Syria Cheating on Chemical Deal/ Implication for Iran Nuclear Agreement

Jul 31, 2015

Update from AIJAC

July 31, 2015
Number 07/15 #06

This Update looks at some new revelations that Syria appears to have escaped divesting itself of all its chemical weapons, as promised in a 2013 deal, and also how the Syrian case affects claims about the Iranian nuclear deal negotiated earlier this month.

First up is an excellent report from the Wall Street Journal – based primarily on interviews with the inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, responsible for disarming Syria – on what is known about the state of Syrian chemical weapons. The report makes it clear that – in addition to the chlorine bombs the Assad regime has been employing in the civil war –  it almost certainly retains additional stocks of more deadly chemical weapons such as Sarin and VX, which could still be employed in the civil war or could fall into the hands of IS or other opposition groups. Moreover, it makes it clear that a series of shortcomings in the inspection regime – only looking at declared sites, depending on the regime for security, being afraid to confront the regime or request access to non-declared sites because it risked sparking a crisis – were responsible for the inability of inspectors to complete the job they were given. For this important investigative report in full, CLICK HERE.

Next up, Israeli academic and counter-terrorism specialist Ely Karmon looks at the implications of these Syria findings for the Iran deal. He makes the obvious point that if the international community was unable to succeed in preventing cheating through the hiding of stocks of chemical weapons in Syria, it is unlikely to be able to guarantee success in detecting nuclear cheating by Iran, but also notes that the reasons that prevented inspectors from being more aggressive in Syria – they “didn’t want a standoff with the regime” or risk the actual progress they were making in removing most of Syria’s stocks – would almost certainly also apply in Iran. He also has some thoughts on the likelihood of terrorists gaining access to chemical weapons. To read his expert opinion, CLICK HERE. Additional explorations of the implications of the Syrian chemical weapons experience on the Iran nuclear deal come from strategic analyst Max Boot and columnist Bret Stephens (for those who did not see his piece in the Australian earlier this week.)

Finally, noted American foreign policy expert Walter Russell Mead offers some alternative thoughts on Syria and the Iran deal. He argues that the US Administration would give the agreement more chance of working if it could demonstrate it was prepared to strongly challenge the destablising and aggressive Iranian actions across the region – and that the obvious way to do so would be taking a stronger stance against the Assad regime in Syria. He notes that the Administration is unlikely to want to do so, because it might anger the Iranians, but suggests it may need to and discusses some ways in which it can do so. For his larger discussion, CLICK HERE. Mead also had an interesting comment on Russia’s role in the Iran deal.

Readers may also be interested in:

Mission to Purge Syria of Chemical Weapons Comes Up Short

International inspectors rid nation of many arms, but Assad didn’t give up everything

In May of last year, a small team of international weapons inspectors gained entry to one of Syria’s most closely guarded laboratories. Western nations had long suspected that the Damascus facility was being used to develop chemical weapons.

Inside, Syrian scientists showed them rooms with test tubes, Bunsen burners and desktop computers, according to inspectors. The Syrians gave a PowerPoint presentation detailing the medical and agricultural research they said went on there. A Syrian general insisted that the Assad regime had nothing to hide.

As the international inspectors suspected back then, it was a ruse, part of a chain of misrepresentations by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to hide the extent of its chemical-weapons work. One year after the West celebrated the removal of Syria’s arsenal as a foreign-policy success, U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that the regime didn’t give up all of the chemical weapons it was supposed to.

An examination of last year’s international effort to rid Syria of chemical weapons, based on interviews with many of the inspectors and U.S. and European officials who were involved, shows the extent to which the Syrian regime controlled where inspectors went, what they saw and, in turn, what they accomplished. That happened in large part because of the ground rules under which the inspectors were allowed into the country, according to the inspectors and officials.

