Where Does It End?

At least one senior US government official strongly disagrees with the view expressed by this writer that it is the Iran factor—the desire to achieve and protect the nuclear deal—that has stayed the hand of President Obama from using limited military means to protect Syrian civilians from Assad regime atrocities: mass homicide that has had enormously negative humanitarian and political consequences. The official asserted that “the issue of Iran” has not arisen in official administration discussions, and what really constrains the president from acting militarily to end Assad’s mass murder free ride are the following unanswered questions: if I do X, Y, and Z, where does it end? Is it Iraq 2003 all over again?

The view here is that Iran and the nuclear deal do indeed constrain the president, and the ‘where does it end’ query is an excuse and a misleading talking point, albeit one convincingly impressed upon senior staff. ‘Where does it end’ does not, after all, stop the administration from putting American military boots on the ground in Iraq and eastern Syria. One hopes it would not arise at all if a NATO ally finds itself on the receiving end of Russian aggression. Likewise, there is no ‘where does it end clause’ in the mutual defense treaty with Japan. Only when the issue is one of throwing a spanner into the Assad regime mass murder machine does the question arise. And it arose long before Russian military intervention came into play.

It arises because of the key role played by Iran in supporting Assad and Assad’s collective punishment approach to political survival. No doubt the senior official with whom we spoke has not had a ‘we’ve got to keep Iran on board’ discussion with the president. No doubt the subject of sacrificing Syrians, the interests of their neighbors, and those of American allies in Europe for the sake of not alienating Iran has never been on the agenda of high-level interagency meetings. There are some things presidents, for better or worse, just ‘know.’

Lincoln, for example, knew that emancipation was a key to preserving the Union: he did not encourage cabinet debates on the subject. Franklin Roosevelt knew that sooner or later America would be involved in another global war: he did not facilitate public discussion of the matter. George W. Bush knew that the invasion of Iraq would produce a quick and relatively painless victory: his talking points, however, focused on weapons of mass destruction and on democracy in the Middle East. Strongly held presidential beliefs—the good, bad, and ugly—are sometimes not subjected to the spotlight of in-house or public scrutiny. A conclusion has, in effect, already been reached.

The obstacle to mitigating and frustrating Assad’s mass murder agenda seems to focus on the position the issue occupies on the president’s list of foreign policy priorities. Despite the horrific humanitarian toll and the political impact on friends and allies, Syria does not rate high enough in the priority scale to merit the protection of Syrian civilians from regime aerial bombing and artillery shelling. Another president, looking at the same set of facts and consequences, might well conclude that the Assad regime should face and pay a price every time it elects to target residential areas for mass casualty atrocities. That other president might well articulate the inadmissibility of civilian slaughter to his or her defense secretary and ask for options that could exact the requisite price: cruise missile strikes on airbases and on artillery formations come to mind.

Yet as matters currently stand no sense of urgency with respect to Assad regime mass murder exists. It existed briefly when the regime used chemical weaponry to kill 1,400 civilians, and then it went away. But now administration officials use ‘where does it end’ formulations to justify inaction. ‘What do we do if we essentially ground Assad’s air force and he ramps up artillery shelling of civilian neighborhoods? Do we then target an artillery formation? Where does it end?’ In this way escalatory dominance passes seamlessly from the planet’s only military superpower to a violently corrupt family and its murderous entourage.

Aides to the president, having drunk the Kool Aid of ‘where does it end,’ conflate disruption of mass murder with invasion and occupation. This explains, perhaps, why the White House press spokesperson consistently accuses those who criticize administration passivity of wanting to replicate Iraq 2003 in Syria. When the central talking point implies that to do anything at all might lead to invasion and occupation, how difficult is it for Mr. Josh Earnest to say that critics of administration policy really want to own Syria and all of its daunting problems?

The view here remains that Iran is at the root of this nonsense. An administration trying to keep the nuclear accord on track and hoping that it opens the door to a less violent, less sectarian, and more neighborly Iran is reluctant to cross Tehran in Syria. Yes, some Syrian rebel units receive American assistance and some employ it well: particularly when they are not being bombed and strafed by Russian aircraft. But smacking Assad hard—and repeatedly if necessary—to make his habit of slaughtering civilians something other than a cost-free exercise—this is where the administration freezes. And the consequences have been horrific.

Still, asking ‘where does it end’ is far from a mortal sin. It is a valid question, one that might be usefully applied in any number of ways. Where does it end when an American president calls on Bashar al-Assad to step aside and then does nothing to facilitate his departure? Where does it end when a red line is drawn and then erased, all under the watchful gaze of a cynically opportunistic and violence-prone Russian president? Where does it end when mass homicide fuels a migrant crisis that roils and potentially wrecks the politics of Western Europe and North America? Where does it end for defenseless Syrian men, women, and children abandoned to the cruel ministrations of Assad, Putin, and Khamenei? Where does it end?

Frederic C. Hof is director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Photo: A boy rides a bicycle near rubble of damaged buildings in the rebel held al-Maadi district of Aleppo, Syria, August 31, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail