How Assad united the Middle East… Against him

In Syria, to steal a Beatles’ lyric, the United States is ‘getting by with a little help from its friends’.


Key US allies in the Middle East – notably Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia – are lining up in support of a military strike against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Just how much help they’ll be willing to provide, however, remains to be seen. 

The closing of ranks over Syria is a stark reversal from a few weeks ago, when Washington was at odds with Jerusalem and Riyadh over the crisis in Cairo. Back then, President Barack Obama’s administration condemned Egypt’s new military-backed government after it launched a bloody crackdown on Islamist protesters, resulting in the deaths of at least 900 people, but found itself with little leverage over Egypt’s generals as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates provided generous aid packages to Egypt in order to offset any potential cuts in US assistance.

With some other regional players expressing support for a military intervention in Syria, however, Washington seems to have rediscovered its sense of purpose in the Middle East. Secretary of State John Kerry laid the foundations for a US military strike a mere five days after an alleged chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime, saying that Obama “believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people.”

The administration’s case for military action against Assad is being bolstered by help from Israel, which provided intelligence that was reportedly vital to the United States in its quick determination that the Syrian regime launched the chemical weapons attack in the eastern Damascus suburbs. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been equally adamant that this attack cannot go unanswered: He said that the use of chemical weapons “must not continue,” and linked the struggle against the Assad regime with Israel’s long-running cold war against Iran. “Assad’s regime has become a full Iranian client and Syria has become Iran’s testing ground,” he said. “Iran is watching and it wants to see what would be the reaction on the use of chemical weapons.”

Other Israeli analysts and officials also worry about the repercussions of Obama failing to defend the “red line” that he set against chemical weapons use last year. “[Israelis] are worried about the erosion of the influence and the impact of the US, because they believe that if that happens it’s bad for Israel,” said Michael Herzog, a retired brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces who specializes in strategic planning.

Israeli analysts doubt, however, that the United States is preparing to intervene decisively to end the Syrian civil war. Rather, they expect a strike intended to hurt Assad enough to deter him from using chemical weapons in the future, not one designed to drive him from power. “It will be something more than the missiles fired by President Clinton into Sudan over ten years ago,” said Israeli commentator Ehud Yaari, referring to the 1998 cruise missile attack on a suspected al Qaeda site. “But [it will be] far less than the American air force in the skies of Syria, like in Yugoslavia.”

Many in the Israeli security establishment remain deeply ambivalent about the outcome in Syria – while they remain hostile to Assad, they are also deeply concerned about the prospect of Islamist radicals taking power in Syria. An array of senior Israeli military officials said in recent interviews that they believed moderate members of the loose-knit rebel alliance had lost ground to al-Qaeda affiliates like Jabhat al-Nusra. Israel has begun building a high-tech fence along its border with Syria – long the country’s quietest – to prevent jihadists from crossing into Israel to carry out terror attacks.

Many in the White House and Pentagon share such fears about Syria’s post-Assad future, which helps to explain the delicate line the administration is trying to tread. On the one hand, the White House wants the strikes to force Assad to think twice about using chemical weapons again. On the other, it doesn’t want to drive Assad out of power or hit him hard enough that he retaliates against American, Israeli, or Gulf targets – potentially dragging Washington into a larger conflict.

It’s not just the Israelis who are pressing for military action against the Syrian regime – Turkey is also fed up with the seeming futility of international diplomatic action. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said yesterday that Ankara would join an international coalition against Assad even if it was not authorized by the UN Security Council.

“We have been waiting for more than two and a half years now for the UN Security Council to act,” said a Turkish diplomat. “All the red lines have already been crossed – over 100,000 people have died, millions of people are displaced…. [T]his last chemical attack was the last straw that made it obvious to us that the international community can no longer afford to wait.”

The Security Council has been paralyzed on Syria since the beginning of the conflict, as Russia and China have vetoed any resolutions targeting Assad. For the Turkish government, enough is enough. “From now on, a failure of the Security Council to act will no longer provide a shield for the Assad regime,” the diplomat said. “After this recent chemical attack, we find ourselves in a different place – the international community’s conscience has been shocked.”

To be sure, it’s far from clear that Turkey’s tough talk will amount to concrete action. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been calling for Assad’s ouster for nearly two years – but hasn’t mounted any strikes into Syria. Turkey’s primary military response to the chaos in Syria has been to open its territory to the flow of weapons and goods to the rebels in northern Syria, and to ask the United States to deploy Patriot missile defense systems along the Turkish-Syrian border for use against a potential Syrian strike into Turkish territory.

The final partner in this troika is Saudi Arabia, a veteran of the anti-Assad cause – but one that has not always used its clout effectively. A recent Wall Street Journal article detailed how Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan has revived the kingdom’s anti-Assad effort, which includes a clandestine joint operations center in Jordan, run with the CIA, that trains moderate Syrian rebels in the hopes they will one day be able to capture Damascus. According to Sen. John McCain, he saw “a dramatic increase in Saudi involvement, hands-on, by Bandar.”

The members of this anti-Assad coalition are not only bound together by their hatred of the Syrian regime – and moral outrage over its use of chemical weapons – but also their mutual antagonism toward its most important ally, Iran. Support from the Islamic Republic and its Lebanese client, Hezbollah, have helped Assad regain the initiative against the rebels in recent months. But it has also led Iran’s enemies to increasingly see Syria as the theater for a proxy war against its regional influence.

“I’ll be very blunt: An Iranian victory in Syria is a major strategic catastrophe from the point of view of Israel, and I think from a Western point of view generally,” said Yaari. “In spite of the fact we have our doubts about the nature of the future regime in Syria, Israel’s attitude is that the devil we don’t know is preferable to the devil we know.”

© 2013, Foreign Policy