The West was unable, for example, to prevent Mr. Assad from continuing to operate weapons-research facilities, including the one in Damascus visited by inspectors, making it easier for the regime to develop a new type of chemical munition using chlorine. And the regime never had to account for the types of short-range rockets that United Nations investigators believe were used in an Aug. 21, 2013, sarin gas attack that killed some 1,400 people, these officials say.

Obama administration officials have voiced alarm this year about reports that Mr. Assad is using the chlorine weapons on his own people. And U.S. intelligence now suggests he hid caches of even deadlier nerve agents, and that he may be prepared to use them if government strongholds are threatened by Islamist fighters, according to officials familiar with the intelligence. If the regime collapses outright, such chemical-weapons could fall into the hands of Islamic State, or another terror group.

“Nobody should be surprised that the regime is cheating,” says Robert Ford, former U.S. ambassador to Syria under President Barack Obama. He says more intrusive inspections are needed.

The White House and State Department say last year’s mission was a success even if the regime hid some deadly chemicals. Western nations removed 1,300 metric tons of weapons-grade chemicals, including ingredients for nerve agents sarin and VX, and destroyed production and mixing equipment and munitions. U.S. officials say the security situation would be far more dangerous today if those chemicals hadn’t been removed, especially given recent battlefield gains by Islamists. Demanding greater access and fuller disclosures by the regime, they say, might have meant getting no cooperation at all, jeopardizing the entire removal effort.

“I take no satisfaction from the fact that the chlorine bombs only kill a handful at a time instead of thousands at a time,” says Thomas Countryman, the assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation. “But it is important to keep a perspective that the most dangerous of these inhumane weapons are no longer in the hands of this dictator.”

The following account of the inspectors’ efforts on the ground is based on interviews with people who were involved. Syrian officials in New York and Damascus didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.

Inspectors from The Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW, together with U.N. personnel, arrived in Damascus in October 2013 to an especially difficult work environment. They were in a war zone, and rebel forces viewed them with hostility because the inspection process forestalled U.S. airstrikes, which the rebels were counting on to weaken the Assad regime.

Veto power

Because the regime was responsible for providing security, it had an effective veto over inspectors’ movements. The team decided it couldn’t afford to antagonize its hosts, explains one of the inspectors, or it “would lose all access to all sites.” And the inspectors decided they couldn’t visit some sites in contested areas, fearing rebels would attack them.

Under the terms of their deployment, the inspectors had access only to sites that the Assad regime had declared were part of its chemical-weapons program. The U.S. and other powers had the right to demand access to undeclared sites if they had evidence they were part of the chemical-weapons program. But that right was never exercised, in part, inspectors and Western officials say, because their governments didn’t want a standoff with the regime.

Russia, Mr. Assad’s longtime ally, had used its clout at the U.N. and the OPCW to limit the mandate of the inspectors, preventing them from accusing the regime directly of using chemical weapons, such as in the 2013 sarin attack.

In its initial confidential declaration to the OPCW, the regime identified 23 sites where 1,300 metric tons of chemicals were stored. The regime also admitted to having more than 100 missile warheads, mainly Scud missiles, and roughly 1,100 aerial bombs, which principally posed a threat to Israel.

The sites stretched for more than 240 miles, from an air base 16 miles from the Jordan border in the south to a facility close to Turkey in the north. A network of bunkers hiding chemical weapons was located just 3 miles from a major Hezbollah base.

Among the biggest surprises for the inspectors was Syria’s fleet of mobile chemical-weapons production facilities, housed on 18-wheeler trucks. They looked so much like regular trucks that they even carried advertisements, including one for a Hungarian moving company.

Scott Cairns, a chemist and munitions expert who was one of the inspection mission’s leaders, says it was “unlike any other program that I’ve seen or read about.”

The big question looming over the whole operation was how forthcoming the regime had been about the scope of its chemical-weapons work. As the inspections were beginning, in private briefings for U.N. and congressional officials, U.S. intelligence agencies gave the regime an informal grade of B-plus for truthfulness, according to U.S. and U.N. officials.

