A friend asked me to comment on Charles Krauthammer's recent column in the Washington Post. The easiest way to get the comments to him was to copy them here. My comments are in bold. Just first impressions.
Syria: It’s not just about freedom
By Charles Krauthammer, Published: February 2Imperial regimes can crack when they are driven out of their major foreign outposts. The fall of the Berlin Wall did not only signal the liberation of Eastern Europe from Moscow. It prefigured the collapse of the Soviet Union itself just two years later.
First problem: Iran as "imperial regime." Not an invalid proposition but certainly not self-evident either.
The fall of Bashar al-Assad’s Syria could be similarly ominous for Iran. The alliance with Syria is the centerpiece of Iran’s 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.
Expanding? Questionable. He's right that Iran upped its direct supply of Hezbollah (Shiite) and Hamas (Sunni, pure opportunistic alliance). But that was before sanctions were also strengthened. Also, it's possible this was a signal that Syria was weakening and Iran filled the vacuum. Also, he exaggerates the Iran-Syria alliance. Yes, Syria has depended on Iran for some time. Definitely an asymmetric alliance, as Krauthammer aludes to later with "client and patron" language. But the Assads have a history (obliterated in meaning by the current behavior, but still there) of pragmatism. They were supportive of Desert Storm, at least enough to not get in our way. The U.S. had opportunities to draw Syria back in. Turkey's role as intermediary between Israel and Syria was moderately successful for some time. But flooding Damascus with a couple mission refugees from the U.S. invasion of Iraq didn't help.
Additionally, Iran exerts growing pressure on Afghanistan to the east and growing influence in Iraq to the west.
Very much a concern. What state would do not do so? I watched a little of the House Intel Comm on cspan yesterday. Petraeus played down their influence in Iraq. Obviously there is cause for concern. GWB gave the world a Shiite government of Iraq comprised of people who spent 20-30 years in Iran. Petraeus played up the Arab-Persian divide and Iraqi nationalism (remember Shiite fought Shiite in the Iran-Iraq war).
Tehran has even extended its horizon to Latin America, as symbolized by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s solidarity tour through Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Cuba.
Couldn't be because Mahmoud's bosses want him out of the country?
Of all these clients, Syria is the most important. It’s the only Arab state openly allied with non-Arab Iran.
True. But how solid is the client's allegiance to the patron?
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 Assad’s Alawites, a heterodox offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Yes. But he errs in not bringing Saudi Arabia into the discussion here. The Iran-Saudi balance of power is what will shape the region to a good degree. He mentions Saudi later but ignores the significance of its role.
He's right to bring up the GCC. Obama has armed them heavily. I recently read that GCC bought $22 billion in weapons from 2001-07. In progress now are deals worth $100 billion, the biggest ticket to Saudi, but spread around a good bit as well. I'll try to confirm the numbers soon. Krauthammer also brushes over the divisions in Iranian leadership. There are three actors -- Ayatollahs (ulema), Revolutionary Guards, and the Government (President and Majlis) competing for power. Hillary Clinton was right a year or so ago to say that it seemed like Iran was becoming more of a military dictatorship than a theocracy. The Guards have inherent advantages.
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.
Another problem with his indiscretion about who's who. If I remember correctly, the mullahs didn't threaten this. One officer in the Revolutionary Guard did, then his bosses walked it back.
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.
Correct. I do question, as was questioned in the Arab Spring, who exactly is in the "Green Revolution." For one thing, the nuclear program is supported by a large majority of Iranians, including many in the opposition.
It’s 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.
Correct. Turkey's role has risen and fallen and may be rising again. Besides the "entente" he mentions, Turkey also played a key role in bringing Israel and Syria into some alignment, but that fell apart in the last year.
How? 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, Assad’s 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 both — so long as we do not compromise with Russia or relent until Assad falls.
This is disingenuous. Plays upon the simplistic notion that diplomacy works this way. "Force the issue"? What does that mean? There are many cross-cutting issues involved in these negotiations. Russia, for example. "Do not compromise." Hunh? Let's draw some connecting lines. Russia's #1 concern is its status as major energy player, which allows it great power status militarily. To both interests, the Black Sea is vital. Too much instability threatens vital interests. The Black Sea fleet (now with a facility at Tarsus, Syria) cannot lose its role here. Now, as for energy, let's look at the real winner in Obama's "reset" policy: Exxon! Huge deal with the Russians for Arctic exploration, with a side deal for Black Sea exploitation. In return, a Russian company can explore/drill in the Gulf of Mexico.
So, no we can't not compromise with the Russians just as they can't not (eventually) compromise with us, whatever that means.
Krauthammer's a smart guy, apparently. When he's on t.v. I have a hard time getting past the smugness. And reading his columns, as I do often, and even realizing the limited amount that can be said in such columns, I have to wonder if he really believes what he writes. Otherwise he either doesn't know or doesn't get just how complex this stuff is, and I doubt that's the case.