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11.17.11

John Bolton Argues the U.S. Has the Wrong President for a Syrian Intervention

An intervention in Syria would work only if the U.S. is willing to take on Iran, the source of the tension—and the president is not up to the job, writes John Bolton.

The Arab League’s decision to suspend Syria is a serious blow to President Bashar al-Assad’s highly unpopular regime, and has led many to believe that its end is nigh. We can all certainly hope for Assad’s fall, but the real import of the Arab League’s tough stance is the escalation it represents in the Sunni Arab world’s growing confrontation against Shia Iran.

What should America do? Why, after decades of Syria supporting international terrorists, pursuing weapons of mass destruction, and brutalizing its citizens (using chemical weapons under Assad’s father), do we not pursue regime change?

While we should have long since been pursuing regime change against the Assad family tyranny, the unhappy reality today is that ousting Assad—or even aiding the dissidents with U.S. military force—is not something we should entrust to Barack Obama. The stakes are too high, the opposition too formidable, and the risks too great to allow him to exercise the commander-in-chief responsibilities in a possible confrontation with Iran. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, we go to war with the president we have, and the incumbent is not fit for duty in the Syrian theater.

The biggest difference thus far between Syria and other “Arab Spring” countries is the malign influence of Iran, which has striven for years—largely successfully—to make Damascus, in effect, its satellite. Syria’s Alawite regime has been Iran’s conduit for arms and finance to many terrorist groups, most notably Hizbullah, which now has Lebanon firmly in its cancerous grasp.

Every indication is that Iran has concealed elements of its nuclear-weapons program in Syria. For years, Vice President Joe Biden and others argued that Syria was not pursuing nuclear weapons largely because it could not afford the costs. However, the nuclear reactor North Korea was constructing near Dair Alzour, destroyed by Israel in September 2007, was surely not a gesture of altruism by impoverished Pyongyang.

If Syria lacked the resources, the only logical explanation is that Iran provided the financing. Syria’s ongoing refusal to provide the International Atomic Energy Agency with adequate information or inspection opportunities, and the agency’s new revelation of possible Syrian involvement with A. Q. Khan’s proliferation network, which also assisted Tehran, all signal potential Iranian involvement.

Toppling the Islamic Revolution of 1979, as well as overthrowing Assad, should have consistently been our declared objective—so are we now ready to move in that direction? No, not under Obama.

Beyond terrorism and proliferation, Iran is willing to shed considerable Syrian blood to keep the Baath Party in power because of the critical political importance of having a largely Sunni Arab country under its sway. Moreover, Iran has other designs afoot in the Arab world, from extending its influence in Iraq to reaching for dominance in Bahrain, all part of an emerging struggle for supremacy against Sunni Arabs, loosely and uneasily led by Saudi Arabia.

Thus, for the United States alone or acting through NATO, attempting to impose a no-fly zone or taking other military measures to aid Syria’s dissidents would almost certainly raise the prospect of direct military confrontation with Tehran. Iranian political advisers and Revolutionary Guard officers have been visible throughout Syria as the regime cracked down on the opposition. Iran’s leaders understand that far more than events in North Africa, successfully toppling Assad could well be the spark igniting a dispositive uprising against them. No regime ayatollah or Pasdaran officer can tolerate such a risk.

Toppling the Islamic Revolution of 1979, as well as overthrowing Assad, should have consistently been our declared objective—so are we now ready to move in that direction?

No, not under Obama. He shows few signs that he wants to shift course, that he possesses the political will to oust the ayatollahs, or that he is up to the sustained effort necessary. Libya and Muammar Gaddafi’s demise provide no rebuttal to this gloomy forecast. Obama’s Libya policy backed into success, only narrowly averting catastrophe. Instead, the unlikely political determination of Britain and France, NATO strikes that barely prevailed before running out of ammunition, and rebel forces ultimately more bloodthirsty than Gaddafi’s loyalists brought his demise. Such Rube Goldberg–like coincidences will not prevail against the Syria-Iran axis. There, leading from behind will almost inevitably fail, as nearly happened in Libya, with potentially significant human and financial costs.

We cannot truly solve the Syrian problem without being prepared, as former secretary of state Alexander Haig observed, to “go to the source”—and the source in this case is Tehran.

Especially since Obama has proved utterly unable to stop Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, overturning the ayatollahs is a struggle Washington should undertake—but not now, under his inadequate leadership.

Waiting 15 months for the end of Obama’s presidency may well be costly for Syria’s and Iran’s opposition. But acting while he still holds office will only bring America, the opposition forces, and the entire Middle East even more grief.