America has faced crises in the Middle East ever since the Barbary pirates attacked U.S. merchant ships sailing the Mediterranean Sea during the first decades of the 19th century. It took the U.S. Navy to put an end to the raids.
For decades following that experience, American interests were represented mainly by clergy bringing “the Word” to the various corners of the Ottoman Empire. After the discovery of oil in Arabia in the late 1930s, American involvement has been virtually constant, continuing with the birth of Israel in 1948 and throughout the past 63 years of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Now it faces two concurrent and enormous problems: Iran and Syria.
The bloodbath in Syria is matched by the persistent inability of the world to develop a way to reduce or eliminate it. The horror spreads with no end in sight. Humanitarians and human rights activists bemoan the suffering, with no acceptable solution yet to appear on the horizon.
President Bashar al-Assad will not and cannot tolerate a democratic system with participation from rival factions. Sadly, the best scenario to reduce the suffering is for the West and the Arab League to find a way to bring Syria back to the status quo ante. Among the countries affected by the Arab Spring, there are no realistic movements to create a secular, liberal democracy.
Halting the violence and stabilizing the regime might be the best that the West can expect (despite New York Times columnist Tom Friedman’s assertions to the contrary). Sadly, the slaughter in rebellious Hama committed by Assad’s father in the 1980s — documented by Friedman, among others — are being replicated throughout Syria by his son.
The one positive outcome might be if Hizbullah and some of the more radical Muslim groups become uncomfortable in Syria, as Hamas apparently already has. If Iranian influence could be reduced, that too would be positive. On the other hand, if Al-Qaida in Iraq gains influence or if the Muslim Brotherhood can assert power over the disillusioned rebels, the Assad regime’s Russian and Chinese friends and the Iranians will not be happy. Only an even more repressive police state then will be able to stay in power, barring Assad’s assassination.
In Iran the problem is not humanitarian as much as it is geopolitical and strategic. Three possibilities loom concerning Iran’s nuclear ambitions: Iran accedes to full international inspection, Israel and/or the United States attack the Iranian nuclear installations, or Iran successfully tests a nuclear weapon. The first choice is unlikely given the current regime in Tehran. The third option is extremely scary, given the likelihood of nuclear proliferation by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other players in the Middle East. The second risks an Iranian counter-attack resulting in enormous casualties.
In both of these growing crises, the United States appears largely helpless. In the case of Syria, the U.S. is, as the French paper Le Figaro put it, impotent. Even if the Russians and Chinese come to agree with the West, the United Nations will not go into Syria. It will leave that task to the Arab world, whose leaders have proven that they will not intervene against fellow Arab states, even when regimes are attacking innocent women and children with abandon.
In the case of Iran, the United States — unlike Israel — has a bit more time, space, and power. It apparently does not want Iran to join the nuclear club because of the threat to Israel and the region. An attack on Iran would likely draw the U.S. into an undesirable confrontation. It undoubtedly will produce very substantial casualties, alienate America from some of her allies, be largely unpopular at home, and cause economic havoc for the Obama administration as it faces a difficult reelection campaign.
For America, Syria is a humanitarian problem while for Israel, it is also a tactical problem. For America, Iran’s going nuclear is a strategic problem while for Israel, it could be an existential one.