Syrian rebels and Iranian dissidents

Would bombing degrade the Syrian military so that it is less able to attack Israel, damage the Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus axis, or deter Iran from going nuclear? Unless the president satisfactorily answers such questions about U.S. security in his September 10 address, there is scant reason for Congress to authorize use of force.

A package of a diplomatic contact group, intense air strikes, and lethal arms to moderate rebels would raise costs for Iran to bail out Damascus and make Tehran reassess its aspirations to go nuclear. Humanitarian ideals and strategic interests would be in sync. But which rebels should get U.S. weapons?

Syrian rebels are a mix of political groups, exiles, and designated terrorists. One of the most prominent political organizations is the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. It has support of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

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Because the CIA is fighting Islamists in Iraq and supervising arms from the Gulf to Syrian rebels, the agency should know by now how to keep U.S. weaponry from Islamists. Jabhat al-Nusra—Front for Greater Syria, an alias for al Qaeda of Iraq—may be the strongest of the terrorist groups in Syria fighting the regime and, at times, moderate rebels.

Another case where the humanitarian and strategic converge involves Iranian dissidents under siege in Camps Ashraf and Liberty in Iraq. With likely prodding from Tehran, Baghdad attacks the dissidents in their prison-like circumstances. Sources report Iraqi security forces carried out a “massacre” of 52 unarmed Iranian dissidents on September 1, at Camp Ashraf northeast of Baghdad. The United Nations Assistance Mission Iraq confirms such accounts. There are reports of preparations for another attack against Ashraf, despite two condemnations of the assault by the State Department on September 1 and 7, respectively.

While Syria dominates the news, Iranian dissidents in Iraq present a clear case where U.S. humanitarian values and strategic interests converge. An expert on how to achieve such convergence states, “The practice of foreign policy is about reconciling competing values.” In the case of Camp Ashraf and the threat from Iran, humanitarian and strategic values are compatible.

By supporting Iranian dissidents in Iraq, Washington raises the costs to Tehran for subverting Iraq. Why? They are the core of the prodemocracy movement that rejects Islamist rule in Iran; and they do not ask for arms or aid to bring about political change in Iran. But the dissidents do require protection while in Iraq.

The U.S. and the UN should assert diplomatic clout in accord with the much ballyhooed UN doctrine of responsibility, to protect thousands of Iranians Washington pledged to protect if they gave up their arms after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Iran’s links with Iraq would weaken if Baghdad concurs. And such leverage might allow an enhanced CIA role in Iraq to crackdown on the flow of Islamists into Syria. Baghdad also permits Iranian overflights to resupply Syria; eroding the Baghdad-Tehran link might result in severance of these flights and help U.S. airstrikes degrade the Syrian military even more.

A difference between Syrian rebels and Iranian dissidents is that the dissidents are a broad anti-Islamist political coalition—the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The largest entity of the NCRI is the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK). The NCRI is a diverse parliament in exile. Ethnic minorities like Kurds and Baluchis are represented in percentages comparable to the general Iranian population.

Like the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the National Council of Resistance of Iran has offices in Washington, which reopened during April 2013.

President George W. Bush credited “a dissident group,” i.e., the NCRI-MEK, with revelations that exposed Tehran’s violations of its nuclear obligations. In accord with Bush, scholars at the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote, “The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) revelations about Iran’s secret nuclear program did prove to be the trigger point in inviting the IAEA into Tehran for inspections...”

Given the tight fit between stopping crimes against humanity by Iraqi forces egged on by Iran and U.S. strategic interest to weaken Tehran, it makes sense for Washington to engage in a full court press of diplomacy in support of Iranian dissidents in Iraq. They need to be protected, resettled, and not held under against their will in Iraq. Their release would also erode the Baghdad-Tehran axis.

Tanter is president of the Iran Policy Committee and was a member of the National Security Council staff in the Reagan-Bush administration. His latest book is Arab Rebels and Iranian Dissidents.