The tragedy of Syria from a U.S. national interest perspective is this: immediately after 9/11, the United States should have found a way to end Iranian influence in Syria and bring it into the West's orbit without angering Syria's longtime ally, Russia.
In fact, the U.S. should have bombed the Iranian regime into oblivion (after annihilating Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan instead of allowing the Islamist forces that slaughtered 3,000 Americans on American soil to flee into Pakistan and Iran), teamed with Russia (and China) to defeat a common enemy--radical Islam--and bullied and bribed Syria into making peace with Israel. X billions of dollars would have been a small price to pay to Assad and Co.
Of course, none of that happened. The Bush administration stupidly invaded Iraq, a contained secular enemy that had no weapons of mass destruction and no meaningful ties to Al Qaeda. Bush's blunder ruined the U.S. financially, seriously weakened--perhaps even permanently damaged--the case for future, necessary armed interventions (as opposed to the unnecessary Vietnam and Iraq conflicts), and effectively transformed Iraq into an Iranian satellite. (Bush's monumental mistakes also wrecked the Republican Party and made possible Obama's ascent to power.)
So what now? What is to be done?
That's hard to say. On the one hand, nuclear-arming, Shiite Islamist Iran must not be allowed to establish military and missile bases in Syria, a Sunni-majority state that has been ruled for decades by members of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. On the other hand, Iran's Arab ally, which straddles so many important fault lines, must not be allowed to fall into Islamist hands--the Sunni jihadist threat to Damascus is real and growing. (Israelis who understandably may be rooting for the Syrian regime's imminent downfall should recall that Israel made the mistake of supporting Hamas in its formative years, incorrectly assuming that the Islamist organization could be used to counter the secular PLO without blowing back in Israel's face.)
Notwithstanding the above, there is no denying that the Syrian regime has lost its legitimacy. Though it still has significant domestic support among Alawites and Christians and secular Sunnis, the regime relies mainly on tanks and terror for its continued survival.
Nor can it be denied that the Syrian civil/proxy war has the potential to engulf the entire Middle East in a horrific conflict. The region's waters are both uncharted and roiling; and, given the rapidly deteriorating relations between the U.S. and Russia, there is no telling what can happen.
So a solution must be found--a way to avoid catastrophic conflict while also advancing U.S. interests and safeguarding Israel's security. One possibility: political neutrality for Syria. In theory, Syria could become a neutral, federated state of autonomous, demilitarized provinces divided more or less along ethnic and religious lines with its security guaranteed by the international community. Formal neutrality, albeit with a Western tinge, or tilt, could allow for a continued Russian naval presence in Tartus--Moscow will not abandon its installation on the Mediterranean--and annual payments of $1 billion or so to Russia to make up for the loss of another Russian arms customer after Libya ($4 billion a year in arms sales lost to Russian firms as a result of the NATO-backed, Islamist-led revolution there). Again, a small price to pay….
A Syrian solution that includes Russia would pave the way for ending the Iranian nuclear/missile/terror threat--a vital necessity. The monstrous mullahocracy must go--there is no way around this reality--and Iran's clerical fascist Lebanese subsidiary, Hitlerian Hezbollah, must be eliminated, too. Before it's too late. It should be possible to accomplish these strategic objectives without incurring the wrath of Washington's resurgent rival.
In other words, whereas the road to regime change in Tehran may well run through Damascus, the challenge is how to build and make use of the road without blowing up the Middle East--and blowing back in America's face.
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