Syria: It’s not just about freedom
The fall of Bashar al-Assadís Syria could be similarly ominous for Iran. The alliance with Syria is the centerpiece of Iranís expanding sphere of influence, a mini-Comintern that includes such clients as Iranian armed and directed Hezbollah, now the dominant power in Lebanon; and Hamas, which controls Gaza and threatens to take the rest of Palestine (the West Bank) from a feeble Fatah.
Additionally, Iran exerts growing pressure on Afghanistan to the east and growing influence in Iraq to the west. Tehran has even extended its horizon to Latin America, as symbolized by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejadís solidarity tour through Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Cuba.
Of all these clients, Syria is the most important. Itís the only Arab state openly allied with non-Arab Iran. This is significant because the Arabs see the Persians as having had centuries-old designs to dominate the Middle East. Indeed, Iranian arms and trainers, transshipped to Hezbollah through Syria, have given the Persians their first outpost on the Mediterranean in 2,300 years.
But the Arab-Iranian divide is not just national/ethnic. It is sectarian. The Arabs are overwhelmingly Sunni. Iran is Shiite. The Arab states fear Shiite Iran infiltrating the Sunni homeland through (apart from Iraq) Hezbollah in Lebanon, and through Syria, run by Assadís Alawites, a heterodox offshoot of Shiism.
Which is why the fate of the Assad regime is geopolitically crucial. It is, of course, highly significant for reasons of democracy and human rights as well. Syrian Baathism, while not as capricious and deranged as the Saddam Hussein variant, runs a ruthless police state that once killed 20,000 in Hama and has killed more than 5,400 during the current uprising.
Human rightsódecencyóis reason enough to do everything we can to bring down Assad. But strategic opportunity compounds the urgency. With its archipelago of clients anchored by Syria, Iran is today the greatest regional threatóto Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states terrified of Iranian nuclear hegemony; to traditional regimes menaced by Iranian jihadist subversion; to Israel, which the Islamic republic has pledged to annihilate; to America and the West, whom the mullahs have vowed to drive from the region.
No surprise that the Arab League, many of whose members are no tenderhearted humanitarians, is pressing hard for Assadís departure. His fall would deprive Iran of an intra-Arab staging area and sever its corridor to the Mediterranean. Syria would return to the Sunni fold. Hezbollah, Tehranís agent in Lebanon, could be next, withering on the vine without Syrian support and Iranian materiel. And Hamas would revert to Egyptian patronage.
At the end of this causal chain, Iran, shorn of key allies and already reeling from economic sanctions over its nuclear program, would be thrown back on its heels. The mullahs are already shaky enough to be making near-suicidal threats of blocking the Strait of Hormuz. The population they put down in the 2009 Green Revolution is still seething. The regime is particularly reviled by the young. And its increasing attempts to shore up Assad financially and militarily have only compounded anti-Iranian feeling in the region.
Itís not just the Sunni Arabs lining up against Assad. Turkey, after a recent flirtation with a Syrian-Iranian-Turkish entente, has turned firmly against Assad, seeing an opportunity to extend its influence, as in Ottoman days, as protector/master of the Sunni Arabs. The alignment of forces suggests a unique opportunity for the West to help finish the job.
First, a total boycott of Syria, beyond just oil and including a full arms embargo.
Second, a flood of aid to the resistance (through Turkey, which harbors both rebel militias and the political opposition, or directly and clandestinely into Syria).
Third, a Security Council resolution calling for the removal of the Assad regime. Russia, Assadís last major outside ally, should be forced to either accede or incur the wrath of the Arab states with a veto.
Force the issue. Draw bright lines. Make clear American solidarity with the Arab League against a hegemonic Iran and its tottering Syrian client. In diplomacy, one often has to choose between human rights and strategic advantage. This is a rare case where we can advance bothóso long as we do not compromise with Russia or relent until Assad falls.
Charles Krauthammer is a columnist for the Washington Post. His email address is email@example.com.
Last updated: 7:48 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012