“What are the range of options open to the United States, and other powers, in the face of the large-scale violence that the Assad regime has unleashed on the Syrian people?”
Reporters covering the Obama administration’s foreign policy have provided the answer: “the United States sees few good options in Syria,” pronounced the Washington Post. Those living in a time of revolution, it has been said, often don’t realize it. Washington does not seem to understand that what is going on in the Middle East is a world-historical (not merely regional) event.
Whatever is to be done or not done about Syria has to start with the recognition that the United States must now devise a new foreign policy, or grand strategy, toward the entire Middle East; nothing can make much sense outside a new departure of that magnitude.
President George W. Bush’s response to the attacks of 9/11 was to announce, and begin to carry out, a new American grand strategy of immense scale and significance: nothing short of “the transformation of the greater Middle East.” The autocrats, theocrats, colonels, and kleptocrats would have to go. America had done all too much to enable them for all too long; the United States, Bush declared, must return to its roots as a beacon for those searching for freedom and democracy. The first step was to overthrow Saddam Hussein, whose war and terror and oil-corrupt regime were the linchpin of the region’s dysfunctional culture. The toppling of Saddam had consequences: the first sign of the Arab spring was not in Tunisia in 2011, it was in Lebanon’s cedar revolution in 2005.
The United States had lifted a rock in Iraq, revealing a writhing snake pit. It would take five years of American travail in Iraq before Bush’s steadfastness in the “surge” gained a foothold for positive change. In the process, Bush and his new policy were reviled, the Democrats took charge of Congress in 2006, and Barack Obama took the presidency in 2008, proceeding to reverse the Bush strategy—most notably by signaling that America would step back from supporting freedom and democratization and would no longer take a leading role in the region.
But what the world has witnessed across the past year is precisely the transformation of the greater Middle East erupting across a confused, chaotic, and vicious array of forms. The Syrian revolution and Assad’s bestial attempts to suppress it are the most vivid and potentially consequential phenomena of this world-historical event.
The Arab awakening of 2011 ignited the Middle East’s third civil war in our time. The first, labeled by the United States the war on terror, could in fact be traced to the fall of the Ottoman empire and caliphate. It was waged between those Muslim states in the region that were, and wanted to be, members of the international system and those radical Islamist terror-using groups that rejected the very idea of the state as un-Islamic; they aimed to destroy and replace the established regional and world system of order.
The second civil war smoldered for countless generations, but erupted in 2006 in Iraq, pitting Shia against Sunni. This war has continued in various forms in Lebanon, Yemen, and Bahrain, and on other Sunni-Shia fronts.
Today’s third civil war has now transmogrified into a vast struggle that contains elements of the first and second civil wars and is conducted on two levels: Arab spring freedom fighters versus the old regimes and movements that want to suppress them—as do the army and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt—and a larger war between Iran’s empire of the ayatollahs and all the rest of the region. The revolution ripping through Syria has been a struggle to overthrow the Iranian surrogate dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. If the rebels succeed, other links in the Iranian archipelago of power, from western Afghanistan to the Mediterranean, where Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza rule, will fracture. If the Syrian revolution is crushed—as Lebanon’s cedar revolution was crushed—Iran’s theocratic empire will continue its drive for hegemony over the entire region.
For all the attention given to Iran, its true significance has not been fully appreciated. It is a terrorism-sponsoring theocracy that has lodged itself in the international system as a state yet at the same time is a rogue entity that opposes world order at every turn, squirming from one role into the other as suits its purposes. It is ruled by an ideologically driven, apocalypse-tempted hierarchy, unswervingly anti-Semitic and inching relentlessly closer to acquiring long-range nuclear weapons.
Politically, practically, morally, the United States now has only two options: stay with the Obama approach of a reduced, reluctant, if wishfully meliorative policy—or face the roaring reality that “transformation” is under way and if the United States does not return to steering it, the outcome surely will be worse than ever for the region and international security.
Three categories call for American action: first, a full-court diplomatic campaign in tandem with material measures to stabilize and advance democratization in the places where the Arab spring already has ousted the old regime and begun to build for the future: those in the Maghreb and, most important, Egypt.
Second, to work calmly but firmly with the monarchies of the region to carry forward transitions toward greater openness and responsiveness to their peoples.
Third, most important and urgent, to recognize that the Iranian quasi-empire must be deconstructed and its regime changed. Syria is the linchpin, for if Assad’s regime can be replaced by a democratizing process along the current Tunisian mode, then Iran’s imperial archipelago can be broken, with Hezbollah next in line. In this context, the Palestinian Authority and its treacherous deal-partner Hamas must be seen for what they are: variations on the old gang systems that the Arab spring has risen against. Neither can expect to be part of a truly transformed greater Middle East.
Israel recognizes that Iran is shaken as never before: new sanctions have sharper teeth; the economy is groaning; subversive actions have rattled the turbans. This is the moment when even greater American and international pressure should be piled on. To get that added boost, the Israelis ramped up their rhetoric about striking Iran’s nuclear facilities. This caused international alarm, all right, but the wrong kind: American officials made it publicly clear that they opposed such an attack, compelling Israel to consider that such a strike might not get American backing after the fact. There have also been calls on the United States to negotiate because “Iran is ready to talk,” and Obama is responding. The record of many years, however, shows that the Iranian dictatorship plays an exquisite game of “dictaplomacy,” manipulating every such engagement to its advantage to calm fears falsely and buy more time. The time to talk to Iran is when it sues for peace.
With American re-involvement, considerable potential exists for shaping an informal coalition of Saudi Arabia, the Arab League, Turkey, and the United Nations that can stop the slaughter in Syria, oust Assad, and hasten the end of ayatollah rule over Iran—and garner international support for bringing the Arab spring to full flower.