to Bashar al-Assad to act on his supposed reform inclinations to open up Syria’s suffocating system. They only soured on him when he resorted to lethal repression instead—something for which Moscow and Beijing seem to have rather more tolerance.
It’s not clear what Paris and Washington think the coming chess moves will be, either. By insisting on “full support” for the Arab League transition project despite the Russians’ proclaimed red lines, they now have no U.N.-led process at all. Far from boxing Iran out, we may find they have opened the door to Sino-Russian backing for more robust Iranian efforts to prop up the Baathist government in Damascus.
In contrast to the Russians and Chinese, the Damascus government has spurned the Arab League’s mediation, declaring last week that the league is no longer has any credibility on the situation. Its press organs insist that the continuing crackdown against “terrorism” is essential for Assad’s dead-end package of political reforms to proceed. Having failed to agree with their council partners on a formula to give a U.N. imprimatur to Arab League mediation, the Russians and Chinese now have to provide hospice care for the sclerotic Baath regime on their own.
Perhaps, as even Senator Lieberman seemed to suggest, there is still an opening for Russia and China—and perhaps, for that matter, other members of the Security Council—to re-think how to proceed together. The Russians last weekend had asked for the vote in the Security Council to be delayed till their foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, returned from a visit this week to Damascus. Perhaps that visit can provide an opening to reconsider.
Syria’s victimized population has the most immediate stake in the council’s coordinating international pressures to press the embittered Syria sides into a political process not manipulated by either. But the international community has its own deep stake in avoiding a free-for-all.