Obama has lost many confrontations: with Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Russia—just about everyone. But his failure with Syria stands out as a monument to ineptitude.

It was almost impossible to fail with Syria. The country is led by a strong dictator who would have no trouble implementing any agreement. Syria’s Alawite regime is isolated from the population and needs foreign support. Assad is secular and cynical: he can pragmatically accept an alliance with America and disregard its anti-Islamic connotations. Syria is dirt poor, without any significant sponsor—it was up for grabs for peanuts.

In no place was the situation rosier for Obama than in Syria. Mubarak, a strong secular leader, is highly dependent on public opinion because Egypt is a democracy. Mubarak, accordingly, cannot push Hamas or the PA too hard. The Saudi royals, strong authoritarian leaders, have to uphold their Islamic credentials, especially in face of Shia expansion. The Iraqi government is too weak to implement anything.

Obama relations with Syria

Assad wants two small things: Lebanon and money. On Lebanon, he is both right and makes sense. Lebanon is not a viable state, but must be divided in among Israel, Syria, and the Christians. At any rate, America has no interest in Lebanon whatsoever. The United States was dragged into the conflict by France, a long-time imperial power in Lebanon. To imagine Lebanon free of Syrian influence is unrealistic, and such a state would not be better off. Long gone are the days when Lebanon was the Middle East’s Las Vegas and Switzerland together; now it is a Red-light district at most. Productive middle-class Christians have fled the country, which is now prone to sectarian clashes. Lebanon’s real choices are a Shiite state aligned with Iran, an Afghanistan-type area of perpetual tribal conflicts, or a secular state under Syrian control. Lebanon was historically a part of Syria. Syria controls it by controlling the flow of arms and commercial cargo through Lebanon’s northern border. There is not a chance that Syria would abandon Lebanon.

In terms of money, Assad can settle for very little. He is so poor he could only afford four MiG-31E’s, two of them dead, for spare parts. Poverty has made Syria very economical: instead of fighting its own war in Lebanon, it prefers to allow Iran to do the job, and claims its chunk of influence by periodically closing down the flow of Iranian arms to Hezbollah. Assad employed similar tactics with Iraq: he obtained influence there on the cheap merely by intermittently allowing Al Qaeda fighters free border access and then clamping down on them. A billion dollars a year in American aid, coupled with access to Western markets, would cause Assad to abandon Iran. As an Alawite, he despises those extroverted Shiite nuts.

The price of failure vis-à-vis Syria would be astronomical. Assad Sr was right saying that there can be no war in the Middle East without Egypt, but no peace without Syria. Syria can destabilize every country in the vicinity by simply opening its borders to terrorists. Young Assad lacks the political acumen of his artful father, but he is far smarter, a sort of Michael Corleone to his father’s Vito. He understands that he does not need many weapons: Jews have a low tolerance to losses and are afraid even of his chemical arsenals, which have long proved useless in offensive warfare. So Assad concentrates on what can be termed nominal arsenals: a large number of outdated missiles and some chemical and biological weapons. His nuclear program could not produce more than a few bombs, and it is not clear at all whether the program was Syria’s or whether Syria was just hosting a part of Iran’s nuclear development. Assad’s danger lies in his rationality: he is equally comfortable working with the Americans and the Iranians and spends frugally without involving himself in the arms race. He prefers an alliance with the Russians, which brings him very little aid, but no commitments and some weapons, to deep involvement with Americans.

Israel cannot make peace with Syria on her own: Assad is interested in the Western world rather than the Golan Heights. Any agreements with Syria will remain on paper and will not lead to normalization, as indeed there is no normalization with Egypt. The absence of normalization is not Assad’s fault: he has noted correctly that popular Arab hostility against Israel precludes normal relations.

Since Syria is a major enemy, and making peace with it is impossible, Israel must resort to retaliation, containment, and forced demilitarization by relentless bombing raids in response to Syrian aid to Hamas and Hezbollah. Assad does not value those terrorist outfits highly enough to risk his presidential palaces, and the world would remain relatively quiet while Israel bombed the rogue state.