The Syrian civil war is no longer the Syrian civil war. It’s a regional war that started in Syria, has expanded into Lebanon and Iraq, and has drawn in the Iranians and to a lesser extent the Kurds and the Israelis.
Wars in North Africa tend to stay local, but wars in the Levant spill over and suck in the neighbors. There’s no reason to believe this war has finished expanding or that an end is in sight.
Lee Smith’s new short book, The Consequences of Syria, is about how we got here. Lee is a friend of mine. He and I met nine years ago in Beirut and have traveled elsewhere in the region together. We argue about the Middle East sometimes, but we agree with each other often enough that our arguments are interesting and productive.
We spoke by phone recently.
Michael J. Totten: Tell us about your book.
Lee Smith: It’s a long essay commissioned by the Hoover Institution, specifically by Charles Hill, one of our country’s great statesmen and historians of grand strategy, as well as Fouad Ajami, who died Sunday at the age of 68. Not only was Ajami a great historian of the modern Middle East, he is also one of the great English language prose stylists. He wrote about the region, but like any writer his real subject was about the human condition, that is, man’s struggle with freedom. It was a huge honor that he and Mr. Hill included me in the Hoover series, “The Great Unraveling: The Remaking of the Middle East,” and I am indebted to them both, professionally and even more so personally. What an honor to get to work with them and other authors in the series, including a book by one of our mutual friends, Samuel Tadros, Reflections on the Revolution in Egypt.
My essay is an account of the Syrian civil war, which began in March 2011 as a peaceful protest movement. As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fired on unarmed opposition members, the uprising eventually became a rebellion as the opposition took up arms, and the conflict escalated into a full-scale civil war. That’s one aspect of the book.
The other part of the book concerns the Obama administration’s Syria policy, which has been one of neglect and mendacity. The administration has repeatedly misled the American public, the American media, and allies around the world about its intentions.
MJT: Give us an example.
Lee Smith: Look at what happened in May before the president’s speech at West Point. Various media outlets quoted unnamed sources that suggested the president was going to arm and train the rebels.
The president and his administration have been saying this for two and a half years now, most notably in June 2013 when Ben Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, said in a conference call with reporters that the administration was ramping up its military support for the rebels.
Again and again, reporters asked Rhodes if that meant the administration was going to arm the rebels. Rhodes said he couldn’t give us an exact “inventory”—a word he used at least three times—of the assistance the administration would provide. Major media—the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, New York Times, etc.—reported that the White House was indeed going to arm the rebels, but this was all attributed to anonymous sources, which means that there absolutely nothing at stake if the information proved incomplete, inaccurate or just plain false. It was only months later when we found out from interviews with various rebel commanders that no American arms had been received.
Here it’s worth saying something about the press as well. I would have hoped that after the administration pulled similar stunts over the last few years regarding Syria that editors would’ve demanded more from their reporters. For instance, “Look, these guys are using us as part of an information operation to keep their domestic opponents and foreign allies off guard. We can’t keep publishing these stories straight anymore without someone going on the record and staking their reputation to it. At the very least we have to note that this may be part of a pattern of inaccuracies we’ve already seen with this White House regarding Syria policy.”
But of course no one did anything of the sort, and the US media has a lot of egg on their face for it. This White House has been bad for the press, and the readership’s faith in our press, but it seems most journalists don’t much care.
MJT: Why would the administration mislead everyone instead of just coming out and saying Syria is a mess that we don’t want to get sucked into? That’s the popular position in the United States right now. Plenty of people on both the left and the right would applaud him for that. Why the shenanigans?
Lee Smith: That’s a very good question. Maybe it’s because the administration is worried its foreign policy will haunt it in the mid-term elections. But then again the administration and a lot of its media surrogates keep saying the American public doesn’t care about foreign policy. And yet other polls show the American public does consider foreign policy an important factor in their decision.
My belief is that we Americans do care about foreign policy, more specifically about America’s role in the world, but we have come to distrust our leadership. Not just Obama but also Republicans, and that’s why I think Rand Paul is getting so much traction. His idea, which I don’t agree with at all, is at least clear: We should stay out of other people’s conflicts.
Compare that, for instance, to the Democratic frontrunner for 2016, Hillary Clinton. She says all the right things about a strong America projecting our values in the world, but, as we saw in the recent Diane Sawyer interview, Clinton will take no responsibility at all for anything that happened at Benghazi. So it doesn’t matter if she talks tough about our foreign policy—who can possibly trust someone to lead us into the world if that person’s primary interest is covering her own tail?
