While the door-to-door massacre of women and children by pro-government militiamen in Houla last week has sparked international outrage and talk of a “tipping point” in Syria, the Obama administration appears to be doubling down on its present policy. In addition to being morally bankrupt, it is increasingly clear that the American refusal to get involved in Syria carries mounting strategic costs.
“We support the Annan plan,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Tuesday. “We do not believe that militarization, further militarization of the situation in Syria at this point is the right course of action. We believe that it would lead to greater chaos, greater carnage,” he added. US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice further explained, “There seems to me to be only one other alternative, and that is indeed the worst case… The violence escalates, the conflict spreads and intensifies… it involves countries in the region … and we have a major crisis not only in Syria but in the region.”
Although Rice did not say it explicitly, it is no secret that the proxy war the administration hopes to avoid fighting would be with Iran. However, it turns out that it’s precisely the administration’s inaction that may lead to the sort of region-wide war it fears.
Yesterday, Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak remarked that the world’s failure to intervene in Syria shows that Israel cannot rely on others to come to its defense in times of crisis. Barak’s comments should give the administration pause. It’s time to reassess whether the absence of US leadership and, specifically, Washington’s waiting game on Syria, not only emboldens Iran, but also makes carnage, perhaps especially an Israeli preemptive strike on Iran, more rather than less likely.
The administration’s continued refusal to provide lethal assistance to Syrian rebels further undermines the credibility of the US posture toward Iran. If Washington is so skittish about militarization in Syria, then Tehran will conclude it has little to fear from the US.
Neither Iran nor Israel is alone in drawing this conclusion. As other US regional allies, like Saudi Arabia and other Sunni powers, watch the US’ handling of Syria, they are likely to reach the same conclusion about Washington’s intentions regarding Iran. President Obama says all options, including military force, are on the table to stop Iran’s nuclear drive and roll back its regional influence. However, the president’s actions, or lack thereof, regarding Syria, strongly suggest something else—that he is simply bluffing.
In effect, the Obama administration’s approach to both regimes has been essentially identical: buying time through futile diplomatic processes in order to avoid a military option at all cost.
The Iranians understand this full well, as evident from their conduct at the nuclear talks in Baghdad last week. There, they spent time talking about Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s alleged “fatwa” and offering vague verbal proposals. Then, Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili decided that instead of discussing enrichment, he’d rather discuss regional issues, like Syria and Bahrain.
To top it off, it was the Iranians who threatened to end the talks by the second night, which sent their Western interlocutors scrambling just to get them to agree to another meeting in Moscow. What the Iranians got from that little bit of theater was a confirmation of the eagerness of the West to keep the process going and their unwillingness to walk away from it. In fact, so invested was the Obama administration in these talks that it reportedly preferred to keep the lid on an Iranian attempt to assassinate US diplomats in Azerbaijan, in what a Western diplomat described as “a deliberate attempt to calm things down ahead of the talks.”
The Iranians, then, likely gathered that these talks were, as former State Department adviser Aaron David Miller put it, a “management exercise” driven by “the West’s fear of war.”
Against this backdrop, it becomes easier to understand the rather brazen announcement by the deputy commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Esmail Gha’ani, that cadres from the Revolutionary Guards’ overseas operations unit were active in Syria.
There are several ways to read this remarkable statement. Aside from the startling contempt it reveals, it could be seen as a way to force the US to discuss Syria with the Iranians, as per Jalili’s proposition, thereby clinching a recognition that regional solutions can only be found through cooperation with Tehran.
But more to the point, as my colleague Lee Smith wrote yesterday, a deterrence and containment policy requires not only a credible threat of military action, but also “the actual support of proxy forces to take on Iranian allies.” Gha’ani’s statement shows that the Iranians, who comprehend this basic equation, are boasting about directly backing their ally in Damascus. They also realize that this admission will not cause Washington to break off the talks.
What’s more, the Iranians are paying attention to Washington's expressed anxiety that intervention in Syria will lead to a regional conflagration. They are deliberately seeking to heighten these fears in order to keep the US deterred from taking action against their Syrian ally. Sure enough, the Iranian Speaker of Parliament, Ali Larijani, followed with another threat that any involvement in Syria “would definitely envelop the Zionist regime.”
So far, this tactic appears to be working. Yesterday, Susan Rice confirmed Iran’s reading in a post on Twitter. “To let [Syria] become a proxy war,” she wrote, “would be to basically concede a violent regional wildfire.” If that lets the US’s regional adversaries breathe a little easier, American allies, like Israel, who have already aired their skepticism about the nuclear negotiations, may soon be looking for their own solutions.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.