Syria at center stage, Iran in the wings

Syria at center stage, Iran in the wings

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

On Yom Kippur, the word most heard by congregants — after “sin,” that is — was Syria. Rabbis and congregants were confounded, scared, and confused about what the Syrian civil war held for America and Israel. Rabbis everywhere no doubt reported to their congregants inside information which they, personally, received from high-level analysts who gave them deep insight into what was transpiring in Syria, what would likely develop in Syria, and what it might mean for Israel. Whatever the merits of these insights, it’s hard to believe that they were especially enlightening and certain that they were old news by Sunday morning.

The twist and turns of this ugly conflict, especially since Syria used sarin gas against its own people on Aug. 21, points to how difficult and confusing it is to construct a reasonable analysis of what is happening and what are Israel’s choices. Two major players, Russia and the United States, will determine how events will play out in Syria and will also determine the character of any Israeli actions in the future.

The Russians have played as nasty a strategy in Syria as did the former Soviet Union throughout the Middle East from the 1950s until the late 1970s. Russia today is a much smaller power than the Soviet Union, yet many of the Putin government’s actions in Syria are consistent with the same themes that were present under communist rule. Russia desires a military base and port in the Mediterranean; it wants to demonstrate to the West that it can still directly affect regional events; it continues to resent the Gulf States’ contempt for them and the oil power which they wield; and Russia wants to sell as many of its weapons systems as possible to help its economy.

What is new today for the Russians — and what has stimulated and sustained their close relationship with Assad — is the serious fears that they have of radical Islam. Russia is worried about Muslim extremists in Chechnya, amongst the Taliban in Afghanistan, and in Iraq. Moscow fears that, should radical Muslims gain control in Syria, it would be yet another threat to Russia, with potential chemical-biological weapons to boot. With approximately 16.3 million Muslims in Russia constituting over 11.7 percent of the population and most of them living in the Caucuses, Russia has a genuine internal threat from radical Islam.

None of this justifies Moscow’s obstructionist behavior on Syria sanctions at the UN, or in ignoring the Syrian violations of international treaties.

For the United States, the problem is not only Syria’s use of gas against its own people, which is deeply troubling to President Obama, but the fact that the United States looked powerless when it came to averting human tragedy. Perhaps Obama finally understands why — like it or not — the United States never took action against human rights violations in Cambodia, Rwanda, Sudan, and in numerous other tragedies. Despite its waffling approach over the past months and especially since Aug. 21, it appears that the Obama administration may have “lucked out” — at least for the moment. If the U.S.-Russian agreement to proceed with the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons actually works — a big if — the United States may well have snatched a bonus despite their diplomatic and political ineffectiveness.

For Israelis, however, the U.S. government’s behavior is more troubling. They know that the United States will provide Israel with all the military hardware and support it may need. They also expect that the United States will protect their flank in the UN and with its allies. What they also comprehend is that United States has a long-term, deep economic and strategic interest in the Middle East. Finally and most critically for Israel, U.S. policy in Syria has enlightened them about two things.

If Syria does indeed lose its chemical weapons through the agreement, Israel will have seen at least one potential direct threat removed. On the other hand, the Obama administration’s indecisiveness and dangerously awkward decision-making gives the Netanyahu government an elevated concern about Iran. There is no confidence that the war-weary U.S. government and the American people will act aggressively to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.

Unless a deal is worked out to control the Iranian nuclear program, Israel may well be on its own.

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