Foreign Policy

Iran deal exposes Obama’s double standard

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For four years, President Obama has done little as 300,000 Syrians died in dictator Bashar al-Assad’s assault on his own population. The Iran deal will change that.

Iran is by most accounts the main reason Assad’s murderous regime still holds power. It has sent 10,000-20,000 foreign fighters into Syria to defend Assad and spends $15-30 billion per year (5-10 percent of its annual budget) to support Assad’s killing machine. The Iran deal will open the floodgates to an additional $100-150 billion in immediate United Nations sanctions relief for Iran. Although Obama asserted yesterday that human rights-related sanctions will continue, it has already been documented that the deal will lift sanctions on Iranian entities supporting Assad.

{mosads}Without radical action, the Iran deal will likely be Obama’s main impact on the Syrian conflict. His administration averages $1 billion a year in humanitarian aid and spent $250 million last year on the train-and-equip program for anti-ISIS Syrian rebels. That adds up to $1.25 billion a year, a sum Iran can exceed by spending just 2 percent of immediate sanctions relief on Assad. Under the deal, the conventional arms embargo on Iran will also be eased in five years, allowing Iran to transfer advanced Russian missiles to Assad for the bombardment of Syrian civilians. This will easily outweigh the meager anti-tank weapons that the U.S. sometimes provides to some Syrian rebels.

Obama’s behavior toward the Iran deal has exposed his double standards and shocked me as a Syrian. Could this be the same president who, in August 2013, pulled the plug at the eleventh hour on enforcing his chemical red line because he was “president of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy“? Is this really the administration that told Syrian Americans, after meeting a survivor of those chemical attacks, that the U.S. could not act due to public opposition?

The public also opposes the Iran deal, as does a clear Congressional majority.  This has not stopped Obama from vowing to override Congress with a veto; going to the U.N. Security Council to preempt a Congressional vote–  even hiding aspects of the deal from Congress- and pounding the bully pulpit to support the deal yesterday.

If Obama had shown half this resolve toward his own train-and-equip program for anti-ISIS Syrian rebels — which Congress resoundingly approved last year — then the program would be far exceeding its pathetic current total of 60 graduates. Before deployment, these graduates would have been armed to the teeth and explicitly authorized to call in airstrikes. Instead, trainees were rushed to the front lines without equipment, resources, or clear authorizations, making them easy pickings for the Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate, which kidnapped 16 of them last week.

Even worse, trainees were also made to pledge that they would not fight Assad. This is illogical, because even the State Department has accused Assad of acting as ISIS’s air force. It is also immoral, because trainees would then be forbidden to defend their families from Assad barrel bombs. Yet the Obama administration has made this demand, and is now resisting a Turkish anti-ISIS initiative that would shield civilians from regime airstrikes. In the double standards of Obama’s foreign policy, defending your family from Assad airstrikes — even if you also fight ISIS — is a bridge too far.

On the other hand, when the Iranian Supreme Leader leads chants of “Death to America,” a chant quite alien to Syria’s opposition, Obama excuses this as mere “taunts.” While the U.N. envoy to Syria notes “unprecedented levels of destruction” in one Syrian town due to attacks by Iranian proxies, administration officials express confidence that the Iran deal will make regional crises “more manageable.

Obama stated yesterday that a nuclear Iran would “embolden terrorist groups like Hezbollah,” Iran’s Lebanese proxy. But that ship has already sailed. I recently saw a disturbing video from the street where I was born, in the heart of Syria’s capital Damascus. The video showed Hezbollah blocking traffic as a show of force on the Eid al-Fitr holiday. This followed “Quds Day” celebrations in Old Damascus that were supposed to support Palestinians, but instead featured flags of Iran, Hezbollah, and other Iran-backed militias. The symbolism of these displays was clear: Iran is now in charge.

Sure enough, last week Bashar al-Assad gave his first speech in a year and said that Syria is for those who defend it. This means that the over 10,000 Iran-backed foreign fighters now in Syria have more of a claim to the country than actual Syrians who oppose Assad. Locals in my hometown have already reported suspected sectarian cleansing by Iran-backed militias earlier this year. Similar reports emerged from a city called Homs in 2013, and most Sunni families from Homs remain refugees today in Lebanon, where they face continued attacksby Assad and Hezbollah supporters. 

This is no recipe for long-term stability, but this is what Assad and Iran have in mind when they wax lyrical about “fighting terrorism” in Syria. This is the sort of “manageable” regional situation that Iran would facilitate, and there is no way to reconcile this vision with American national security interests or even basic morality.

If Obama honestly believes what he said yesterday — that America must “check the [Iranian] behavior that we are concerned about directly” — then he must act now to check Iran’s insidious influence in Syria. One can only hope that Obama makes the right choice, and does what must be done to fight ISIS in Syria by beefing up a real Syrian rebel force against both Assad and ISIS.

Ghanem is the senior political adviser and government relations director for the Syrian American Council in Washington and a fellow at the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies. Follow @MhdAGhanem


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