Central Intelligence Agency analysts initially thought the declaration matched what they believed the regime had. Some intelligence officials at the Pentagon were more skeptical, believing that Syria may have squirreled away a secret reserve, defense officials say.

The inspectors were suspicious of Syria’s claim to have only 20 tons of ready-to-use mustard agent, which can be loaded into artillery shells, aerial bombs and rockets. U.S. intelligence agencies expected the Syrians to have hundreds of tons.

When U.N. officials pressed the matter, the Syrians said they had destroyed hundreds of tons of mustard agent in fire pits before agreeing to the inspections. The inspectors were skeptical, noting that it had taken other countries decades to destroy similarly large stockpiles.

Inspectors also were suspicious of Syrian claims that a high percentage of chemical-weapons warheads and bombs—around 30% of the total—had been detonated during exercises and trials. Additional stocks, Syria claimed, were converted into conventional weapons. The worry was that the regime was keeping weapons in reserve.Syria’s declaration listed only strategic weapons—Scud warheads and aerial bombs meant for war with Israel—not short-range munitions, including the rockets that an earlier U.N. inquiry found at the site of the August 2013 sarin attack.

Members of the inspection team didn’t push for answers, worried that it would compromise their primary objective of getting the regime to surrender the 1,300 tons of chemicals it admitted to having. “It was a question of priorities,” says one team member.

After traveling to the Syrian capital from Beirut in a convoy of armored Toyota Land Cruisers, the inspection team took over the ninth floor of the Four Seasons hotel, which they turned into a makeshift command center. The team included weapons experts, chemists, medics and negotiators. Three were native Arabic speakers.

Jerry Smith, a retired British military officer who had taken part in similar OPCW operations during his seven years with the organization, was in charge of field operations.

That first night, Mr. Smith and other team leaders drove to Syria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to meet their main contact, Gen. Hassan al-Sharif.

Weeks earlier, Gen. Sharif had hosted a U.N. team sent to investigate the sarin attack. His message at the time was that Syria didn’t have a chemical-weapons program. Now, Syria was admitting to having chemical-weapons sites, and it was Gen. Sharif’s job to ensure inspectors got access to them.

The Syrians laid out the ground rules. Inspectors could visit only sites Syria had declared, and only with 48-hour notice. Anything else was off-limits, unless the regime extended an invitation.

“We had no choice but to cooperate with them,” said Mr. Cairns. “The huge specter of security would have hampered us had we gone in there very aggressively or tried to do things unilaterally.”

At 7 a.m. on Oct. 6, 2013, seven inspectors headed out for the team’s first inspection. A U.N. security officer had insisted on armored vehicles as escorts. The Syrians sent two slow-moving, Soviet-era BRDM-2 vehicles armed with machine guns, and two unmarked vehicles filled with Syrian intelligence agents toting AK-47s.

The slow speed of the convoy—15 m.p.h.—unnerved the inspectors. They later told the Syrians to get rid of the BRDM-2s, concluding they were better off being less conspicuous and more agile.

The convoy stopped first at the mouth of a bunker in the side of a hill. It was covered with camouflage netting. Inspectors in protective suits entered two at a time and walked through concrete tunnels to chambers filled with steel containers. The containers held chemicals that, when mixed together, created sarin. The bunker also contained aerial bombs and warheads.

Parked outside the bunker were mobile weapons-production facilities that sat on 18-wheelers. Inspectors would later liken the vehicles to Transformers toys because they looked so ordinary on the outside. As such, they would have been difficult to target from the air.

“This wasn’t kitchen chemistry,” Mr. Smith recalls thinking. “It was a piece of quality engineering.”

Syrian guards carried the empty aerial bombs out of the bunker and laid them in a row. The Syrians had stored them without chemicals inside. Mr. Cairns says the bombs contained two internal chambers separated by a thin membrane. When the bombs are filled with chemicals, activating them requires turning a crank attached to the back of the bomb, which rotates a rod inside, pierces the membrane and mixes the chemicals.