MJT: The White House’s Syria policy is about Iran, isn’t it?
Lee Smith: Part of it of course is that Obama understands himself as the man whose job is to get us out of entanglements in the Middle East, not to further commit American troops and resources. Still—yes, a large part of it has to do with Iran.
As I explain in The Consequences of Syria, there’s evidence suggesting that the administration feared that helping topple Assad, an ally of Iran, might have angered the Iranians and pushed them away from the negotiating table, and getting a deal with Iran was the White House’s chief goal in the Middle East.
Look at other exampled of how the White House wanted to stay on the regime’s good side. When the Green Movement took to the streets in June 2009 to protest what was quite likely fraudulent election results, the White House was extremely slow to support it even when the regime was attacking people on the streets just as the Assad regime did a few years later.
One of the reasons the administration was slow to respond—and we know this because it was reported in the New Yorker article that first put forth the now-infamous phrase “leading from behind”—is because, as one administration official put it, the White House wanted to negotiate with the regime. Same with sanctions relief, which the White House provided to keep the Iranians at the table.
It’s hard not to conclude that the administration’s Syria policy is a sub-set of its Iran policy. Many people were baffled for a long time, including me, that the president didn’t seem to see Syria strategically, as a way to weaken Iran. Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis said that toppling Bashar al-Assad would constitute the most severe blow against the Iranian regime in 25 years. A number of administration officials seemed to recognize the same thing—from former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and ex-CIA director David Petraeus. Only the president seemed to not recognize that or to see Syria in a strategic framework. What we now realize is that the president does see Syria in a strategic framework. He sees that the Syrian regime is an important ally of the Iranians and doesn’t want to be seen toppling the regime for fear of angering the Iranians.
MJT: Is there any chance that the White House is going to get what it wants from the Iranians this way?
Lee Smith: If we have a powerful American presence in the Middle East it might be possible to come to some sort of accommodation with Iran. I don’t know exactly what it would look like. But it would have to be demonstrated that the United States still calls the shots in the Persian Gulf and that the United States is still the great power in the Middle East.
What we’re seeing instead is a United States in retreat in the Middle East. So I don’t see what the accommodation would look like. It’s not a grand bargain with Iran, but an American fire sale, with the US virtually giving away its assets. The US is retreating from the region and leaving it in Iranian hands.
This is what Obama’s twin-pillars’ policy is about. In various interviews the president has described a new regional framework, a new geopolitical equilibrium, that balances Iran against the Sunni states in the Persian Gulf. This is precisely the idea the impoverished Brits had when they were on their way out of the Persian Gulf at the end of the 1960s. The problem is that there is no way to balance them—Saudi Arabia is incapable of projecting power without American backing. For instance, Riyadh has no equivalent of the IRGC’s Quds Force, its external operations unit, responsible for Iran’s war in Syria, as well as terrorist operations. Accordingly, when the White House says it’s aiming to “balance,” what US allies hear is that the US, like the Brits nearly half a century ago, are on their way out of the region, and are leaving it in Iran’s hands.
Consider how the administration has effectively partnered with Iran and its allies in Lebanon and Iraq.
In Lebanon, for instance, American intelligence has teamed up with the Lebanese Armed Forces’ military intelligence, which is at present controlled by Hezbollah. So the United States is indirectly aligned with Hezbollah in Lebanon against Sunni fighters.
In Iraq we’ve seen the same thing. Up until the ISIS-led takeover of Mosul, the White House supported Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s anti-Sunni policy, even though his allies include Iranian-sponsored terrorist groups with American blood on their hands.
MJT: Al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria recently took over Mosul and Tikrit in Iraq along with some other cities. They’re not as big a strategic threat as Iran right now, but they can certainly turn into one, can’t they?
Lee Smith: Let’s be a bit more specific. What we’re seeing in cities like Mosul is a Sunni rebellion against Maliki and the Iranians. In addition to ISIS, there are also former Baath party figures, like one of Saddam’s deputies, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, as well as Sunni tribes. ISIS would appear to be playing the role of Sunni shock troops, who are dispatched to the fronts to terrorize and create havoc. Behind them are the Baathis and the tribes. It was Maliki and the Iranians, in particular Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani, who made this possible.
