“They support Assad operationally on the ground, with strategic consultation, intelligence, weapons. Most recently, they have begun establishing a popular army trained by Hizbollah and financed by Iran, currently consisting of 50,000 men, with plans to increase to 100,000.”He added: “Iran and Hizbollah are also preparing for the day after Assad’s fall, when they will use this army to protect their assets and interest in Syria.”He warned that it would be a mistake for western governments to assume that Iran would dismantle and withdraw these forces once the Assad regime is toppled.
Washington, meanwhile, has been moving much more slowly and indecisively, with President Obama rejecting appeals from his national security team to arm the rebels last year and the White House still deeply divided over what, if anything, to do. Just yesterday US officials told the LA Times that the CIA is “collecting intelligence on Islamic extremists for the first time for possible lethal drone strikes.”There are very good reasons for being cautious about working with Syrian rebels in a sectarian, ethnic war. Nobody will have clean hands by the time this is over, and Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule (“If you break it, it’s yours”) still holds. President Obama is justifiably uneasy at the thought of either arming and supporting rebels who then commit atrocities with US arms and equipment or seeing the United States committed to an uncertain and expensive nation building effort in yet another bitterly divided sectarian snake pit.But the President needs to keep his eyes on the prize. The most important single goal of his policy in the Middle East is to dissuade Iran from building a bomb without actually having to fight a war. That means he needs to demonstrate consistency and resolution. Washington has repeatedly said that Assad “must” go, but it has shied away from the actions such statements imply. Sulfurous rhetoric combined with handwringing and dithering won’t convince anybody that you mean what you say.If the President wanted to let the rebels wither on the vine, he should have kept quiet early on. That would have been the wrong policy choice in our view, but it would be a consistent policy. The mix of tough rhetoric and weak action he’s actually using is telling Iran that he is a bluffer who doesn’t mean what he says. This is the surest way to force President Obama into exactly the position he most wants to avoid: a straight up, inescapable choice between military action against Iran and accepting an Iranian bomb.The President needs to act. None of the choices are particularly good at this point, and his political adversaries should cut him some slack here. Any US effort will not be a surgically effective operation that helps only the good people. There will be consequences to intervention in Syria and we won’t like all of them. Sending in US troops would be an enormous mistake; arming selected rebel groups is a much better choice. No matter what we do, Syria’s short and medium term future doesn’t look particularly bright. But defeating Iran’s bid for continued influence and control in a strategically vital country is a prize big enough at this point in Middle Eastern history to justify running some risks and accepting some costs. And the cost of doing nothing is higher than the cost of judicious support.[Image of Iranian flag with soldier courtesy of Shutterstock.com]