The inspectors directed the Syrians to destroy the bombs by rolling over them with a bulldozer. But that failed to dent them. Mr. Smith spotted a nearby tank and asked a Syrian colonel to use it. The tank rolled over each bomb repeatedly. Eventually, it crushed one.

Mr. Smith was amazed. A Syrian officer thumped his chest and said: “Made in Syria.”

In Homs, the inspectors slept in abandoned villas ringed by Syrian troops. On the main road into the city, inspectors toured one of the largest sarin storehouses, surrounded by a wall but few guards. Mr. Smith says it was “hidden in plain sight.”

At another site, guards were bearded and weren’t wearing Syrian army uniforms. Many were equipped with German-made G3 rifles, a weapon often carried by Iranian forces. Inspectors suspected they were members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps or an Iranian-backed militia.

Other facilities were too risky to approach. To check on one near Aleppo, where there was heavy fighting, inspectors sent Syrian troops with tamper-proof cameras to confirm the regime’s claims that all chemicals had been removed. For another, inspectors spoke to rebel leaders over Skype to negotiate safe passage, but in the end decided against going because they thought they could be targeted.

Getting the deadly chemicals out of Syria was fraught with difficulty. They had to be shipped through often-dangerous terrain to the port of Latakia on the Mediterranean, where they could be loaded onto ships to be destroyed at sea.

First, the tall legs on the tanks storing the chemicals had to be cut so the vessels would fit into trucks. Some weren’t cut evenly and chemicals spilled in transit.

At a meeting at a U.S. military headquarters in Frankfurt, Germany, an American admiral laid out a plan for moving the chemicals. The plan assumed the international community would be able to control the speed, frequency and order of deliveries to the port. Mr. Smith informed the admiral that the Assad regime was calling the shots.

In Latakia, which was flooded with Syrian soldiers, a Danish vessel was charged with transferring the most dangerous chemicals to an American ship. Syrian soldiers were taken aback when Danish Marines stepped ashore, prompting Mr. Smith to step between them. Gen. Sharif defused the situation by inviting the Danish captain for tea.

In February 2014, with the Syrians dragging their feet on delivering the declared chemicals to Latakia, the OPCW created a new team to try to identify what the Syrians might have been hiding.

Suspected gaps

The new team flew into Damascus once a month to meet with Gen. Sharif and Syria’s leading scientists. As inspectors pressed the Syrians about suspected gaps in their initial weapons declaration, new details about the program began to emerge.

U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies had long suspected that there were research facilities in Damascus run by the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, or SSRC. In a bombing run in early 2013, Israeli warplanes had struck a convoy of trucks next to one of them. Israel believed the trucks were carrying weapons for Hezbollah.

At first, the Syrians told the new team they had no research facilities at all because they had developed their weapons in the field using what they described as “pop-up” labs. The inspectors had seen intelligence that suggested otherwise.

During an informal dinner in April 2014, inspectors half-jokingly suggested that the Syrians should allow them to visit an SSRC facility.

“If you are so interested, why don’t you just come along?” a Syrian official responded, according to Mr. Smith.

A Syrian man received treatment at a field hospital following a suspected chlorine-gas attack by Assad forces in Idlib in May. Photo: Firas Taki/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

One Saturday the following month, the inspectors’ motorcade entered one of the SSRC compounds in Damascus. The facility’s director told the inspectors that no chemical weapons had been developed there. The facility had done research on detecting chemical agents and on treating people exposed to toxins, he said.

Gen. Sharif attended the presentation, which included an Arabic-language PowerPoint. The slides explained the SSRC’s work in areas including oncology and pesticides. The skeptical inspectors urged the Syrians to come clean about all their research and development facilities.

Last October, the Syrian regime added several research facilities to its official declaration of chemical-weapons sites, including the one in Damascus visited by inspectors that May. That gave inspectors the right to visit them for examinations. Western officials say samples taken by inspectors at the sites found traces of sarin and VX, which they say confirms that they had been part of the chemical-weapons program.

