The Corner

Debating Syria: The Wider War and the Way Forward

Oy! Please remember you’re dealing with a senior here, and the frontal lobes are failing. So I must ask Andy to forgive me please for leaving out those splendid footnotes.

And thanks to Andy for putting them front and center. We have both been preaching the same sermon for years.

The good news is that we agree on the big thing, and there are disagreements on details. And we still have to answer the annoying question: How do we win this thing?

We are agreed on the nature of the threat we face — it’s global, it embraces Islamic and radical leftist movements, leaders and states, and it’s totalitarian. They are at war with us and we’re either going to win or lose that war. We can’t get out of it.

I’m most grateful for Andy’s emphasis on states, on state-sponsored terrorism, and on terrorists who act (or try to act) like states. Those of us who worked on counterterrorism during the Cold War noticed that after the Soviet Union imploded, there was a drop in terror for a while. Then the Saudis and the Iranians and the Syrians took up the slack, and the Cubans never stopped. I don’t think we pay enough attention to state sponsorship, and I’m usually very skeptical when I hear stories of “lone wolf” terrorists. Most of the time they turn out to have been recruited by a network that gets state support.

Andy reminds us that things are changing, as they always do, which is why timing is so important in making policy effective. Today’s good idea becomes irrelevant tomorrow. He thinks that Iran’s relative importance is declining, although it remains significant. He thinks that the dynamic threat on the Islamic side of the threat we face is Sunni Salafist, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, and he also thinks that we’re seeing a renewed intensity of Sunni-Shiite conflict. He worries a lot about the Muslim Brotherhood. Me too, although probably not as much as he does. I know he also worries a lot about the Saudi support for the worldwide network of radical Wahabbi mosques and religious schools, which constitutes an assembly line for tomorrow’s fanatics. And while we’re passing through, we must praise Nina Shea and her colleagues for their good work on this very grave threat.

On Iran, I take a quick look at recent terror news and I see Iranian agents rounded up in Azerbaijan and Iranian terrorists arrested in India, and a Revolutionary Guard sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury for his involvement in a terror-and-drug smuggling operation in Afghanistan. I see an Iranian subsidiary, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, firing rockets into Israel, I see Iranian troops deeply involved in the slaughter in Syria and in guiding Assad’s behavior in everything from blocking opposition communications to how to handle public relations and deceptions. I see Iranian weapons, UAVs and missiles in Venezuela, Iranian-run Hezbollahis fanning out from Venezuela and headed north, toward us, and I see Hezbollah girding for war with Israel. Iran is working in tandem with the Russians (there’s a fascinating story based on a report on Russian TV to the effect that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei attended Lumumba University in Moscow in the good old days of the Soviet Union), the Chinese (whose troops now control quite a substantial amount of territory inside Iran), and lesser demons in places like Belarus, all aimed at destroying or dominating us. That’s only a thumbnail sketch of the menace.

I worry about the Brotherhood, yes I do, but IMHO they’ve got a long way to go before they acquire the menacing power that Ali Khamenei wields. First things first, please.

So what do we do? 

As in the Cold War, we go after the states and their ideologies. They’re inextricably intertwined, and while I remain convinced that regime change in Iran and Syria would deliver a body blow to jihadism, it’s important for us to challenge jihadism itself politically and intellectually.

At the end of the day we want to be able to say to the “Muslim world”: Jihadism has failed, and the jihadis have been defeated and humiliated. They proved to be false prophets. They led you to disaster, as they always have. There is a better way, and a better model. Join us and there is a chance that you will flourish. 


We support regime change (hopefully non-violent regime change) in Iran. We do it because it’s the biggest threat, and because we don’t need to send troops or drop bombs to bring down the regime. Support the opposition and condemn the regime and its totalitarian doctrines.

The specific steps are well known, because they are the ingredients of Reagan’s successful strategy against Soviet Communism. They include a relentless diplomatic campaign against the regime and in favor of freedom for the Iranian (and Syrian) people, building a strike fund (best in conjunction with international trade unions) to support Iranian workers, providing the opposition with effective communications technologies and methods for defeating regime censorship of, and spying on, the Internet, overpowering Iranian jamming of our satellite broadcasts (and making a better VOA and Farda).

We also support regime change in Syria. It’s too late for non-violent change, so we need to support a guerrilla war against Assad. This requires us to organize, train, and arm the opposition. There are lots of problems, because we’ve dithered, we’ve subcontracted the project to the Turks (who’ve no reason to think Obama seriously wants the Assad regime out), and we’re frantically trying to make a deal with Khamenei instead of working for his downfall. It’s a big challenge. But we’re the world’s lone superpower. Stop whining and get on with it.

When the United States moves, the world changes. As we’ve seen, when the United States doesn’t move, the world also changes. For the worse. If we engage, and win, we will have a voice in the Muslim future. If we lose, jihadi ranks will swell and we will face dhimmitude. So we have to win, which requires us to engage.

We have a long-overdue schmooze with our Saudi friends. The key talking point:

“You must shut down the global network of radical mosques and madrassas. Yesterday. We will no longer tolerate a jihadist fifth column within the free world.”

How do we make this demand effective (the Saudis are already pumping oil at a near-record rate, so they are not without leverage on us, especially at a moment when the president fears that gasoline prices will bring him down in November)? Well, the big oil region in Saudi Arabia is in Shiite country, and the Saudi Shiites have little love for the royal family. If the rulers saw us moving against Tehran and Damascus, it would be easier for us to convince them to cut back their support for jihad outside the kingdom.

There’s an American dimension to this big ideological challenge, namely the First Amendment, which is often interpreted — just ask Eric Holder, or his friends at CAIR — as protecting even the most radical texts and sermons. I started talking about this problem in my first book on the war against terrorism, The War Against the Terror Masters, a decade ago. I speculated then that we might have to resort to an “Al Capone” solution (unable to break the Mafia directly, we went after them for tax evasion and other financial crimes). It’s a hell of a problem, and it’s Andy’s domain more than mine.  But we’ve got to face it.

Again, these are the bare bones. I don’t believe that much, or even any, of this is going to be done by the Obama administration, which often acts as if they want our enemies to win. So I pray that we will get some leaders with the wisdom and courage to fight and win this war.

I hope that Andy and I have contributed some useful guidelines for a successful strategy.

Michael LedeenMichael Ledeen is an American historian, philosopher, foreign-policy analyst, and writer. He is a former consultant to the National Security Council, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense. ...


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