Tags: Israel | israel | syria | iran | obama

Experts: Failed Policies in Syria, Iran Will Dominate Obama's Israel Trip

Sunday, 03 Mar 2013 07:37 PM

By David Yonkman

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The international standoff over Iran’s nuclear program and the uprising in Syria will dominate President Barack Obama’s first trip to Israel later this month, according to Israeli and U.S. officials and experts.

Speaking at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference on Sunday, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren said ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program have only bought the Islamist regime more time to advance it.

His remarks follow an inconclusive Feb. 26-27 meeting with Iran and a group of six world powers. It was only the latest in a series of inconclusive talks that have frustrated Israel, which Iran has repeatedly threatened with annihilation.

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Over the past decade Iran has been making steady progress on missile development, warheads and the enrichment of uranium. That progress is forcing Israel to determine when it will need to respond if diplomacy continues to produce few results.

“It’s not when Iran gets a nuclear weapon, but when we know they are capable of getting a nuclear weapon,” Oren said.

That distinction is different than the policy of the U.S., which will respond only when Iran produces a weapon and not just the capability to do so.

The problem with that, says Michael Makovsky, foreign policy director with the Bipartisan Policy Center, is that the United States has never been able to predict a nuclear test. Those include tests by North Korea in recent weeks and Pakistan in 1998.

“If we’ve never done it before, what makes us think that we can do it this time?” he said.

The other key issue that Israel will address with Obama is the ongoing conflict in Syria that has destabilized the region.

The rebel groups that have been trying to force President Bashar al-Assad from power since March 2011 are fragmented with competing interests, says Tony Badran, research fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“We have a lot of moving parts in all of this,” Badran said. “Assad would like nothing more than to be able to chop the head off the opposition, but they don’t give him that pleasure.”

The Obama Administration has followed a lead-from-behind strategy in hopes that the situation would calm down with little help from the U.S., but “the hedging strategy hasn’t worked,” says Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Last week, however, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the United States will for the first time provide support to Syrian rebel fighters, a step that increases U.S. involvement in a conflict that has killed about 70,000 people and created almost 1 million refugees.

Another pressing issue is preventing Syria’s weapons of mass destruction from falling into the hands of terrorists, namely the Iranian proxy Hezbollah. Taber says that Syria has one of the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons in the Middle East.

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“It would be truly calamitous if they got their hands on a massive stockpile of WMD,” U.S. Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn of Texas said.

During the Israeli trip, says Elliott Abrams, former U.S. ambassador and senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, Obama will need to overcome the negative perception he has created by failing to visit the U.S. ally during the entirety of his first term.

“His challenge is to persuade Israel that deep down he understands them and the challenges they face,” Abrams said. “He didn’t do it in 2009. It will be harder for him in 2013.”

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