If the US does not hold firm to the “red line” it set down against Syria using chemical weapons, it risks undermining the seriousness with which its positions are taken on thwarting Iran’s drive for a nuclear weapon, the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs warned on Saturday.
“Sending a conflicting message to the Syrian regime — which is a cat’s paw of Iran — could create a misunderstanding as to the steadfast nature of our intentions on Iran,” said Ed Royce (R-CA).
Speaking to The Times of Israel during a visit of a bi-partisan delegation from the committee, Royce said it was “imperative” that the US was serious, and was seen to be serious, when making clear to the Iranian regime that “we shall not allow them to have a nuclear weapon.”
Thus, said Royce, “having named a red line… with respect to the use of chemical weapons in warfare in Syria, and also used the issue of a ‘red line’ with respect to Iran’s development of an offensive nuclear weapons capability, it becomes problematic if the US begins to redefine or walk back from the definition of what constitutes a red line.”
President Barack Obama last August declared that the use of lethal chemical weapons by President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, or the transfer of such weapons to terrorist groups, would cross a “red line.” He did not specify what kind of US-led response this might provoke. In the last 10 days, since first Israel, and then the US and other world powers, confirmed that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons in the bloody civil war, Obama has been weighing how to respond.
Royce said “more could be done” by the US in relation to Syria, and “in some areas we are involved in taking these steps.” He declined to elaborate.
He also said more should be done “in terms of destabilizing the Assad regime at a faster pace.” It was “in the interest of stability in this region that the Assad regime collapse quickly, and that the Free Syrian Army be the victors and the conduit for ushering in a pluralistic Syrian government.”
Royce noted that many members of Assad’s own Alawite sect, notably in the Syrian business community, shifted their loyalties away from Assad 10 months ago. “One of the former Alawite ministers is in the process of broadcasting from Dubai, telling Alawites that the time is at hand” for all Syrians — Alawites, Christians, Sunni, Shia, and Kurds — to internalize that “the best future for Syria… is one under new leadership which is pluralistic and committed to a democratic course of action.”
Many senior political and military leaders in Syria have recognized that Assad is going to fall, he said. “The problem for the region is if al-Nusra becomes the successor of the regime.” To prevent that, the international community, “with the exception of Qatar,” Royce said, was working to steer humanitarian relief to those who needed it via non-Assad conduits, and was “giving support to the forces that are vetted and deemed representative of the broader, diverse Syrian population.”
Royce twice specified that Qatar continues to arm these “outside” al-Nusra fighters — which was destabilizing for Syria, and a threat to the region, “as al-Nusra represents the worst example of jihadist extremism.”
Turning to Iran, Royce said 300 Congressional legislators were now co-sponsoring the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act — introduced earlier this year by Royce and fellow committee member Eliot Engel (D-NY) — which would penalize foreign companies and individuals that violate US sanctions by prohibiting them from doing business with the US. The legislation would also block Iran’s access to its foreign bank assets held in Euros — which Royce called Iran’s last “remaining avenue of repatriating profits.”
The bill amounted to “a full commercial trade embargo,” he said, and was “much broader than anything done before… a tool of last resort.”
He said he anticipated the bill gaining a “veto-proof super-majority” in both the House and the Senate in the coming months, and that once enacted it would “bring the economy of Iran to a halt.”
Would this obviate the need for military intervention? “This would be a game changer in Iran,” he said.
Turning to the threat of terrorism, in the US, Israel, and beyond, Royce said the challenge posed by Islamic extremist terror “has been underestimated in Europe, and we are in danger of underestimating the capability of jihadists… to inflict terror in the US.”
He said there were 600 jihadi schools operating in central Asia, and that governments like that of Pakistan had not taken the necessary step of closing them down. Young, impressionable students were being indoctrinated, radicalized, and trained in such institutions and would “subsequently learn to inflict upon the wider world the lessons learned.” The internet offered “an additional vehicle of indoctrination… We now have a virtual caliphate through the internet,” he said.
Asked whether he feared there were more terror plotters at work in the US right now, like the alleged Boston bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Royce responded by citing the recent plot to attack a political rally in northern England which failed only because the would-be bombers, who were being monitored by UK police, arrived after the event had finished. “The presence of individuals who harbor these sympathies is often known,” said Royce, “but until they’re caught in the act of preparing and communicating their intentions directly to others, it is very difficult to make an arrest just on the basis of ideological extremism.”
One of the ways to tackle such threats, said Royce, was to take greater care when weighing requests for political asylum from applicants who were not welcome in their home countries because of their radical ideology.
Was Royce talking about the Tsarnaevs? No, he clarified, he was not sufficiently familiar with that case but was, rather, making a wider point. “We have to ask about context. Why do these individuals request political asylum?” If “they are unwelcome in their host countries because of their own extremist ideological beliefs, it shouldn’t be a surprise if they subsequently begin to take the same radical action in the US and Europe.”
He specified an incident of which he was personally aware in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan in which 12 young men “tried to walk away from their headmaster” at a jihadi school “because they realized they were going to be taught jihad.” All 12 were decapitated, he said, noting that he was told about the incident on a recent visit to the country. This was not the kind of action familiar in Kyrgystan, he said he was told. The horrified message he heard from locals, Royce said, “was that ‘this was a Gulf state action. They are changing our culture. They are indoctrinating our children.'”
The incident was emblematic of an attempt to foster terrorism and indoctrination “across central Asia and on the African continent” via “some of these jihadi institutions,” Royce said. The goal was “to inculcate an “intolerant, radical culture” that will “prevent these societies from functioning and subvert them into chaos.”