BY JAMES P. RUBIN
We're not done with the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran. Given that the current round of negotiations with the world's major powers will not fundamentally change Iran's nuclear program, the question of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities is likely to return to center stage later this year. In addition to hard-headed diplomacy and economic sanctions, there is an important step the United States can take to change Israel's calculations -- helping the people of Syria in their battle against President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
Iran's nuclear program and Syria's civil war may seem unconnected, but in fact they are inextricably linked. Israel's real fear -- losing its nuclear monopoly and therefore the ability to use its conventional forces at will throughout the Middle East -- is the unacknowledged factor driving its decision-making toward the Islamic Republic. For Israeli leaders, the real threat from a nuclear-armed Iran is not the prospect of an insane Iranian leader launching an unprovoked nuclear attack on Israel that would lead to the annihilation of both countries. It's the fact that Iran doesn't even need to test a nuclear weapon to undermine Israeli military leverage in Lebanon and Syria. Just reaching the nuclear threshold could embolden Iranian leaders to call on their proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, to attack Israel, knowing that their adversary would have to think hard before striking back.
That is where Syria comes in. It is the strategic relationship between the Islamic Republic and the Assad regime that makes it possible for Iran to undermine Israel's security. Over the three decades of hostility between Iran and Israel, a direct military confrontation has never occurred -- but through Hezbollah, which is sustained and trained by Iran via Syria, the Islamic Republic has proven able to threaten Israeli security interests.
The collapse of the Assad regime would sunder this dangerous alliance. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, arguably the most important Israeli decision-maker on this question, recently told CNN's Christiane Amanpour that the Assad regime's fall "will be a major blow to the radical axis, major blow to Iran.... It's the only kind of outpost of the Iranian influence in the Arab world ... and it will weaken dramatically both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza."
The rebellion in Syria has now lasted more than a year. The opposition is not going away, and it is abundantly clear that neither diplomatic pressure nor economic sanctions will force Assad to accept a negotiated solution to the crisis. With his life, his family, and his clan's future at stake, only the threat or use of force will change the Syrian dictator's stance. Absent foreign intervention, then, the civil war in Syria will only get worse as radicals rush in to exploit the chaos there and the spillover into Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey intensifies.
U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has been understandably wary of engaging in an air operation in Syria similar to the campaign in Libya, for three main reasons. Unlike the Libyan opposition forces, the Syrian rebels are not unified and do not hold territory. The Arab League has not called for outside military intervention as it did in Libya. And the Russians, the longtime patron of the Assad regime, are staunchly opposed.
Libya was an easier case. But other than the laudable result of saving many thousands of Libyan civilians from Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime, it had no long-lasting consequences for the region. Syria is harder -- but success there would be a transformative event for the Middle East. Not only would another ruthless dictator succumb to mass popular opposition, but Iran would no longer have a Mediterranean foothold from which to threaten Israel and destabilize the region.
A successful intervention in Syria would require substantial diplomatic and military leadership from the United States. Washington should start by declaring its willingness to work with regional allies like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to organize, train, and arm Syrian rebel forces. The announcement of such a decision would, by itself, likely cause substantial defections from the Syrian military. Then, using territory in Turkey and possibly Jordan, U.S. diplomats and Pentagon officials could start strengthening and unifying the opposition. Once the opposition knows real outside help is on the way, it should be possible over time to build a coherent political leadership based on the Syrian National Council as well as a manageable command and control structure for the Free Syrian Army, both of which are now weak and divided. This will be difficult and time-consuming, but we should remember that the Syrian civil war is now destined to go on for years, whether the outside world intervenes or not.
A second step worth serious consideration is to secure international support for a coalition air operation. Russia will never support such a mission, so there is no point operating through the U.N. Security Council. And given the reluctance of some European states, NATO may be difficult as well. Therefore, this operation will have to be a unique combination of Western and Middle East countries. Given Syria's extreme isolation within the Arab League, it should be possible to gain strong support from most Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia and Turkey. U.S. leadership is indispensable, since most of the key countries will follow only if Washington leads.
Some worry that U.S. involvement risks a confrontation with Russia. However, the Kosovo example -- where NATO went to war against another Russian ally, while Moscow did little more than complain -- shows otherwise. In that case, Russia had genuine ethnic and political ties to the Serbs, which don't exist between Russia and Syria. Managing Russia's reaction to outside intervention will be difficult but should not be exaggerated.
Arming the Syrian opposition and creating a coalition air force to support them is a low-cost, high-payoff approach. Whether an air operation should just create a no-fly zone that grounds the regimes' aircraft and helicopters or actually conduct air to ground attacks on Syrian tanks and artillery should be the subject of immediate military planning. And as Barak, the Israeli defense minister, also noted, Syria's air defenses may be better than Libya's but they are no match for a modern air force.
The larger point is that as long as Washington stays firm that no U.S. ground troops will be deployed, à la Kosovo and Libya, the cost to the United States will be limited. Victory may not come quickly or easily, but it will come. And the payoff will be substantial. Iran would be strategically isolated, unable to exert its influence in the Middle East. The resulting regime in Syria will likely regard the United States as more friend than enemy. Washington would gain substantial recognition as fighting for the people in the Arab world, not the corrupt regimes.
With the Islamic Republic deprived of its gateway to the Arab world, the Israelis' rationale for a bolt from the blue attack on its nuclear facilities would diminish. A new Syrian regime might eventually even resume the frozen peace talks regarding the Golan Heights.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah would be cut off from its Iranian sponsor, since Syria would no longer be a transit point for Iranian training, assistance, and missiles. All these strategic benefits combined with the moral purpose of saving tens of thousands of civilians from murder at the hands of the Assad regime -- some 12,000 have already been killed, according to activists -- make intervention in Syria a calculated risk, but still a risk worth taking.
With the veil of fear now lifted, the Syrian people are determined to fight for their freedom. America can and should help them -- and by doing so help Israel and help reduce the risk of a far more dangerous war between Israel and Iran.
-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 04/06/2012
-James P. Rubin was assistant secretary of state during the Bill Clinton administration