WASHINGTON - This past week was supposed
to be all about Iran - at least, that's how Israel
and its powerful US lobby, the American Israel
Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), had planned it -
and why the US should prepare to bomb it very,
very soon if its leadership doesn't cave into
Western demands to abandon its nuclear program.
By week's end, however, the most urgent
foreign policy issue with which US policymakers
and their media camp followers were grappling was
whether to bomb Syria first instead.
Remarkably, the sudden deviation was
triggered by Tuesday's dramatic call on the floor
of the senate by Republican Senator John McCain
for the US to provide decisive support to rebels
battling to oust the
regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
only realistic way to do so is with foreign air
power," declared McCain, whose strategy was
swiftly endorsed by his two hawkish
fellow-travellers, Republican Senator Lindsay
Graham and independent Senator Joseph Lieberman.
"The United States should lead an
international effort to protect key population
centres in Syria, especially in the north, through
airstrikes on Assad's forces," he declared,
touching off a vigorous new debate that radiated
from the Capitol to the Pentagon and the White
House about how deeply and how violently to become
involved in yet another predominantly Muslim
Middle Eastern country.
Secretary Leon Panetta rejected McCain's proposal,
the administration appears to be moving closer to
providing some forms of "non-lethal" equipment to
the opposition by week's end.
most remarkable about the move by the "Three
Amigos", as they are sometimes called in part, was
It came just as some 13,000
activists, energized by three days of juicy
anti-Iran red meat dished out by everyone from
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the
top three Republican presidential candidates, as
well as the Republican and Democratic leadership
of both houses of congress, were being bussed from
AIPAC's annual extravaganza at the Washington
Convention Centre to Capitol Hill.
mission was to persuade their elected
representatives that the spinning by the mullahs
of even one centrifuge to enrich uranium on
Iranian soil posed an "existential" threat to
Israel, if not quite yet to the US itself, and was
conference delegate received a folder filled with
detailed talking points topped by a slick,
four-page coloured pamphlet with grim photos of
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Leader Ali Khamenei,
and a missile, complete with launch pad, entitled
"Iranian Nuclear Weapons Capability:
UNACCEPTABLE." No talking points on Syria at
all were included. In fact, out of the literally
scores of breakout briefing sessions that ran
continuously between plenary sessions during the
AIPAC conference, only one dealt directly with
That's why the abrupt change of
subject by the Three Amigos, all staunch advocates
of Israel and great admirers of Netanyahu (whom
McCain and Graham had just met the week before in
Jerusalem after which they publicly deplored
President Barack Obama's failure to align US
policy toward Tehran with their host's), was so
"It was incredibly poor timing
by McCain to call for bombing Syria," observed
Heather Hurlburt, the executive director of the
National Security Network (NSN), a foreign policy
think tank close to the Obama administration. "I
don't know what it looks like to call for bombing
Syria the same week you're calling for bombing
Of course, there is a connection,
and neo-conservatives (whose views are most
reliably represented in the senate by the Three
Amigos) have worked increasingly assiduously at
establishing it in the public mind as Syria has
slowly slid toward civil war over the past year.
The Assad regime, they never cease to
point out, has been Tehran's closest and sometimes
only ally in the Arab world, and its ouster would
constitute a serious setback not only to its
regional reach and influence, but also to another
of Israel's most dangerous foes, Lebanon's
"The end of the Assad regime
would sever Hezbollah's lifeline to Iran,
eliminate a longstanding threat to Israel, bolster
Lebanon's sovereignty and independence, and
inflict a strategic defeat on the Iranian regime,"
McCain argued. "It would be a geopolitical success
of the first order."
In that respect, he
and the neo-conservatives have argued, US military
intervention in Syria would be "very different"
from last year's intervention in Libya, which the
Three Amigos also strongly supported.
addition to the moral and humanitarian concerns on
which Washington, the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization and allied powers justified their
intervention against Muammar Gaddafi, military
action against Assad would also serve US
"strategic and geopolitical interests", McCain
McCain's argument partly echoed
a much-noted New York Times op-ed by a former
director of Israel's Mossad, Efrain Halevy, who,
significantly, has been one of the main figures in
that country's national security establishment who
has publicly questioned the wisdom of an Israeli
attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.
Entitled "Iran's Achilles Heel", the
article argued that Iran's eviction from Syria
would "visibly dent its domestic and international
prestige, possibly forcing a haemorrhaging regime
in Tehran to suspend its nuclear policies. This
would be a safer and more rewarding option than
the military one."
Unlike McCain, however,
Halevy did not recommend direct military
intervention in Syria, suggesting instead that
Assad would go the minute that Russia, Assad's
main arms supplier and diplomatic protector, was
persuaded to drop its support, a strategy that the
Obama administration appears to be pursuing.
Although individual members have
occasionally spoken hopefully about Assad's
demise, Netanyahu's government has mostly kept a
discreet silence on Syria. This reflects, among
other things, concerns that chaos and civil war in
such a heavily armed state, the possible
ascendance by the Muslim Brotherhood or more
radical Islamist forces, or both, could prove more
threatening than continued rule by the Assad
dynasty, which, despite its support for Hezbollah,
has kept its common border with Israel quiet for
almost 40 years.
It has been far more
comfortable focusing international attention on
Iran's nuclear programme and the necessity for the
US to take military action to stop it or to at
least give Israel the wherewithal to do the deed.
That was supposed to be the message coming out of
the AIPAC conference and amplified by friendly
Republican presidential candidates this week.
But for US neo-conservatives, who
generally feel they know better than Israel's
government what is in its interests, the Assads
have long been seen as Public Enemy Number One,
and their present weakness represents the best
opportunity in decades.
ultimate goal in the strategy laid out in the
infamous 1996 "Clean Break" paper prepared by
prominent neo-conservatives for Netanyahu on the
eve of his first term as prime minister was
Syria's destabilization. The overthrow of Iraqi
president Saddam Hussein - for which the paper was
best known - was simply one step toward that aim.
During the 2006 war with Hezbollah,
neo-conservatives encouraged Israel to expand its
military campaign into Syria, and, more than any
other identifiable political faction, they have
called consistently for Washington to provide
material and military assistance - as former
Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz did in a
long column in the Wall Street Journal did this
week - to the opposition for many months.