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Why the Neocon Clamor For Intervention in Syria Is About Israeli Regional Dominance

A desire to make Obama look weak and the specter of a new Middle East where Israel faces more regional pressure are main factors behind the neoconservative push for intervention.
 
 
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Senators Lieberman and McCain at a Munich security conference.
Photo Credit: Kai Mork/Wikimedia Commons

 
 
 
 

As fighting in Syria continues to rage, the Obama administration's wait-and-see approach to the conflict is coming under increasing assault. Not coincidentally, the advocates for US intervention in Syria are represented by a coalition of the same strange bedfellows that pushed for an invasion of Iraq a decade ago: neoconservatives and liberal hawks. And, like the Iraqi misadventure, their calls are guided by misconceptions, a lack of understanding of the region and a blurring of US, global political and Israeli interests.

The calls are having some effect, as President Obama recently threatened intervention for the first time, citing as his red line the Syrian government's possible use of chemical weapons in the fighting. The crucial question is why the interventionists, who do not have a track record of humanitarian compassion but rather one for cynical rhetoric that couches larger geopolitical goals in the language of humanitarianism, are determined to see a U.S. presence in Syria.

There are, to be sure, reasons given that go beyond concern for the innocent lives already lost and the many more at risk in the Syrian conflict. In a recent op-ed, senators John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), all prominent critics of Obama's foreign policy, gave a few:

"Our lack of active involvement on the ground in Syria also means that, when the Assad regime finally does fall, the Syrian people are likely to feel little goodwill toward the United States…the United States has significant national security interests at stake in Syria. These include preventing the use or transfer of the regime’s massive chemical- and biological-weapons stockpiles— a real and growing danger — and ensuring that al-Qaeda and its violent brethren are unable to secure a new foothold in the heart of the Middle East."

These claims of US interests can be easily dismissed. The issue of "goodwill" is unlikely to be a factor. In general, countries act according to their perceived interests, not because they feel some moral debt to one another, as intelligence expert Paul Pillar points out. In this case, many of the parties involved in the Syrian rebellion are not going to be well-disposed toward the US no matter what. The popular forces -- those Syrians who started the uprising and were fighting for the freedom of their country -- have longstanding grievances against the United States, particularly its tacit support of Israel's capture and unrecognized annexation of the Golan Heights. The more sectarian and nationalist groups are certain to resist any hint of US influence, even if they are willing to accept US aid during a fight where they are severely outgunned. As Israel has been aware from the beginning, there is little chance that any new Syrian regime will be more disposed toward peace with Israel, a sine qua non for renewed relations with the United States.

The Syrian weapons stockpile is an obvious concern, but there's no reason to believe the threat is any greater in a Syria that is free of Assad who, after all, is described by these same people as a lynchpin in the "export of terror" that Iran, Hezbollah and others partake in. The potential partners could change, but the issue remains largely the same. In any case, this is actually an area where local actors, like Israel or Turkey, would be better equipped to handle this than the US would.

Finally, we must think that the good senators surely noticed that it was America's presence in Iraq that created the "foothold (for) al-Qaeda and its violent brethren." Yet they urge the same course in Syria.

Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times cites Clinton administration officials Madeleine Albright and William Perry and Anne-Marie Slaughter, who all echo the reasoning of the Republican hawks, though with less ambitious goals of no-fly zones, anti-tank and anti-aircraft cover and aid to Syrian Free Army commanders who protect civilians. Again, the reasoning is only sound if American motives are purely humanitarian.

What else might be motivating these interventionists of different stripes? Well, they have mentioned it: regional stability. And this, for the Clintonites as well as the neocons, is intimately entwined with Israeli security.

In this case, the concern that fighting will spread to Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan doesn't hold up under scrutiny. Not that violence can't spill over into those countries; in Lebanon's case, it already has. But internal conflicts over the issue of ousting Assad are not likely to significantly add to already existing instabilities in those countries--at least not to crisis proportions. No, it is Israel's concerns that are motivating the pressure on Obama to intervene.

Alex Fishman, Israel's leading military analyst, describes what he calls Israel's "nightmare scenario": "For Israel, the day after Assad is a critical matter. Muslim Brotherhood on the Egypt border, Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza (Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood), Muslim Brotherhood on the Syria border, Hezbollah on the Lebanon border – this is a nightmare that could materialize."

Indeed it could. A highly placed Arab diplomat told me that Turkey was working to promote the Muslim Brotherhood's role in Syria in exchange for their cooperation in ensuring that the Syrian Kurds do not press for autonomy, as occurred in Iraq.

And Fishman is correct about this being a nightmare on several levels. Surely most people will read this as a threat of violence all along Israel's various borders, and that is certainly a very real concern. But this has yet to materialize with Egypt, as the fledgling Egyptian government has worked to contain the violence in the Sinai and has shown no interest in resuming the pre-Sadat belligerence that characterized their relations with Israel. That indicates that the threat of violence is not all that Israel is worried about.

Just as much as any possibility of cross-border attacks from multiple directions, the notion of popular Islamist governments in Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and Gaza must also be worrying Israeli strategists. Far from normalizing relations with Israel, which has been the trend for most Arab leaders since the mid-'70s, these countries will no longer play the diplomatic game, and could form a common bond to demand Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territories.

They could refrain from violence and merely increase the diplomatic pressure. And, especially if such an effort involved Turkey, this could significantly raise the cost to the United States of its "special relationship" with Israel, a relationship that already carries far more cost than benefit and is only sustained by massive domestic political and financial pressure in the US.

This is where concern over future US policy is coming in, manifesting as worry over having to shift away from an Israel-centric regional policy. Consider the words of Danielle Pletka of the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI): "Washington must stop subcontracting Syria policy to the Turks, Saudis and Qataris. They are clearly part of the anti-Assad effort, but the United States cannot tolerate Syria becoming a proxy state for yet another regional power. "

Pletka is not concerned about adversary nations, but US allies. The reason is that these allies are all increasingly realizing that they can no longer afford to play ball with Israel's occupation and stonewalling, not in the new Arab world. And, of course, Pletka is not hoping for an independent Syria, but one that is beholden to the United States.

There are legitimate questions as to whether US intervention would do more harm than good in Syria, as well as what consequences a US presence in Syria might have on many fronts, starting, of course, with Iran. But there are also important questions regarding the potential for US intervention to fuel the conflict and whether the US is not stretching an already taxed military capacity. It is hard to see enough potential for US gains, from any view of purely self-interested US policy, to outweigh the risks of US action, especially the sort of unilateral and expansive action being urged by the neoconservatives.

It can perhaps be argued that some of the neoconservative argument is based on simply wanting to make President Obama look weak in foreign policy, as was the theme in this op-ed by former neoconservative ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton. But surely that does not motivate the liberal or centrist critics of Obama's Syria policy. But the specter of a new Middle East, where Israel faces more pressure and is even more of a burden on the United States, could well be such a motivator.

Mitchell Plitnick is the former director of the U.S. Office of B'Tselem and former co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace.

 
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