The American-led surge of 2006-7 was a success because it got the tribes to fight, and defeat, Al Qaeda in Iraq. What Maliki and the Iranians have done is unite the tribes and ISIS through their anti-Sunni policies. And so now the administration has a dilemma. As it has argued repeatedly regarding Syria, from their perspective the big issue in the Middle East is counter-terrorism against Al Qaeda and the Sunni jihadis. There’s no doubt Al Qaeda is a problem for the United States, but it’s not a strategic threat like Iran and the Iranian resistance axis.
Compare the two: Al Qaeda and Iran’s government are both radical Islamists, but the difference is that Al Qaeda doesn’t have the strategic resources of state at its disposal like Iran and its allies, including Islamists like Hezbollah as well as the Iraqi armed groups like Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, do.
A radical Sunni who wants to establish a caliphate, yelling Allahu Akbar with a black flag in one hand and a Kalashnikov in his other hand is crazy and dangerous, but he’s not a strategic threat. How does that caliphate, assuming such a thing is even possible, affect how Americans live? Are they going to impose sharia on us? Are our female friends and relatives going to be forced to wear a veil because of what some guy in Aleppo says?
When people worry that Sunni Islamists want to create a caliphate in the Middle East they seem to forget that we already have a clerical regime in Iran. What they’re afraid might happen has already happened. And the concern coming out of Tehran isn’t sharia, but the fact that a nuclear weapons program in the hands of an expansionist regime gives them a dangerous say in the flow of energy resources through the Persian Gulf. They don’t have to actually use a bomb to destabilize the region and raise the price of energy around the world. That’s the danger—that Iranian hegemony in the Persian Gulf will affect how Americans, and our trading partners, live.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is an already-existing Islamist power, with an army, a navy, an air force, a ballistic missile program, a nuclear weapons program. They have a diplomatic corps as well as a terrorist apparatus. Al Qaeda doesn’t have any of that. Iran is the key strategic threat in the Middle East for American interests and American allies.
MJT: So on balance do you think we would be better off if Al Qaeda ended up controlling Syria or parts of Syria as long as bringing down Assad delivers a big enough blow to Iran.
Lee Smith: Well, I think it’s unlikely Al Qaeda winds up running all of Syria, but if they do, great. If anything comes out of there endangering American citizens, allies, or interests, then that Al Qaeda controlled Syria, presumably with its capital in Damascus, winds up paying a very steep price.
I think that American foreign policy works most efficiently when it prioritizes threats. Few people believed during World War II that Joseph Stalin was a great guy, but the immediate threat to the United States, its interests, and its allies came from the Nazis, so we aligned ourselves with the Soviet Union until Hitler was defeated, then we waged a Cold War against the Soviets for nearly half a century. That’s how American foreign policy works best.
Sarah Palin said she’s content to let Allah sort things out in Syria between Iran and Al Qaeda, but Allah doesn’t always sort things out according to American interests.
The Obama administration is prioritizing threats, but it’s prioritizing the wrong threat. It’s prioritizing a group of non-state actors over a state.
MJT: So what would you do if you were in charge of our Syria policy?
Lee Smith: The first thing I’d do is knock the Syrian air force out of commission. Make sure it can never get off the ground. Even the people worried about Al Qaeda taking over Syria shouldn’t have an objection to that. If Al Qaeda takes over Syria, do we want them to inherit an air force?
MJT: Of course not.
Lee Smith: It’s unlikely that Al Qaeda will take over Syria anyway. The jihadist groups are only part of the rebellion. But even in the worst-case scenario, if they do take the whole country and run a caliphate state from Damascus, we’ll all be glad Syria is a generation away from having a functioning air force. What’s the argument against taking the Syrian air force out of the equation? We want Assad dropping barrel bombs loaded with chlorine gas canisters on the opposition because we fear that 7-year-old girls are likely Al Qaeda recruits who will attack the West?
And it’s standard US policy to back proxies against American adversaries. The fact that we’re not backing moderate rebels to fight the Iranian bloc in Syria tells us something about how the White House views Iran. It doesn’t view Iran as a significant adversary. The White House sees only Al Qaeda as the problem.
I understand why the president sees Iran this way. He isn’t crazy, he’s just wrong.
The president has said in various profiles and interviews that while he recognizes the Iranian regime as a problem, it’s nevertheless fundamentally rational. And I think he’s right about that much.
