When the news broke that President Obama wanted to launch military strikes in Syria, I was sitting in a hotel in Jerusalem nearing the end of a fact-finding mission examining the situation on the ground in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What I had recently witnessed was the failure of the US to uphold not only international law but its own stated policy as Israel effectively colonized East Jerusalem and vast swathes of the West Bank, encircling Palestinian cantons in a sea of Israeli-only settlements, roads, state lands, and military zones.
Even the initiation of the US-brokered peace process seems to have had little impact on the Israeli calculus. I arrived in the country the same week as Martin Indyk, the US envoy for the talks. In the days immediately preceding my arrival, and in the three weeks I spent in the country, the Israeli government announced the construction of over 4,400 new settlement units. In the same period of time, 11 Palestinian families were made homeless through house demolitions. Under present circumstances, a contiguous Palestinian state seems like an impossible dream.
So when President Obama made his case for military strikes against Assad, I couldn’t help but compare my recent experience with the news emerging about Syria. It wasn’t just the hypocrisy of the US proclaiming the need to enforce international law in one instance while flagrantly obstructing it in another. I thought about how it was fitting, in a way, that, in West Jerusalem, Israelis were scrambling for gas masks being distributed by a government agency while, on the other side of the city, the Zir family was huddled in a cave after the demolition of their home. While the Israelis were out playing their narrative of impending annihilation, the Palestinians were living a real-life story of destruction. But in the US, it’s the former story, the one that is mostly bluster, that has traction and informs policy, while the other is largely ignored. And this is thanks, in part, to the self-proclaimed “most influential foreign policy lobbying organization on Capitol Hill,” the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, known popularly by its acronym, AIPAC.
Many of the ways in which AIPAC has promoted strife and obstructed justice have been direct and undeniable. Insistence that US aid to Israel be unconditional is a central pillar of the organization, even though continued US aid to a military engaging in human rights abuses is a violation of US law. They have worked vigorously to ensure that the US veto every resolution put before the UN Security Council condemning Israel for its illegal settlement activities. And this week, AIPAC is sending some 250 lobbyists to the Hill to push Congress to disregard US public opinion and authorize a military intervention in Syria.
So why does AIPAC think that we should bomb Syria? To set an example for Iran.
What AIPAC is saying is that if the US doesn’t bomb Syria, it will send a message to Iran that the US doesn’t follow through on its threats regarding red lines. Combined with its campaign to shift the red line for war with Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon to acquiring a yet-undefined “nuclear weapons capability,” AIPAC sees bombing Syria as serving two purposes: first, as a warning to Iran not to develop a “nuclear weapons capability,” whatever that is; and second, as a precedent for the US to bomb Iran whenever it’s been conveniently determined that it has crossed that vague and indeterminate red line.
AIPAC’s long-term efforts to prevent US diplomacy with Iran and to counter Iranian influence in the Middle East have also helped prolong the civil war in Syria. The Obama administration has admitted that there is no military solution to Syria’s civil war and that an end to the conflict can only be achieved through a negotiated settlement. But opportunities both past and present to pursue just that have been squandered because the US has been more interested in isolating Iran than bringing about an end to the bloodshed in Syria.
Iran’s influence with the Assad regime is undeniable and their cooperation will be necessary to secure a cease-fire. Yet, last year, Iran was not invited to a peace conference on Syria that was held in Geneva, a fact which many attribute to the conference’s failure. A second Geneva conference has been proposed, but the US has refused to allow Iran to attend, which, in turn, has prevented the conference from convening. The US has also yet to engage directly with Iran to find a diplomatic way to address the chemical weapons issue, even though new Iran President Hassan Rouhani, who ran on a message of reconciliation with the US, has condemned the alleged use of chemical weapons.
A negotiated settlement that has any chance of securing a lasting peace in Syria must include input from all major backers of the key players, including Iran. The more time the US wastes trying to mitigate Iranian influence in Syria, the higher the death-toll will climb. The question is whether human lives are more important than a decades-old squabble with another nation.
There is no evidence that Iran is trying to acquire a nuclear weapon. In fact, both US and Israeli intelligence agree that the Iranian leadership has not decided to pursue a nuclear weapon. The true value of the tale spun by AIPAC about Iran and Syria is that it plays into the narrative that there are always enemies out there looking to destroy Israel. That very same narrative is used as justification by people here in the US to turn a blind eye to what Israel is doing to the Palestinians.
It is time that this narrative be put to rest. We can take a significant step toward dispensing with these bogeymen by pushing for the US to pursue diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict with Iran and the one in Syria. A recent offer facilitated by Russia and Iran for Assad to put Syria’s chemical weapons under the control of international monitors could hold promise and must be fully explored. But even if this particular deal should fall through, there would still be options available, such as referral to the International Criminal Court, convening a meeting of the 189 signatories of the Chemical Weapons Convention, and working with Russia and Iran to secure a cease-fire.
AIPAC is isolated right now in its quest to pressure Congress to authorize a US military intervention in Syria. They can be defeated, but we must stay vigilant. Call Congress today and every day until bombing Syria is off the table.