Earlier this year, American intelligence agencies tracked the regime’s increasing use of chlorine-filled bombs. The weapons-removal deal didn’t curtail the work of Syria’s weapons scientists, allowing the regime to develop more effective chlorine bombs, say U.S. officials briefed on the intelligence. The regime denies using chlorine.

The CIA had been confident that Mr. Assad destroyed all of the chemical weapons it thought he possessed when the weapons-removal deal was struck. In recent weeks, the CIA concluded that the intelligence picture had changed and that there was a growing body of evidence Mr. Assad kept caches of banned chemicals, according to U.S. officials.

Inspectors and U.S. officials say recent battlefield gains by Islamic State militants and rival al Qaeda-linked fighters have made it even more urgent to determine what Syria held back from last year’s mass disposal, and where it might be hidden. A new intelligence assessment says Mr. Assad may be poised to use his secret chemical reserves to defend regime strongholds. Another danger is that he could lose control of the chemicals, or give them to Hezbollah.

The team that visited the SSRC facility in Damascus recently asked the regime for information about unaccounted for munitions. Officials say there has been no response from Damascus.

“Accountability?” asks Mr. Cairns, the inspector. “At this point in time, it hasn’t happened.”

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World inspection didn’t stop Syria’s chemical weapons use – why would Iran be different?

The CIA belatedly concluded that Assad has been cheating on his agreement to disband Syria’s chemical weapons stash. There’s no reason to believe the international community will do better in Iran.

By Ely Karmon

Haaretz,  Jul. 28, 2015 

Two years after Syria signed an agreement with the United States and Russia to dismantle its chemical weapons, the U.S. intelligence agencies and inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have concluded that Syria has failed to fully and transparently account for its arsenal, developed new capabilities and still uses chemical attacks on the battle front, albeit in a limited way, without significant reaction from the international community. As the world prepares to sign a deal to rein in Iran’s nuclear project, an even more dangerous form of WMD, we should take note of how ineffective the international oversight has been in Syria.

The recent Wall Street Journal article “Mission to Purge Syria of Chemical Weapons Comes Up Short” offers an extremely worrying picture about the international operation to dismantle Syria’s chemical arsenal. According to the article, Syrian leaders lied from the beginning about the quantities and quality of the chemical arsenal. Inspectors were given access only to sites that the Assad regime had declared part of its chemical weapons program, and only with 48-hour notice. Inspectors discovered a fleet of mobile chemical-weapons production facilities housed in 18-wheeler trucks, unlike any other program seen before. At some sites, inspectors suspected the guards were members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps or an Iranian-backed militia wearing Syrian army uniforms. In addition, the Syrian regime added several research facilities to its official declaration of chemical weapons sites only a year later, in October 2014, including one in Damascus presented to inspectors in May 2014 as a civil research center.

Furthermore, the approach of the governments involved and the inspectors has been hesitant if not outright tolerant. The U.S. and other powers never exercised the right to demand access to undeclared sites because they “didn’t want a standoff with the regime.” U.S. intelligence agencies gave the regime an informal grade of B-plus for truthfulness, although many inspectors were skeptical about the Syrians’ claim that they had destroyed hundreds of tons of mustard agent before agreeing to the inspections. Members of the inspection teams didn’t push for answers to important issues, worried that it would compromise their “primary objective” of getting rid of the admitted 1,300 tons of chemicals. Meanwhile, earlier this year, American intelligence agencies tracked the regime’s increasing use of chlorine-filled bombs and the production of more effective such bombs by Syria’s scientists, the Journal states.

It is odd these agencies arrived so late at this conclusion while the international media published ample information about the regime’s use of chlorine in the spring of 2014. At the time, I concluded that the Assad regime decided to use chlorine for minor chemical attacks (less lethal and impressive than mustard gas or sarin) in order to win tactical battles in strategic areas – the Damascus neighborhoods and northwestern Syria.

