Although unsuccessful, Operation Eagle Claw — the April 1980 effort to rescue U.S. Embassy staff from Tehran — was immensely courageous. Eight Americans gave their lives in that mission. But President Carter also showed great courage in ordering the highly complex operation to recover the hostages, seize an Iranian military airfield, and then escape. Eagle Claw was certainly far more dangerous than the bin Laden raid. Still, like President Obama’s decision in May 2011, Carter’s decision in 1980 was the right one at the time.
Unfortunately, Mr. Carter’s latest gambit in the Middle East is less impressive. It is summed up in his latest New York Times op-ed, “A Five-Nation Plan to End the Syrian Crisis,” a proposal that abandons the tough-minded realism Carter showed in Eagle Claw and in forging a lasting peace between Israel and Egypt.
Mr. Carter’s Syria peace plan begins with an odd homage to the Assad family. Noting his own longtime links with Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, and Bashar’s father/predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, Mr. Carter says he is uniquely placed to advise the U.S. government. He then argues that before its current civil war, “Syria set a good example of harmonious relations among its many different ethnic and religious groups.” Speaking of a “good example,” Mr. Carter apparently includes Hafez al-Assad’s massacre of tens of thousands of Sunni Muslims at Hama in 1982.*
Mr. Carter is endorsing Russia’s plan to force the West to support Assad by leaving IS and the dictator as the only Syrian actors left standing.
Next, Mr. Carter rules that calling on Assad to relinquish power has always been delusional: “Those who knew [Assad] saw this as a fruitless demand, but it has been maintained for more than four years.” Here, Mr. Carter ignores the many analysts who have used, to borrow a term Carter employs, “data-driven research” to argue convincingly that greater support for the Free Syrian Army back in 2012 might have brought Assad’s collapse. Mr. Carter continues: “In May 2015 a group of global leaders known as ‘the Elders’ visited Moscow.” On this visit, he notes, the elders (a humanitarian group) learned that Russia’s position on Syria is actually quite reasonable. And so, with Mr. Putin’s “approval,” Mr. Carter tells us he presented Russia’s peace plan to the Obama administration (who to their credit, appear to have ignored it).
Regardless, via Mr. Carter’s evident confidence in Mr. Putin, we learn that even now — in late October 2015 — after Mr. Putin has shredded eastern European security, downed European passenger planes, helped massacre Syria’s people, and allied himself with an expansionist China — Mr. Carter still believes in the myth of the “reset.” And this trust informs Mr. Carter’s amenability to Mr. Putin’s premise for the Syrian peace process. It is here that the central problem with Mr. Carter’s proposal becomes evident. Stating that Russia’s bombing of Syria “may increase the flow of refugees to Europe” (and the pope may be a Catholic), Mr. Carter then argues that Russia’s offensive “has helped clarify the choice between” Assad and the Islamic State (IS). This is utterly ridiculous: Mr. Carter is endorsing Russia’s plan to force the West to support Assad by leaving IS and the dictator as the only Syrian actors left standing. But Mr. Carter isn’t finished. He praises Iran’s proposal for a Syrian cease-fire and asserts that “some mechanism could be found to implement [Iran’s peace proposals].”
#share#There are many holes in this theory. First, Russia’s proposal would push moderate Syrian rebels into the arms of IS as they came to see IS as the only means of resisting Assad. Similarly, Iran’s proposal would turn Syrian politics into a far worse replicate of Lebanese politics. That’s because any ceasefire — absent immediate reforms — would simply be used by the Assad axis (Assad, Iran, Russia, and the Lebanese Hezbollah) to rebuild its military power and then assassinate its political opponents. Don’t believe me? Ask the families of two citizens of Lebanon, Rafic Hariri and Wissam al-Hassan, who were murdered for standing up to the Assad-axis dominion. It defies belief to assume Mr. Assad would cede power after renewing his power.
That said, Lebanon can provide a useful example of a possible alternative strategy to Mr. Carter’s: confronting Assad, as in Lebanon during the 2005 Cedar Revolution. During that crisis, President Bush aligned U.S. regional and European allies behind the Lebanese people and helped force Mr. Assad to yield.
#related#Of course, critiquing Mr. Carter’s plan is not to say that we should simply ignore Russian interests in Syria. Mr. Putin, for example, will never accept a peace deal that restricts his access to the Mediterranean Sea by closing Russian bases at Tartus and Latakia. On the contrary, I’ve argued that President Putin should be assured that he can retain access to Syria post-Assad. This is realism. Yet Mr. Carter’s proposal is the opposite of realism. It would surrender U.S. influence to Putin, and Syria’s people to Assad and the Islamic State. Moreover, it rests on a central absurdity: The notion that the Assad axis would, for some inexplicable reason, compromise from a position of strength.
On this issue, Mr. Carter is a good man with a bad plan.
* Incidentally, the people of Hama are again under attack today from Assad and Russian and Iranian allies.