The Damascene dilemma

West discussing whether to strike Syria or Iran

Strike Damascus, bomb Tehran,” say the hawks in Washington. “No,” argue others. “Open negotiations with Damascus, bring Syria out of the cold, into the fold, and help distance Damascus from its ‘really evil’ ally, Iran.”

To strike, or not to strike? That is the question, if one may paraphrase the Bard and adapt his poetry to fit 21st century geopolitics. But what the heck is the answer? There seems nary a viable reply that may please the court, or in this case, the White House, let alone a divided American electorate in what will be a crucial election year.

There was persistent talk throughout the summer of US strikes on Syria and Iran. In fact, it’s been more than just talk. According to some people very much in the know, the question of “what to do with Iran and Syria” has, as of a few months ago entered the stage of some very serious military planning.

Cynics will counter argue that the military are always working on plans to invade some place or other. It’s part of what they do in the military. Matter of fact, the Pentagon probably has, somewhere on their top secret shelves, plans on how to invade Liechtenstein, Andorra and Monaco. They also possibly have plans on how to invade Canada and Mexico, although judging by the numbers of Mexicans in the US the Mexican invasion has already begun.

But where Iran and Syria are concerned this time, it seems to go beyond the usual planning. Military tacticians and civilian analysts have been burning the midnight oil laying out strategies of how best to tackle those two countries. Mostly, they look at Iraq and say to themselves, “We cannot have another Iraq on our hands.” To be sure, neither does anyone else. Washington wants quick, clean, short wars, much like the first Gulf War. But again, if Iraq is an example of what’s in store if a similar scenario is to unfold elsewhere, say in Iran or Syria. No country would want that and least of all, Israel.

Both Syria and Iran are accused by the United States of supporting terrorism and of trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Syria has been on the US radar for a while now, accused of facilitating insurgents on their way to and from Iraq to fight US and coalition forces.

Strangely enough, those in favor of a strike on Damascus are actually more royalist than royalty. They tend to fall in two schools of thought. The first are the neoconservatives; a tight-knit cabal, close to Vice President Dick Cheney. At times they tend to be more pro-Israeli than the Israelis themselves. And as this administration’s time is ticking away, they would like to see Iran and Syria brought to heel, because they believe the next administration will not have what it takes to confront either country. And a nuclear-armed Iran and/or Syria will forever change the military equation in the neighborhood.

If and when Iran gets the bomb, analysts worry that other countries — Saudi Arabia, Egypt and possibly even Turkey — would want to follow suit, therefore initiating a new arms race, this one perhaps being far more dangerous than the previous one which brought about the Cold War. With tempers being the way they are in the Middle East, there might be nothing cold about the next war.

The second group urging the US to act against Syria can be found among a certain branch of what can best be described as neo-Libano-conservative. They are closely allied to the vision shared by the vice president, and remain at the same time in close agreement with Israel. Or, perhaps one should say more in sync with the Israeli lobby? They see the only way for Lebanon to attain true political independence is through a change of regime in Damascus.

As politics makes for strange bedfellows, Bashar’s best friend, so to speak, may well be the Israelis. Because when you come right down to it, Israel remains strongly opposed to striking Damascus. OK, let me rephrase that, seeing that Israel just carried out a strike deep inside Syria. Israel remains opposed to a change of regime in Syria, especially if what follows is uncertainty. Everyone in the Middle East immediately thinks of Iraq whenever anyone says regime change. And they shudder at the very thought.

As the saying goes, it’s better to deal with the devil you know than … well, you know the rest.

Where Syria is concerned, so long as certain red lines are not crossed — such as Damascus trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction — Israel would rather deal with the government of President Bashar al-Assad than with an unknown entity, particularly if that entity turns out to be the Muslim Brotherhood, the only other organized Syrian group besides the Ba’th Party.

But Iran is a different ballgame altogether. Where Tehran is concerned the US and the European Union are quite adamant in preventing the Islamic Republic from reaching militarized nuclear capability. In Iran’s case, it probably will not be a matter of “to strike or not to strike,” but rather when.