Contrary to its initial evaluation that the Assad regime destroyed all of its chemical weapons, in recent weeks the CIA “concluded that the intelligence picture had changed and that there was a growing body of evidence Mr. Assad kept caches of banned chemicals,” reports the Journal. U.S. intelligence suggests that Assad may be prepared to use chemical weapons if government strongholds like Aleppo or Latakia are threatened by Islamist fighters.

I presented my evaluation after the United States and Russia signed their agreement with Syria in September 2013, as I was the signing of the U.S.-Russian agreement in September 2013, as I was skeptical that a Syria still ruled by Bashar Assad and ever-conscious of the Alawite community’s fragile future was ready to renounce its entire chemical arsenal, as the Russian-American plan proposed.

Days before that agreement was signed, the International Institute for Counter Terrorism in Herzliya published a comprehensive report “Syria’s Chemical Weapons – The Terrorism Threat,” detailing Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities. The report identified in Syria 45-50 facilities and military bases involved in chemical warfare. 

Brigadier-General Zaher al-Saket, a former chemical weapons chief in the Syrian army’s 5th division who defected to the opposition in April 2013, in a November 2013 interview offered intelligence that the Syrian president is evading the terms of a Russian-brokered deal to destroy the chemical weapons by transferring some of the stocks to his allies in Lebanon, and Iran. Gen. Saket warned of possible discrepancies between the 23 sites Syria had declared to the United Nations and its actual chemical arsenal. 

The Assad regime’s enhanced use of chemical weapons emboldens rebel and terrorist groups in Syria to use the same methods. In June 2014, ISIS took control of the huge Iraqi Muthanna chemical base. Although the U.S. State Department played down the importance of the capture, suggesting that the facility contained “degraded chemical remnants … difficult, if not impossible, to safely use for military purposes,” a CIA report from 2007 asserted that the precursor and agent production area at the complex was not completely destroyed during Desert Storm, portions of the mustard production and storage area survived and the precise nature of munitions stockpiles at the site remains unconfirmed.    

Islamic State forces did employ some form of chemical agent, probably mustard gas, for the first time in July 2014 against the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) forces and civilians in Kobani. This year, the Kurdistan Region Security Council claimed ISIS used chlorine in a January 23 suicide truck bomb attack against peshmerga forces in northern Iraq. Lately it appears the Islamic State has manufactured rudimentary chemical warfare shells and attacked Kurdish positions in Iraq and Syria with them as many as three times.

If this is the record of the international community in dismantling and monitoring the chemical and nuclear facilities in Syria, how exactly it will do better in monitoring the vast Iranian nuclear infrastructure? Would indeed Iran, the cat guarding the milk, be responsible for collecting its own soil samples from suspected nuclear sites to turn over to the IAEA for inspection, as revealed during the first Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the nuclear deal? 

Ely Karmon has been the Senior Research Scholar at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at The Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya since 1997. He is also the Senior Research Fellow at The Institute for Policy and Strategy at IDC.

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All Roads Lead to Syria



The American Interest, July 24, 2015

So far, the “historic” Iran deal hasn’’t shifted much. If it’s going to stick, the Obama Administration has to think bigger.

The United States got down on its knees last week to kiss the frog on the lips and sign the nuclear deal with Iran; the frog, however, does not show much sign of turning into a prince. It is early days, but the Iranian nuclear deal seems not to have changed very much on the ground. Instead of a handsome prince professing undying love, we have the same old ayatollah croaking dismally that U.S. policies were diametrically opposed to those of Iran, in a speech punctuated by chants of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.” The top Revolutionary Guards commander came out in opposition to the heavily caveated provisions which grant access to Iran’s secret military sites, saying that the deal crossed “red lines.” “We will never accept it.”

This doesn’t seem to be what our diplomats expected. “I don’’t know how to interpret it at this point in time, except to take it at face value, that that’s his policy,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in an interview on Al-Arabiya. “But I do know that often comments are made publicly and things can evolve that are different. If it is the policy, it’s very disturbing, it’s very troubling.” The Princification Process still has a ways to run.

