Fine. But such actions don’t warrant adjectives like “unprecedented.” You might try asking Saddam about sanctions. There are plenty of precedents. Sanctions can bite, even against a big, rich country like Iran, and they carry an unmistakable political rebuke. But they are not a silver bullet, as my tireless colleague Mark Dubowitz likes to say, and there is no case, so far as I know, where sanctions have forced a hostile regime to either reform or “go.” And the journalists have been told as much: “Though the moves may not have any immediate impact on the Syrian regime’s behavior, officials hope it sends a powerful signal that Assad is no longer welcome in the international community.”
So we’re hitting Assad with words and actions to “send a powerful signal.” That’s where we’re at, at least officially and openly. And it’s a good thing. I’ve been calling for it for months. Those signals matter, as we learned from Soviet dissidents in and after the latter years of the Cold War. When Reagan gave his Evil Empire speech, it had a real effect inside the Soviet Empire, and previous declarations of “x must go” have proven consequential as well. Just ask Hosni Mubarack. Or Muammar Qadaffi.
But it’s not enough to send signals; if we’re going to be taken seriously, we have to support the nonviolent revolution under way in Syria, and also in its patron state, Iran. For there is little doubt that the slaughter in Syria has been greatly assisted, and perhaps even micromanaged, from Tehran. Iranian sharpshooters are hard at work, gunning down Syrian protesters. Chinese-trained Iranian cyber experts have taught Assad’s security forces how to block the social networks, and track down users. Syria has created a new domestic security force explicitly modeled on Iran’s hated Basij, and there are thousands of Quds Force officers and killers in Syria, aiding, abetting and encouraging the Syrian Army, and doing a bit of slaughter on their own.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei knows the stakes are very high in Syria, both because it would inspire the Iranian opposition to challenge him more openly, and because it would deprive the Iranian state of the Syrian base of its most important terrorist proxies, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas. A few weeks ago he warned the Turks that if Iran were forced to choose between Syria and Turkey, he would choose Syria. And not a day goes by without some high official in Tehran warning the world of very dire consequences if anyone acts against Assad.
Whatever Obama may think, and whatever Hillary may say, we are now at war with the Assad regime, and there is now an added dimension to the thirty-plus year war that the Islamic Republic of Iran declared in 1979. Do we have a strategy to win that war? For extras: there are other members of the Syriana axis of malevolence. Venezuela, for one, and Russia for another. The two cases are enormously different, needless to say, but if we’re going to war, we’d best have a clear view of the full battlefield.
Finally, as others have cautioned, it’s always possible to make bad things even worse. If Assad survives, it will further confirm the region’s conviction that Obama is a wimp, although the fall of Qadaffi would mitigate things at least a bit, at least for a while. Moreover, if Assad survives, the world will see it as an Iranian victory and an American defeat. And the world will be right. Moreover again, the “new Syria” might turn out to be even more hostile to us than the old one. I tend to doubt this, but I doubt that we know for sure, or even for probable…
We should not want Libya 4.0 in Syria and Iran. We should not want to send NATO forces into those countries, a move that would be morally and strategically wrong. Obama was right when he said that such decisions should be made by the people of the countries in question. But he failed to pronounce the next sentence: “they have indeed decided: they do not want their regime, and so we will do what we can to help them get there.”