There has been an argument in Washington for almost a decade now with one side holding that the Iranians are rational and the other side insisting that the Iranians are irrational and likely to do anything, including blow up Iran, because they’re nuts and they want to bring back the Mahdi. That’s not a conversation I’m interested in having.
One would be hard-pressed to find a regime anywhere in history that has actively sought to destroy itself. The Nazis were crazy, but did they actively seek their own end? No. Of course not. They sought to expand their power and reach, and that’s what the Iranians are doing as well.
History is nothing but the long chronicle of regimes, peoples, and nations that miscalculate their own power and that of their adversaries and thereby end up destroying themselves, but they did not deliberately seek their own end. Iran is not irrational in that way. Its leaders don’t seek their own end.
We need to base our policy on their actual behavior, for instance their expansionist policies in the Middle East, their desire to destabilize rivals in the Persian Gulf. Designing a policy based strictly on the fact that a regime is rational or irrational is mistaken.
The president has said that because the Iranian government is a state, it is susceptible to the various instruments of statecraft—diplomacy, engagement, deterrence, containment, and military action if everything else fails. That’s how the president perceives the Iranians. That’s not a crazy way to look at Iran.
The reality is, however, that the United States has never been able to deter or contain Iran. No American policy-maker has ever pushed back against the Iranians for their misbehavior. I’m not just faulting Obama here. I’m also faulting the Bush administration, the Clinton administration, and the Reagan administration which also sought a rapprochement with the clerical regime. No one has pushed back for 35 years.
So the idea that the Obama administration can handle this regime solely because it’s a nation-state goes against the entire historical record of American-Iranian relations.
MJT: What do you think Iran would do with a nuclear weapon? Why exactly should we be concerned about that?
Lee Smith: I think we have to take Iranian threats against Israel seriously and we have to take the concerns of America’s Gulf Arab allies seriously. The Arab and Israeli concerns are both to an extent existential. When Iran threatens to blow up Israel, it’s a threat that Israeli officials cannot afford to ignore.
That said, while we have to take that seriously, I don’t think it’s the real problem from an American point of view.
MJT: I agree. I doubt Iran would actually nuke Israel, but I don’t know that the way I know France won’t nuke Israel.
Lee Smith: Exactly. So you can’t ignore that if you’re the Israeli prime minister. And we can’t ignore that the Saudis might want to counter an Iranian nuclear weapon with their own nuclear weapon, perhaps purchased from Pakistan. What’s the Persian Gulf going to look like if it’s bristling with nuclear weapons?
The real problem is that an Iranian nuclear weapon would give Iran the ability to destabilize the Middle East whenever it wants. Look at what Iran is doing around the region. That’s also what my book is about—Iranian expansionism across the Middle East. That’s the real problem.
If you’re Israeli your concern is that these guys could put a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile and fire it at Tel Aviv, but there’s more. The Iranians are not only on Israel’s border through Hezbollah in Lebanon. They’re on Israel’s border in Syria as well.
The Assad regime has long been allied with the Iranians, but now we’re seeing Revolutionary Guard troops in Syria. Hezbollah is now in Syria. Further, the Israeli Hezbollah specialist Shimon Shapria has a new paper out explaining how Iran is building a replica of Hezbollah on the Syrian border, on the Golan Heights. And Iran has replicated the Hezbollah model in Iraq. They dispatched Iraqi Shia militias to fight in Syria, as well as Afghani, Yemeni and Gulf Shiites as well. Shapira calls this Qassem Suleimani’s Shiite version of the Comintern. This is what I mean by Iranian expansionism and why Syria is a major concern.
American allies such as Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon have a massive refugee problem. A lot of journalists are writing about the possible end of Sykes-Picot, that the Middle East’s borders are being eradicated, but the borders aren’t the immediate problem. What we’re seeing instead are massive population transfers. We’ve seen it before, constantly, and it’s happening again now.
The United Nations estimates there a million or so Syrian refugees in Lebanon, but mutual friends of ours in Beirut put the number at closer to two million. And that’s in a country of barely four million. How is that going to throw off the sectarian balance in Lebanon? What’s going to happen if a million Syrian refugees stay permanently in Jordan?
These are the consequences of Syria. Iranian expansionism. Destabilization of the region though transfers of population. And a test case for American power.
The administration has failed that test. Our friends are confused, angry, and perhaps destabilized while our enemies are emboldened and strengthened.