Belmont Club

The New Year Opens in the Middle East

Whatever else 2012 turns out to be, it is already shaping up as a year of crisis in the Middle East.

Foreign Policy says that the Obama administration is secretly preparing “to assist the Syrian opposition, including gaming out the unlikely option of setting up a no-fly zone in Syria and preparing for another major diplomatic initiative.”  State now accepts that the Assad regime is doomed and the time has come to lay contingency plans .

the administration does see the status quo in Syria as unsustainable. The Bashar al Assad regime is a “dead man walking,” State Department official Fred Hof said this month. So the administration is now ramping up its policymaking machinery on the issue. After several weeks of having no top-level administration meetings to discuss the Syria crisis, the National Security Council (NSC) has begun an informal, quiet interagency process to create and collect options for aiding the Syrian opposition, two administration officials confirmed to The Cable.

The process, led by NSC Senior Director Steve Simon, involves only a few select officials from State, Defense, Treasury, and other relevant agencies. The group is unusually small, presumably to prevent media leaks, and the administration is not using the normal process of Interagency Policy Committee (IPC), Deputies Committee (DC), or Principals Committee (PC) meetings, the officials said

But they are late to the party and the FP reported an administration wracked by diplomatic infighting,  with parts of the bureaucracy apparently forging ahead behind a cloud of leaks following “several weeks of having no top-level” involvement in the issue.

The reason given for its slow movement was caution.  “What happens in Libya stays in Libya, but that is not going to happen in Syria. The stakes are higher … Due to the incredible and far-reaching ramifications of the Syrian problem set, people are being very cautious,” an official said.

“The criticism could be we’re not doing enough to change the status quo because we’re leading from behind. But the reason we are being so cautious is because when you look at the possible ramifications, it’s mindboggling.” …

A power vacuum in the country, loose weapons of mass destruction, a refugee crisis, and unrest across the region are just a few of the problems that could attend the collapse of the Assad regime …

But if the time for action was yesterday, bureaucratic turf wars within the administration made it hard to even send medical supplies to Syrian oppositionists.

This summer, when the issue of sending emergency medical equipment into Syria came up in a formal interagency meeting, disputes over jurisdiction stalled progress on the discussion, officials told The Cable. No medical aid was sent.

So for now, the administration is content to let the Arab League monitoring mission play out and await its Jan. 20 report. The officials said that the administration hopes to use the report to begin a new diplomatic initiative in late January at the U.N. Security Council to condemn Assad and authorize direct assistance to the opposition.

The same tentative approach was evident in the administration’s approach to Israel’s concern about Iranian nuclear weapons. Eli Lake reports that “the Obama administration is trying to assure Israel privately that it would strike Iran militarily if Tehran’s nuclear program crosses certain ‘red lines’ — while attempting to dissuade the Israelis from acting unilaterally.”  The nuanced sophistication of the administration is apparently driving Israel crazy.

The stakes are immensely high, and the distrust that Israelis feel toward the president remains a complicating factor …

The lack of trust between the Israeli and American leaders on Iran has been a sub-rosa tension in the relationship since 2009. Three U.S. military officials confirm to The Daily Beast that analysts attached to the Office of the Secretary of Defense are often revising estimates trying to predict what events in Iran would trigger Prime Minister Netanyahu to authorize a military attack on the country’s nuclear infrastructure. Despite repeated requests going back to 2009, Netanyahu’s government has not agreed to ask the United States for permission or give significant advanced warning of any pending strike.

Fortunately Wendy Sherman and Robert Einhorn of State have been in Israel to clarify matters, specifically to agree on “what the triggers — called ‘red lines’ in diplomatic parlance — would be to justify a pre-emptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.” Unfortunately Iran — not just the US and Israel — get to vote on what constitutes a trigger. Recently Iran has tested cruise missiles aimed at demonstrating its capability to interdict the Straits of Hormuz.

Another problem area for the administration is in a country that should have been a strong base and ally in the region: Iraq.  The country may now be on the brink of civil war, an event that could easily merge into the conflict in neighboring Syria and Iran. Fred and Kimberly Kagan write: “The reemergence of civil war in Iraq would be disastrous for the United States and its allies.”

For the crisis in Iraq is still unfolding, and the United States continues to have a huge stake in the outcome. The question of the moment is not “Who lost Iraq?” but rather “Is Iraq definitely lost?” …

Provincial councils in three of the four principal Sunni provinces (Anbar, Diyala, and Salahaddin) have declared their intention to form autonomous federal regions similar to the Kurdish Regional Government, in accord with the relevant provisions of the Iraqi constitution. Maliki has angrily denied that they have any such right, and has dispatched security forces to Diyala to prevent secessionist activities. Diyala has always been among the provinces most fraught with sectarian tension, and this political escalation is mirrored there by the reemergence of local militias, including Moktada al-Sadr’s Jaysh al Mahdi, preparing for sectarian violence. With both the Sunni political leadership and local Sunni groups seceding from or being driven out of the government, the stage is set for a return to sectarian civil war …

The reemergence of civil war in Iraq would be disastrous for the United States and its allies. It would be an enormous political and moral defeat for the United States and could rapidly expand to spark a regional conflict with the Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia confronting Iran and its proxies in Mesopotamia. It would also very likely shock the oil market, which has been pricing in expected increases in Iraq’s oil production that will very likely be delayed, possibly significantly. Considering that the Obama administration had accepted the European position against sanctioning Iran’s Central Bank for fear that rising oil prices could undermine fragile economic recoveries, the prospect of falling Iraqi oil production should also raise concerns about the well-being of the global economy. State fracture or collapse in Iraq, finally, would create conditions favorable to the reemergence of both Sunni and Shiite militias and terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Yet the chances of such a civil war are greater than ever.  The causes of the dramatic events in the Middle East will be debated by historians, but what seems abundantly clear is that 2012 promises to stretch American military and diplomatic strength to the limit.


The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $3.99, print $9.99

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