What does Obama's Syrian mess spell for Israel?

Just as Obama poured forth with endless and empty threats against Damascus, so he is likely to do the same against Tehran

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Jeremy Havardi
On 18 September 2013 18:31

Towards the end of Macbeth, the eponymous hero reflects that life is a tale “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. In the last few months, this has come to be an apt summary of Obama's incompetent approach towards Syria. How else can one describe a policy of allowing red lines to be crossed with impunity and issuing tough rhetoric which is then contradicted by inaction?

The Syrian dictator has every reason to feel protected as he sits behind his powerful Russian protector. Last year he heard that Obama had established red lines for the use of chemical weapons in his country. But then those weapons were used and no action was taken. That passivity gave a green light to committing further barbaric outrages, including the attack in Ghouta that reportedly killed up to 1,500 civilians.

That crime galvanised the President. Obama told the world that action was needed, that a "crime against humanity" had been committed and the international community's credibility was at stake. But then Congress had to be summoned, further delaying even this 'limited' strike and giving Assad vital breathing space to hide his chemical weapons.

While this was happening, the Secretary of State was assuring Assad that any military intervention would be "unbelievably small" anyway, destroying at a stroke any element of deterrence. But the appeasement didn't end there, for, at the eleventh hour, the President kowtowed to the Kremlin and allowed Moscow to dictate the agenda.

The US-Russian deal to strip Assad of his chemical weapons sounds tough and purposeful. If efficiently implemented within a year, it would surely weaken Assad. But it took UNSCOM six years to inspect Saddam's arsenal of WMD and they still concluded that thousands of munitions were unaccounted for. Destroying the weapons could take even longer and prove incredibly expensive.

Remember too that Syria is hardly a stable place right now and, as the civil war rages, there is every opportunity for weapons to be lost or hidden or for the inspectors' work to be impeded. Moreover, Moscow will block any attempt to use force against Assad if he is guilty of non-compliance. He remains a key Russian client and a lynchpin of Moscow's anti-western policy in the Middle East.

Above all, the deal offers the dictator a vital diplomatic lifeline. The White House used to insist that Assad was a "dead man walking" and that he "had to go". Instead Assad has become, according to Eurasia analyst Ayham Kamel, "the key interlocutor for the international community".

Without Assad's approval, there can be no chemical weapons removal, and approval confers legitimacy. The deal is a Russian ploy to allow 'their' man to survive, and America has meekly complied. It is an abject and wholly pathetic surrender of western initiative.

A President whose Syria policy has been marked by such indecision, hesitation and craven surrender now wants Israel to trust in his Iran policy. But this would be utter madness because, in respect of the greatest immediate security threat to the west, Obama has similarly been found wanting. After declaring on multiple occasions that he would not tolerate a nuclear weapon in Iranian hands, Obama has all but closed the door to military action, the only means of preventing that terrifying scenario.

He has dismissed as 'background noise' the many voices calling for a tougher approach, relying instead on punitive sanctions to shift Iran's intransigence. Sanctions have helped to cripple the country's economy but Rouhani, the alleged moderate, insists on his country's right to enrich uranium.

Just as Obama poured forth with endless and empty threats against Damascus and ended up with a maddening compromise suiting only the Russians, so he is likely to do the same against Tehran.

Rouhani is reportedly about to offer the closure of the Fordo enrichment plant as part of a deal to ease sanctions on his country's economy. Whether such a suggestion could be implemented is doubtful – he would need the agreement of Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards. Regardless, the enticing offer gives even more breathing space to the regime as the details are thrashed out in the coming months.

Even if Fordo was closed as part of a grand bargain with the US, it still leaves other vital components of the nuclear infrastructure intact. Such a view is suggested by Obama's recent comment that Iran would need to show its seriousness by agreeing "not to weaponise nuclear power". This is far removed from the basic conditions that Israel has (quite reasonably) demanded. These include the removal of enriched uranium and a halt to plutonium activity. The White House could thus be gearing up for another irresponsible fudge.

The likeliest outcomes are either a nuclear Iran or a compromise in which a reluctant Iranian leadership, desperate to alleviate the pressure of sanctions, offers token concessions to buy time for their nuclear programme. Either way, it is surely rational for Ayatollah Khamenei, surveying the wreckage of Obama's Syria policy, to conclude that nothing worse than sanctions will hit his country.

Above all, the only rational conclusion for Israel's government is that it cannot rely on Washington to stop Iran's nuclear ambitions. A US administration that issues empty threats as a matter of course simply cannot be trusted to confront Israel's key enemy. To take such a gamble would be a gross dereliction of duty.

Thus we must revisit a comment that Netanyahu made on 5th March 2012 in a meeting with the US President. On that day Netanyahu declared that Israel would be "master of its own fate", hinting that an Israeli administration might have to go it alone in tackling the Iranian nuclear threat. With America so badly in retreat, history may prove Netanyahu right.

Jeremy Havardi is a journalist and the author of two books, Falling to Pieces, and The Greatest Briton

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