Assuming that the Iran deal is here to stay, and that one or both houses of Congress don’t get the two-thirds majorities needed to override a presidential veto, the question now is what next. What does the deal with Iran really mean? Did we take the nuclear issue off the table, sort of, in order to clear the decks for a tougher regional strategy to counter Iran’s rush for hegemony across the Middle East? Or is the nuclear deal just the first act in a longer drama of retreat, retrenchment, and accommodation as the U.S. hands the keys of the Persian Gulf to our new Shi’a friends?

This is the debate now raging in the foreign policy establishment and the halls of Congress. The appeasers, sorry, the accommodationists argue that if we are too tough on Iran now, they will walk away from the nuclear deal, and the United States will be face to face with the stark choice that the Obama Administration has worked so hard to avoid: accept an Iranian bomb, or bomb Iran. The frog won’’t turn into a prince if the kiss isn’’t sincere.

The Iran Lobby argues that our real problem is Sunni terror and jihadism, and that we need to work with Iran and Assad to crush ISIS and its ilk. If that makes the Sunnis unhappy, so what? The Wahabis of Saudi Arabia aren’t our friends, and the ragbag of jihadi movements sprouting up across the Sunni world can only be controlled with the help of a strong regional partner like Iran. The Russians would be ready to back this play; they, too, would like to see the U.S. make a regional deal with the Shi’a to help protect Russia’’s friends and allies in Syria— and to get cooperation from Assad, Hizballah, and Iran when it comes to crushing the Sunni jihadis eager to infiltrate the Russian Caucasus. Russia Today and the Friends of Vladimir would see this policy as a rare example of American statesmanship.

On the other hand, both our Sunni allies (ex-allies? princes in the process of turning back into frogs?) and Israel would have an easier time accepting the Iran deal if we accompanied it by a more wholehearted and determined opposition to Iran’s regional ambitions. There might even be some Congressional Republicans whose opposition to the deal would mellow, and it would be much easier for Democrats like Chuck Schumer to uphold the President if they can point to strong anti-Iran policy on the ground.

The Administration has to its credit recognized this, and embarked on a serious charm offensive to persuade the Sunnis that they can live with and should accept the deal. U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter visited Riyadh this week, where, according to Reuters, he is discussing “cooperation with Saudi Arabia in areas like missile defense and cyber and maritime security, although no new arms deals are expected.” The Saudi King has reportedly— but not publicly— told Carter he’ll support the deal, but at each stage of negotiations so far, conciliatory words have been overshadowed by clear messaging of dissatisfaction; this is one reason that our diplomats should not be, and to their credit appear not to be, overly jubilant about Salman’s comments. The talk in Washington is that mega-shipments of mega-weapons will be on their way to the Gulf.

We need to keep the Sunnis on board. If countries like Saudi Arabia conclude that the United States not only doesn’t have their back but is promoting the emergence of Iran as the strongest regional power, they are likely to react in ways that the White House won’t like. One possibility, unlikely but not to be ruled out if the Saudis feel desperate, would be to cooperate tacitly with Israel in military action against Iranian nuclear and perhaps other targets. The Saudis might move forward on a nuclear program of their own; the Turks and others might follow suit, and President Obama would go down in history as the man who nuclearized the whole Middle East. Or the Sunni powers might just turn a blind eye to funding for ISIS and other groups as the radicalization of the Sunni world intensifies the sectarian war. And the Saudis are likely to deepen their already close ties with Pakistan’s radical Islamist security networks, and make sure that everybody close to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program is well disposed to the Kingdom and its needs.

For most Sunnis, the acid test of American intentions is the one place on earth that President Obama wants nothing to do with: the zone of fanaticism, anarchy, and atrocity formerly known as the nation of Syria. Right now, when the Saudis and other Sunni rulers look at maps in their situation rooms, they see a Shi’a crescent from the Mediterranean to Afghanistan, with outposts in Yemen. Four capital cities that the Sunnis think of as their own—Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sana’a—are now under Shi’a rule.

