Syria, Iran, and Fear of Regional War

Friends, as the situation in Syria deteriorates, it is becoming more and more likely that a major confrontation between Israel and the Iranian and Hizballah forces fighting in Syria and Southern Lebanon will occur. An article in the Times of Israel today quoted Riad Hijab, the former Prime Minister of Syria who fled the country, as saying that the leader of the al-Quds Brigades of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Kassem Suleimani, is functionally running the country. This comes on the heels of a report in the Washington Post that argued that Iran is setting up militias in Syria so as to maintain its influence and effective control of the country should Assad’s regime collapse. Right now, it is estimated that 50,000 Iranian fighters are present in Syria.

Should the regime begin to fall, it is a near certainty that violence will spill over Syria’s borders, potentially into Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan. The United States and Israel have pledged to become involved should Syria’s advanced weaponry be in jeopardy of falling into the wrong hands. This possibility would appear to be increasingly certain and Israel has already launched one airstrike to prevent it. A collapse of the regime could result in a need to conduct a multitude of strikes and could bring either US forces, Israeli forces, or both into direct conflict with Iranian and Hizballah forces in Syria, triggering large scale responses from both Syria and Lebanon, if not also, less likely, from Iran itself. This, not an attempt to restart the peace process, may be the major issue driving the timing of President Obama’s trip to the region as the populations of Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan could come under fire.

For Jordan, the collapse of the regime would have a major impact and fighting could see large numbers of refugees, including Al-Qaeda allied militants, crossing its borders. This article produced by Reuters explains some of Jordan’s concerns.

Iran, while ramping up its efforts to obtain nuclear weapons capability, has also worked to strengthen its relationship with Sudan, which in its weakened economic state has come under Iranian influence, and is seeking to station and potentially train forces there. Sudan provides Iran not only with a southern base from which to supply Hamas and Hizballah as it has been for years now but with a base of operations from which to threaten shipping going through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal to the north.

Additionally, home to Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden for several years during the 1990s, Sudan seems to be an ideal location for Islamist militant bases. While the government of Sudan denies this, there are many reports of Islamist fighters from Mali arriving in different areas of Darfur in western Sudan as they seek refuge to the east. There have also been reports of pro-Syrian regime fighters arriving in Port Sudan for treatment in the hospitals there.

As these events occur in the region, the idea that the United States may remain uninvolved in these conflicts seems not dissimilar to the attitude that the United States could remain uninvolved in the affairs of Europe after World War I. Franklin Delano Roosevelt said it well in his famous Four Freedom’s Speech:

Every realist knows that the democratic way of life is at this moment being’ directly assailed in every part of the world—assailed either by arms, or by secret spreading of poisonous propaganda by those who seek to destroy unity and promote discord in nations that are still at peace…

The assailants are still on the march, threatening other nations, great and small. Therefore, as your President, performing my constitutional duty to “give to the Congress  information of the state of the Union,” I find it, unhappily, necessary to report that the future and the safety of our country and of our democracy are overwhelmingly involved in events far beyond our borders.

President Obama, in his recent State of the Union address, noted that:

In defense of freedom, we will remain the anchor of strong alliances from the Americas to Africa; from Europe to Asia. In the Middle East, we will stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights, and support stable transitions to democracy. The process will be messy, and we cannot presume to dictate the course of change in countries like Egypt; but we can – and will – insist on respect for the fundamental rights of all people.

But the question that must be answered is “What will we do when those citizens who demand their right to democratically elect a government, elect a government that promotes oppression and hatred and does so to our extreme detriment?” If the answer to that question is found in this paragraph, namely that “We cannot presume to dictate the course of change in countries like Egypt,” where an anti-American highly oppressive theocratic regime has now taken power, we will see weakening American influence and the growth of the influence of those hostile to us and to democracy, something that we now see across the Arab world.

Does “we cannot presume to dictate the course of change,” mean that we in fact value the freedom of men to choose to oppress women as much as we do a woman’s freedom and rights? Do we value the freedom of a theocracy to brutally oppress its minorities as much as we do the freedom of the minorities to be different? Perhaps we cannot “dictate” the course of change, but we must influence nations to be friendly toward us, toward our allies, and toward our ideals. If we do not stand up for that which we believe now, at the point when democratic movements may be guided and molded, then we are reasonably likely to be disappointed in their outcomes.

Should we not exert our influence to promote what we believe are necessary ideals now, it is not unlikely that a future American President will find himself or herself standing before Congress uttering similar words to Roosevelt’s, “The future and the safety of our country and of our democracy are overwhelmingly involved in events far beyond our borders,” with real fear that both are in jeopardy. While the messy collapse of the regime in Syria alone might not threaten our future and safety, a tidal wave of governments falling and becoming ones actively hostile to our ideals and committed to combat them certainly would. Iran, Al-Qaeda, and others are actively trying to promote that eventuality.

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