Earlier this year, in a conversation about the Obama administration’s Middle East strategy, Senator John McCain brought me up short when he criticized the president for launching attacks on a symptom of the Syrian civil war, ISIS, rather than its root cause. He told me that the U.S. should be battling the Assad regime at the same time it attacks Sunni terrorists. I asked him the following question: “Wouldn’t the generals say to you, ‘You want me to fight ISIS, and you want me to fight the guys who are fighting ISIS, at the same time? Why would we bomb guys who are bombing ISIS? That would turn this into a crazy standoff.’”
McCain answered: “Our ultimate job is not only to defeat ISIS but to give the Syrian people the opportunity to prevail as well. ... If we do this right, if we do the right kind of training and equipping of the Free Syrian Army, plus air strikes, plus taking out Bashar Assad’s air assets, we could reverse the battlefield equation.”
There is even less reason to believe today that the Free Syrian Army, such as it is, is capable of fighting the Assad regime (and ISIS) effectively. So at this late stage, McCain’s policy prescriptions may be unrealistic. But his diagnosis of the core problem seems tragically accurate.
“I don’t think ISIS would exist if Bashar al-Assad had been removed two or three years ago,” McCain told me when we revisited the question earlier this month. “He was on his way out until the Iranians brought in 5,000 Hezbollah fighters, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps came in, to train Assad’s troops and provide them with weapons, including the barrel bombs, which are horrible weapons of war.”
McCain argues that the Obama administration has avoided confronting Assad in part for fear that doing so would alienate Assad’s patrons in Tehran, the same men who are in charge of the nuclear file. “The whole theory hinges on a major breakthrough in the nuclear talks, that once they get their deal, Iran will stop funding Hamas, stop supporting Hezbollah, stop destabilizing Yemen, that they’ll join us in fighting extremism. So they have to get a nuclear deal at all costs, and not do anything in Syria. This is just so farfetched it’s delusional.”
I wouldn’t go so far as to call proponents of this theory delusional, but let's say that they are not approaching the issue of leverage in an effective way. Gary Samore, a former Obama administration official who was in charge of the National Security Council’s Iran nuclear file, told me this month that he would use Iran’s deep exposure in Syria to U.S. advantage.
“Confronting Iran forcefully in Syria and Iraq increases chances for a nuclear deal because Iran will only meet our nuclear demands if it feels weak and vulnerable,” Samore wrote in an email. “Conversely, Iran’s sense that it is winning in Syria and that it is indispensable in Iraq decreases chances for a nuclear because the Supreme Leader won’t make nuclear concessions if he feels strong and ascendant.”