American president Barack Obama and his allies are engaged in a heavy battle over legitimacy. In the 21st century, legitimacy is as important, if not more important, than planes, tanks, and trained soldiers; therefore, the results of this battle—meant to land a strike on Syrian president Bashar Assad for crossing the red line of chemical weapon use—are critical.
A victory for Obama in the battle for legitimacy will echo not only through Damascus and other Arab capitals, but also – and mainly – through Tehran and Jerusalem. The meaning of this war for Israel is seemingly far-reaching.
What Obama seeks is not international diplomatic legitimacy for a strike against the Assad regime, but rather three distinct kinds of legitimacy:
1. Legal legitimacy to act, preferably with approval from the UN Security Council, and if Russia and China veto the move, then legitimacy based on international law that will allow the US and its allies, together and apart, to operate military powers in order to punish the Assad regime and deter it from ever using weapons of mass destruction again.
Such deterrence is not only against further use of chemical weapons against Syrians, but also against the use of chemical weapons against Israel in an act of despair. The governments in Washington and Britain already have sufficient legal reviews, good and ready to use. So a legal legitimacy is not a problem.
2. Public legitimacy in the US and Britain is needed for any democratically elected leader, especially if the strike on Syria goes awry and causes harm to life and property for Washington and its allies. Obama and Cameron do not want to go in the way of George W. Bush and Tony Blair in Iraq; those leaders went to war under false claims that Sadaam Hussein had his hand on weapons of mass destruction and against UN decisions, and got in serious trouble. The British public is relentlessly unforgiving towards Blair, and Obama has sworn to not go the Bush route.
Polls conducted in the US prior to the outbreak of the current crisis with Syria show an overwhelming negative response to any intervention in Syria; but those polls were taken before the publication of horrific photos of the August 21 chemical attack.
Leaders in the US directly spoke about the need for international punitive measures against Syria, and deterrence from other war crimes; so it is likely to assume that Obama could sway public support to his favor and achieve legitimacy. He does, however, need old out any strike until UN inspectors are done with their work, out of danger, and submitting their initial conclusions.
3. The third type of legitimacy Western leaders need is political legitimacy from legislative bodies. President Obama must listen to the Republican majority in Congress, which could torpedo any move and may well hold him responsible if any action fails. Legislatures on both sides of the ocean generally want leaders to confer with them regarding military action, any military action.
Why? Because military action, as experience in Iraq and Afghanistan proves, may go awry, and cost Western countries billions in spilled dollars and blood for naught.
The legal legitimacy will presumably be provided by the UN inspectors in Damascus, who will finish their probe Friday and leave for Beirut Saturday. Their findings will be transferred to Sweden and China and may take a week or so to produce conclusive evidence. By that time, Assad will have been geared for an attack and there are doubts to whether a strike at that point would even be efficient.
There are enough targets
In this matter it is important to understand—timing is not of critical importance. There are enough targets in Syria that would crush the regime should they be struck. There is also a reserve of anti-aircraft missiles in Syria, one of the largest in the world, which, if ruined, would devastate not only Syria but Russia as well. Syria would become much more exposed and vulnerable to rebel forces and other strikes if its weapon supply is badly hurt. Russians would be hurt by the threat to their prestige, but they might balance the blow by selling the Syrians new weapons, with fresh Iranian funding.
The legislative support Obama is trying to obtain is through limited transparency of Intel reports. These Intel reports do not prove a causal connection between the chemical attack and Assad himself. Intel factions in the West know that Bashar Assad is the one who approves the use of chemical weapons and that he does so personally—but they have had thus far no way of proving it.
There is, however, some proof that the order came from the top and that in the Damascus area, chemical weapon units were deployed days before the attack. There is also solid, undeniable proof that Maher Assad, Bashar's brutal, temperamental brother, had a personal hand in the devastating chemical attack last week. It is assumable with this irrefutable proof that the US, morally backed by Germany, Britain, France, and the UN inspectors' conclusions, will land a painful strike on the Syrian regime.
The Israeli point of view
From the Israeli perspective, the battle for legitimacy is much more crucial than it is for the US. Firstly because the Iranians are encouraged by lack of action in the West. They assume they have greater diplomatic and military autonomy to obtain a nuclear bomb in a bigger way than they thought.
Unlike the US and its allies, Israel is in the region, its territory is small and its population dense, and therefore the fact that Assad has already used chemical weapons raises concerns with us. He has broken the psychological barrier, which gives Israel the legitimacy to move disproportionally against not only Assad but also Hezbollah and even Iran, in order to prevent further use of weapons of mass destruction.
Absurdly, the US's search for legitimacy is testimony to the threat Israel is under, and shows that the West could very much not come to its aid when push comes to shove.
Furthermore, if Israel or the West has Intel that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei decided to produce nuclear arms and that Iran is sprinting towards a bomb, Israel will have to waste precious time on the race to legitimacy in order to stop the Ayatollahs' race to an atom bomb.
Russia and China can be relied on to guarantee a particularly grueling fight for legitimacy in this case. If the West decides to go for a preemptive strike against a nuclear Iran—time will be of the essence, because if the window of opportunity is missed, Iran will then have already had a nuclear bomb, and the rules would change completely.
Therefore, what happens today has acute importance from an Israeli point of view. Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ya'alon now have absolute legitimacy to back their demand to keep Iran from reaching the status of a nuclear state. Why do we have such legitimacy to act even if the US and its allies will not, or even if they try to stop such an act? Because it has already been proven that nations in the region recklessly and brutally use unconventional weapons as soon as they possess it, and because there is good reason to believe Israel will be a victim.
These facts are well known to President Obama and that is why he is insisting that the US operate on behalf of the US national interest. That interest includes not only the well-being of Israel, its citizens, and its status as a Jewish state, but also the energy sources of the free world in the Persian Gulf, which will be under constant danger if Assad is not stopped, and if Iran reaches conclusions about its freedom of action to produce nuclear weapons.
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