The drawdown of U.S. diplomats from Lebanon and Turkey is a reminder that the Syrian crisis is in the end not about Syria, but Iran. Obama’s threat to “punish” Syria is stirring up waves in Tehran, because the loss of Syria would isolate Hezbollah and leave it vulnerable to destruction by Sunni forces.
Syria was, in strategic terms, Obama’s answer to Iraq. At the outset of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I wrote that Bush went into Iraq seeking to “kill the chicken to scare the Sunni monkey” — warn off al-Qaeda’s terror sponsors — but also in search of the key to Iran. Obama, by contrast, has another formulation. He is seeking to use the Sunnis in order to turn the key to Iran. In this way he hopes to solve the nuclear problem, and perhaps to neuter Hezbollah as well.
As always, the enemy gets to apply his counter-strategy. In the case of Iraq, both Sunni and Shi’a militants were sent by the thousands into Iraq in order to drive America out. It didn’t work, but the political consequences may have convinced Obama never to try “boots on the ground.” He rose to power on the politics of pledging not to do it. Once in the White House, he chose to employ only proxy Sunni forces in the campaign against Iran.
But again the enemy is countering, this time not by sending its militias to drive out American troops that aren’t in deployment but by widening the war. The Bush approach made Iraq the designated battleground. That was bad news for Iraq, but good news for everyone else. The Obama approach seemed fine at first, but it inevitably meant the problem would spread to Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Turkey.
Two million Syrians are now refugees in bordering countries. They are the most visible proof of the adage that nothing comes for free. If the Obama approach leveraged the sectarian and ethnic schisms to raise proxy levies, the hidden price was to raise the probability of civil wars. The unacknowledged cost of “leading from behind” was losing control and widening the war. A battle of the proxies would become exactly that: a battle of the proxies.
One concrete indication of this strikeback reported in the Wall Street Journal was messages from Tehran ordering an attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Iraq in the event of a punitive bombing of Syria:
The U.S. has intercepted an order from Iran to militants in Iraq to attack the U.S. Embassy and other American interests in Baghdad in the event of a strike on Syria, officials said, amid an expanding array of reprisal threats across the region.
Military officials have been trying to predict the range of possible responses from Syria, Iran, and their allies. U.S. officials said they are on alert for Iran’s fleet of small, fast boats in the Persian Gulf, where American warships are positioned. U.S. officials also fear Hezbollah could attack the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.
Unfortunately, the biggest enemy of the apparent Obama strategy — if it can be so termed — was Obama himself.