If the administration wants to keep relations strong with Sunni allies, Syria is the place where the rubber meets the road. If the Americans tacitly ally with Assad— attacking ISIS and al-Qaeda’s allies among the Syrian rebels while leaving Assad’s troops untouched— the Sunni elite, as well as the Sunni street, will conclude that America hasn’t just kissed the frog; they will believe we are going to bed with it. If on the other hand, the United States makes clear by word and deed that it considers Iran and its pro-Assad allies on the ground as much our enemies as ISIS, then our current alliances are likely to hold.

The administration desperately wants to avoid a total breach with the Sunni Arabs while minimizing any commitments it makes about Syria—or Iraq. President Obama seems to have concluded that he has no choice but to at least present an appearance of resolute action against ISIS in particular, but he is no more eager to embark on new Middle East wars than he was when he made his name campaigning against the Iraq War. He wants a nuclear deal with Iran, he wants to preserve America’s current network of Middle East alliances, and he wants to do as little as possible about the Syrian war. Those are all sensible things to want, but it may not be possible to have all three at the same time. More probably, the President can pick any two. He could have stayed out of Syria and kept our Sunni alliances if he hadn’t negotiated the Iran deal, he could have negotiated the Iran deal and kept our Sunni alliances strong if he had gone into Syria against both ISIS and Assad—or he can watch our Sunni alliances splinter as he implements the nuclear deal and continues to avoid engaging too deeply in Syria.

These are not nice choices, but they seem to be the only alternatives the President currently sees. It will be interesting to see what comes next.

The nuclear deal, whose full ramifications are only slowly coming into view, appears to be replete with mechanisms by which Iran could walk away from it without incurring the price of a snap-back of international sanctions or an interruption of the money rolling in. That makes an aggressive, anti-Assad, anti-IRGC policy a risky bet. But unless Washington confronts Iran’s regional ambitions on the ground, the nuclear deal could do more to destabilize the Middle East than it will to calm things down.

And so the Administration has come not, as it may have thought, to a happy ending in the Middle East in the arms of a handsome prince. In order to save the agreement that President Obama hopes will be his historical legacy, his administration may yet have to play hardball with a frog.

Walter Russell Mead is editor-at-large of TAI.

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Sep 12, 2023 | Update



Image: Shutterstock

AIJAC condemns Sydney University’s “capitulation” to Muslim Students’ Association

Screenshot 2024 06 21 At 5.10.00 PM

The War in Gaza: A Middle East and Global Turning Point – Bret Stephens in Melbourne

Screenshot 2024 06 21 At 9.45.59 AM

“I’ve never in my lifetime felt like my community is living in fear as we are now”: Jamie Hyams on Sky News

IRGC operatives in Tehran (Photo: Shutterstock/ Mohasseyn)

AIJAC calls for Australia to follow Canada and list the IRGC as a terrorist organisation

More than 1,000 truckloads of aid waiting to be picked up inside Gaza at the Kerem Shalom crossing on June 18 (Source: COGAT)

Counting – and miscounting – Gaza aid trucks

Image: Shutterstock

AIJAC condemns Sydney University’s “capitulation” to Muslim Students’ Association

Screenshot 2024 06 21 At 5.10.00 PM

The War in Gaza: A Middle East and Global Turning Point – Bret Stephens in Melbourne

Screenshot 2024 06 21 At 9.45.59 AM

“I’ve never in my lifetime felt like my community is living in fear as we are now”: Jamie Hyams on Sky News

IRGC operatives in Tehran (Photo: Shutterstock/ Mohasseyn)

AIJAC calls for Australia to follow Canada and list the IRGC as a terrorist organisation

More than 1,000 truckloads of aid waiting to be picked up inside Gaza at the Kerem Shalom crossing on June 18 (Source: COGAT)

Counting – and miscounting – Gaza aid trucks