Thursday, January 24, 2019

How Washington is Helping Israel Protect its Nuclear Monopoly

With the United States being one of the uninvited parties to the seven year-old Syrian civil war, one would have to wonder what interest Washington would have in yet another war given the current ongoing operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  Fortunately for us, a little-mentioned Department of State email which was gleaned from Hillary Clinton's server and posted for public consumption by WikiLeaks provides us with a very clear answer.

Here are some key excerpts from a U.S. Department of State document dated January 1, 2001, more than a decade before the Syrian civil war started, which very clearly states the U.S. agenda in Syria and the Middle East as a whole and why it was in Washington's best interest to enter any hostilities in Syria:

"The best way to help Israel deal with Iran's growing nuclear capability is to help the people of Syria overthrow the regime of Bashar Assad.  

Iran's nuclear program and Syria's civil war may seem unconnected, but they are. For Israeli leaders, the real threat from a nuclear-armed Iran is not the prospect of an insane Iranian leader launching an unprovoked Iranian nuclear attack on Israel that would lead to the annihilation of both countries. What Israeli military leaders really worry about -- but cannot talk about -- is  losing their nuclear monopoly. An Iranian nuclear weapons capability would not only end that nuclear monopoly but could also prompt other adversaries, like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to go nuclear as well.The result would be a precarious nuclear balance in which Israel could not respond to provocations with conventional military strikes on Syria and Lebanon, as it can today. If Iran were to reach the threshold of a nuclear weapons state, Tehran would find it much easier to call on its allies in Syria and Hezbollah to strike Israel, knowing that its nuclear weapons would serve as a deterrent to Israel responding against Iran itself.

Back to Syria. It is the strategic relationship between Iran and the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria that makes it possible for Iran to undermine Israel's security — not through a direct attack, which in the thirty years of hostility between Iran and Israel has never occurred, but through its proxies in Lebanon, like Hezbollah, that are sustained, armed and trained by Iran via Syria. The end of the Assad regime would end this dangerous alliance. Israel's leadership understands well why defeating Assad is now in its interests. Speaking on CNN's Amanpour show last week, Defense Minister Ehud Barak argued that "the toppling down of Assad will be a major blow to the radical axis, major blow to Iran.... It's the only kind of outpost of the Iranian influence in the Arab world...and it will weaken dramatically both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza."  

Bringing down Assad would not only be a massive boon to Israel's security, it would also ease Israel's understandable fear of losing its nuclear monopoly. Then, Israel and the United States might be able to develop a common view of when the Iranian program is so dangerous that military action could be warranted. Right now, it is the combination of Iran's strategic alliance with Syria and the steady progress in Iran's nuclear enrichment program that has led Israeli leaders to contemplate a surprise attack — if necessary over the objections of Washington. With Assad gone, and Iran no longer able to threaten Israel through its, proxies, it is possible that the United States and Israel can agree on red lines for when Iran's program has crossed an unacceptable threshold. In short, the White House can ease the tension that has developed with Israel over Iran by doing the right thing in Syria.  The rebellion in Syria has now lasted more than a year. The opposition is not going away, nor is the regime going to accept a diplomatic solution from the outside. With his life and his family at risk, only the threat or use of force will change the Syrian dictator Bashar Assad's mind.  

The Obama administration has been understandably wary of engaging in an air operation in Syria like the one conducted in Libya for three main reasons. Unlike the Libyan opposition forces, the Syrian rebels are not unified and do not hold territory. The Arab League has not called for outside military intervention as it did in Libya. And the Russians are opposed.  Libya was an easier case. But other than the laudable purpose of saving Libyan civilians from likely attacks by Qaddafi's regime, the Libyan operation had no long-lasting consequences for the region. Syria is harder. But success in Syria would be a transformative event for the Middle East. Not only would another ruthless dictator succumb to mass opposition on the streets, but the region would be changed for the better as Iran would no longer have a foothold in the Middle East from which to threaten Israel and undermine stability in the region.  Unlike in Libya, a successful intervention in Syria would require substantial diplomatic and military leadership from the United States. Washington should start by expressing its willingness to work with regional allies like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar to organize, train and arm Syrian rebel forces. The announcement of such a decision would, by itself, likely cause substantial defections from the Syrian military. Then, using territory in Turkey and possibly Jordan, U.S. diplomats and Pentagon officials can start strengthening the opposition. It will take time. But the rebellion is going to go on for a long time, with or without U.S. involvement."

Given that this memo was written in early 2001 (probably late 2000), it is fascinating to see that the Department of State was already considering the need to "...train and arm Syrian rebel forces".

Let's take a brief look at how much the war in Syria has cost U.S. taxpayers.  Here is a graphic showing the size of Department of Defense and the Department of State have appropriated for the conflict in Syria:

While it pales in comparison to the cost of the entanglements in both Afghanistan and Iraq, American taxpayers have still spent tens of billions of dollars to both crush ISIS and help make life generally miserable for the Assad government.

According to the Department of Defense, since Operation Inherent Resolve (the intervention in Iraq and Syria in response to the threat posed by ISIS) began in August 2014, a total of $23.5 billion has been spent on war-related operational costs, support for deployed troops and transportation of personnel and equipment into and out of the theatre of operations.  While these numbers are questionable given that the DoD estimates the total cost of the War on Terror at $1.5008 trillion compared to $5.632 trillion by the Cost of War Project at Watson University when the costs of all war-related expenses are included as shown here:

...there are some numbers that we do have a more complete grasp on.  According to this study by the Congressional Research Service, in Fiscal 2017, the Obama Administration requested $250 million for its Syria Train and Equip (STE) program which trained equipped and sustained "select vetted Syrian opposition forces" with $210.8 million of the total going directly to purchase weapons, ammunition and equipment.  As well, the Fiscal Year 2017 National Defence Authorization Act authorized $1.16 billion in funding for a new "Counter-ISIL" fund to support Iraq and Syria training activities.  Here is a quote from the CRS report:

"Funding transfers for the Syria train and equip program will remain subject to the prior approval of congressional defense and appropriations committees. These requests would need to be accompanied by certifications that the Administration had developed a plan to take and hold Raqqah, Syria and to deploy numbers and types of U.S. personnel necessary to enable trained and equipped Syrian forces to defend themselves against the Islamic State and the Syrian government."

Given that some of these trainees handed over some of their weapons to an al-Qaeda affiliate and that only a small number of trainees remained active in mid-2016, we can pretty much assume that the program was a complete failure.  Not only that, but the highly complicated situation on the ground made it pretty much impossible for Washington to assure taxpayers that it was not funnelling weapons to terrorist-linked groups as shown on this diagram from Think Progress:

In any case, looking back to 2001 and seeing that the U.S. Department of State was prepared to fight a war in Syria to end the Assad regime simply to protect America's best friend Israel and its illegitimately acquired nuclear weapons stockpile is nothing short of ironic, particularly given that Israel has been completely opaque when it comes to its nuclear program as you can read here.  The fact that Main Street America is expected to both fund a war and supply troops to fight a battle for Israel is appalling but it is something that Benjamin Netanyahu has demanded of the United States for the past two decades.

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