The public debate in America and Israel these days is focused obsessively on whether to attack Iran in order to halt its nuclear weapons ambitions; hardly any attention is being paid to how events in Syria could result in a strategic debacle for the Iranian government. Iran’s foothold in Syria enables the mullahs in Tehran to pursue their reckless and violent regional policies — and its presence there must be ended.
Ensuring that Iran is evicted from its regional hub in Damascus would cut off Iran’s access to its proxies (Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza) and visibly dent its domestic and international prestige, possibly forcing a hemorrhaging regime in Tehran to suspend its nuclear policies. This would be a safer and more rewarding option than the military one.
As President Bashar al-Assad’s government falters, Syria is becoming Iran’s Achilles’ heel. Iran has poured a vast array of resources into the country. There are Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps encampments and Iranian weapons and advisers throughout Syria. And Iranian-controlled Hezbollah forces from Lebanon have joined in butchering the Syrians who have risen up against Mr. Assad. Iran is intent on assuring its hold over the country regardless of what happens to Mr. Assad — and Israel and the West must prevent this at all costs.
Sadly, the opportunities presented by Syria’s meltdown seem to be eluding Israeli leaders. Last week, Israel’s military intelligence chief spoke of the 200,000 missiles and rockets in Gaza, Lebanon and Syria that could reach all of Israel’s population centers. And there is a growing risk that advanced Syrian weapons might fall into the hands of terrorist groups. Iran’s presence in Damascus is vital to maintaining these threats.
At this stage, there is no turning back; Mr. Assad must step down. For Israel, the crucial question is not whether he falls but whether the Iranian presence in Syria will outlive his government. Getting Iran booted out of Syria is essential for Israel’s security. And if Mr. Assad goes, Iranian hegemony over Syria must go with him. Anything less would rob Mr. Assad’s departure of any significance.
But Israel should not be the lone or even the principal actor in speeding his exit. Any workable outcome in Syria will have to involve the United States, Russia and Arab countries. America must offer Russia incentives to stop protecting the Assad regime, which will likely fall the moment Moscow withdraws its support. A force with a mandate from the Arab League should then ensure stability until a new Syrian government can take over.
The current standoff in Syria presents a rare chance to rid the world of the Iranian menace to international security and well-being. And ending Iran’s presence there poses less of a risk to international commerce and security than harsher sanctions or war.
Russia and China, both of which vetoed a United Nations resolution last week calling on Mr. Assad to step down, should realize that his downfall could serve their interests, too. After all, Iranian interventionism could wreak havoc in Muslim-majority areas to Russia’s south and China’s west. And a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a serious potential threat on Russia’s southern border.
Russia’s interests in Syria are not synonymous with Iran’s, and Moscow can now prove this by withdrawing its unwavering support for Mr. Assad. Russia simply wishes to maintain its access to Syria’s Mediterranean ports in Tartus and Latakia and to remain a major arms supplier to Damascus. If Washington is willing to allow that, and not to sideline Russia as it did before intervening in Libya, the convergence of American and Russian interests in Iran and Syria could pave the way for Mr. Assad’s downfall.
Once this is achieved, the entire balance of forces in the region would undergo a sea change. Iranian-sponsored terrorism would be visibly contained; Hezbollah would lose its vital Syrian conduit to Iran and Lebanon could revert to long-forgotten normalcy; Hamas fighters in Gaza would have to contemplate a future without Iranian weaponry and training; and the Iranian people might once again rise up against the regime that has brought them such pain and suffering.
Those who see this scenario as a daydream should consider the alternative: a post-Assad government still wedded to Iran with its fingers on the buttons controlling long-range Syrian missiles with chemical warheads that can strike anywhere in Israel. This is a certain prescription for war, and Israel would have no choice but to prevent it.
Fortunately, Mr. Assad and his allies have unwittingly created an opportunity to defuse the Iranian threat. If the international community does not seize it and Iranian influence in Syria emerges intact, the world will face a choice between a military strike and even more crippling sanctions, which could cause oil prices to skyrocket and throw the world economy off balance. The United States and Russia should wish for neither.
Syria has created a third option. We do not have the luxury of ignoring it.
By Efraim Halevy, a former Israeli national security adviser and ambassador who was director of the Mossad from 1998 to 2002.