At a community briefing at Seattle’s Temple De Hirsch Sinai, Rep. Adam Smith (D-9th District) used a long checklist to discuss America’s role in the Middle East: The Obama administration’s actions in the region, characterized by caution; remaining disengaged in Syria; top-level diplomacy through Secretary of State John Kerry’s frequent trips; economic support; and a prudent military component in the region.
At the event organized by the left-leaning Israel advocacy organization J Street, Smith, whom it endorses, also said he was waiting for a formal White House plan outlining its approach toward Syria, which is in the midst of an increasingly combustible sectarian civil war. The growing violence there has left 80,000-plus dead and threatens the safety of Israel and the stability in the region.
“I’m still waiting for someone to put a plan on the table, but I haven’t seen it,” said Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. “It’s the most dangerous situation we face on the globe today.”
According to observers, the U.S. must commit to some involvement going forward in Syria because several American allies that share a border with the majority Sunni Islamic country have already been drawn into hostilities that have spilled across their borders.
At the same time, however, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s allies have come to his aid. Russia sent Assad an assortment of its newest high-tech defensive missiles and it has been widely reported that Iran has mobilized and armed Hezbollah inside the country.
According to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who recently returned from stealth meetings there with the anti-Assad rebel factions, the insurgents deserve U.S. support.
Smith expressed some of the president’s caution, recognizing that the alliances that undergird the longtime Syrian president are formidable.
“We should not support regime change,” Smith said. “We don’t have a group of viable people to support. The opposition to Assad is somewhat splintered and dangerous. We can make it worse. He’s got enough firepower that can last.”
However, he said the breakdown of a fragile peace in Egypt and the general unrest in neighboring countries could have catastrophic consequences for Israel.
“The implications for Israel are profound indeed,” Smith said, “but we can’t just show up and tell Egypt and Libya how to run their government. We need an economic plan in that region. We need to be strategic about it. We have to find a way to be engaged.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that the peace [with Morsi] will hold,” he added.
However, Smith was unequivocal and direct about the U.S.‘s commitment to Israel.
“Israel is our most critical ally and we must make it clear to all the parties that we will have their back,” he said. “That is fundamental and it is a vital national security interest.”
In contrast to President Obama’s recent speech on military policy going forward when he asserted that the terror threat, in general, is subsiding, Smith noted that the terror threat is still very real. He recalled events that originally led the U.S. into the fight against radical Islamic extremism.
“Al-Qaeda declared war on the U.S. in 1996,” said Smith. “There are some very dangerous people that are threatening us and we can’t back down from that.”
While in Rome in May, Secretary Kerry met with Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Qatar’s prime minister, according to reports. In Washington, D.C., Kerry met for a second time with Livni and he also met with the PLO chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat and Jordan’s foreign minister. During a return trip to the Middle East, Kerry met separately with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.
“I urge against preconditions,” said Smith, who told the crowd he traveled to Israel and the surrounding territories in 2005 and 2011. “A two-state solution is the only sustainable path forward and the U.S. has to be part of it. The economic development in the West Bank has been critical.”
Speaking more broadly concerning his vision for the future of the region as a whole, Smith said that economic development and diplomacy are crucial, but there must be a dialogue of cooperation with younger generations to affect lasting change and to help them believe in the possibility of a true peace process.
“The clash of civilizations needs to be brought out into the open and addressed,” said Smith. “It’s real and it’s tangible. It’s about working with the broader group on ideology so that people don’t turn to these [radical] groups.”
Smith blamed the ongoing upheavals in leadership and protests in many Muslim countries in the Middle East on “unsustainable governments” where the people “were shut out, shut down, and not provided for.”
“They need economic support, political freedom, and hope,” said Smith. “We’ve got to work with the populations.”