Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Half Measures in Syria?

by Elliott Abrams
August 31, 2013


The Obama administration appears poised to act in Syria, but the public statements suggest a slap on the wrist more than a powerful blow that will truly punish and deter the use of chemical weapons.

I discuss this issue in National Review, here, and excerpts are below:

As it becomes increasingly obvious that President Obama has decided to attack Syria with cruise missiles and perhaps a bit more, those of us who have been urging a stronger stand on Syria for two years should be very pleased. This is what we’ve asked for, isn’t it?  It isn’t, and I can’t muster more than one or one and a half cheers. Why not?

Real American security interests are at stake in Syria and have been from the start. Iran and the terrorist group Hezbollah, which together have an enormous amount of American blood on their hands, have sent troops to Syria to win a war there. Russia has provided a constant flow of arms to the regime. They all consider their control of Syria important, and they are right: If they lose the control they have through Bashar Assad, their position in the entire Middle East is badly weakened — and ours is strengthened. This is a proxy war, with them on one side, and American allies — Jordan, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE — on the other. It is in the interest of the United States to win this fight, and we should want Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia to lose.

Second, there is a growing humanitarian disaster: 100,000 dead at a minimum, plus millions of refugees and displaced persons. The suffering has already spilled over into Jordan and Lebanon, with more to come.

The problem with the Obama administration’s probable reaction over the next few days is that it appears likely to address neither of these issues, and instead focus narrowly on another: Assad’s use of chemical weapons.

But what about our strategic interests? If our strikes are limited to Assad’s chemical-weapons assets, we leave his war machine intact — including the air power that is one of his main advantages. We make it no less likely that our enemies — Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, Assad — will win this proxy war and greatly strengthen their position in the Middle East — preserving Iran’s only ally in the region, which affords them ports in the Mediterranean and a border with Israel (via Hezbollah in Lebanon).

I give the administration some credit: It would be far worse to do nothing and prove that we have no credibility and need not be feared under any circumstances whatsoever. But the Russians and Iranians and their terrorist allies will not be defeated unless we show greater determination and greater willingness to act. For a start, the Obama administration should destroy not only Assad’s chemical stocks but his air power as well — bases, helicopters, jets. That would be the way to show American power in the Middle East is still to be reckoned with, to instill fear in our enemies, and to hearten our allies.


Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by Dean Smallwood

    I’m afraid that the Ditherer in Chief has waited too long … that is if he ever really wanted to make a meaningful difference .

  • Posted by Jerome Eisenberg

    The WSJ reported today that Syria and Iran vowed to strike Israel in the event of a US attack on Syria.
    – The joint declaration by Syria and Iran did not include the US, the head of the coalition against Syria and, supposedly, the main participant in the upcoming military strikes against Syria. This ipso facto belies an element of fear in Damascus and Tehran. They do realize that they do not possess the resources to confront the US in any method and they fear the wrath of the US military, economic, and political power. Israel is selected as a target in their rhetoric because of its geographical proximity to the two states, its relatively small size and population, and more importantly as a gamble on the paranoia of the Israeli citizens. It is a quintessential psychological warfare.
    – While the past may not necessarily be a reliable predictor of the future, valuable lessons can be drawn from the conduct of the two states during the past three decades or so. The ayatollahs, on one hand, will succumb to an intensive and painful retaliation on its mainland. The War of the Cities during the Iraq-Iran War is a prime example. When Saddam barraged Tehran with missiles, Khomaini relented and ended the war with an agreement to cease-fire. Imagine what the US-led coalition will do.

    The ayatollahs have been undermining the US in Iraq for several years, and the US has not taken any retaliatory action to halt the ayatollahs. The ayatollahs are now supporting Asad with impunity. The ayatollahs will continue their poisonous expansionism in the region at the expense of US interests, so long as they are not appropriately punished.
    – The ayatollahs will never jeopardize their security and gains since the end of the Iraq-Iran War, and especially in the current circumstances. Their adamant and continued support of Assad and Hezbollah as well as their threat to strike Israel emanates from their perception that the US-led coalition and Israel will be paralyzed when the latter’s existence is threatened. A ruthless bombing campaign on their military targets and selected targets in major cities will bring them down to their knees and will make them “swallow from the poison chalice” again, but the US-led coalition and Israel must indicate such willingness.

    The head of the snake is Iran, not Damascus, or Hezbollah. The US needs to more efficiently use its resources to destabilize Iran. Economic sanctions are not sufficient, and the ayatollahs will never learn until they are punished painfully (via military strikes). Asad’s use of chemical weapons compelled the US to respond, but what about Iran’s destabilizing campaign against US interests in the region? They were instrumental in killing US troops in Iraq in the aftermath of the occupation, they continue to undermine Iraq, and they are utilizing their protégés in Baghdad to support Asad and Hezbollah. Aren’t these acts sufficient to justify a military strike against Tehran and its interests in the region ?

  • Posted by diana

    the best strategy for the USA would be to support the Kurds so they can establish an autonomous region and let Syria disintegrate into tribal regions…………

  • Posted by Jerome Eisenberg

    Ms Diana
    That will never happen for one simple reason, if not more. Turkey is our ally and a NATO member and contains the majority of the Kurdish population that is scattered across 4 countries.
    Again, there is a disproportionately big focus on Syria and not enough on the real bigger problem, Iran.
    Iran contains several sizeable ethnic groups in the peripheries and they all share the animosity, albeit to different degrees, toward the ethnic Persians and ayatollahs. More than 90% of Iran’s wealth comes from the Ahvaz province. Enough said.
    A destabilizing campaign may not be easy, but it is not impossible.

  • Posted by Stephen Albert

    Congress many well follow the example of the British Parliament and vote down even this symbolic action, I fear that ,if they do so , every tyrant and terrorist will feel that they will suffer no consequences even for the most vicious of acts.

    In recent years we’ve heard a lot about the U.S not being the world’s sheriff. We may be about to find out what a world without a sheriff looks like.

  • Posted by Adam

    I have to agree with you, Stephen. An isolationist U.S.A. will rapidly cause global volatility to increase, to the detriment of all. Some predictions:

    Israel will act against the Iranian Nuclear program unilaterally.

    Iran will challenge the U.S. for Persian Gulf hegemony.

    North Korea will become even bolder in its provocations of Japan and South Korea.

    Several U.S. allies/client states wil seek new alliances. See Russia and China.

  • Posted by lon w

    Why hasn’t the “world” expressed unified outrage at the blatant attack by Hizballah upon Syria?

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