There’s a whole lot of head-scratching going on right now following US President Obama’s abrupt, some might say erratic, about-turn after discovery of the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Some analysts allege cold feet, others suggest that Obama allows his craving for personal popularity to dictate his politics, while still others field various conspiracy theories ranging from the barely plausible to the downright bizarre.

What we can say with a degree of certainty, however, is that the focus of media attention is wrong. Yes, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is a brutal dictator. Yes, Assad’s military has been battling Syrian citizens for many months now, and yes, that battle has been joined by various extremist Jihadi organisations whose brutality and agenda make Assad’s abuses pale into insignificance.

So why is the media focus all wrong? Because the spotlight is on Damascus, not Tehran. As though Assad were able to take even the most elementary decisions independently. Syria’s Assad is an Iranian puppet. His actions are dictated by Tehran.

At the outbreak of the Syrian civil war two years ago, there were calls urging the world community to focus immediately on quelling Assad’s brutality, as a message to his handlers in Iran. As usual, the world community, headed by the UN, chose to turn a blind eye to blatant human rights abuses taking place in a Muslim country. In the two years since, Syria has degenerated into a Jihadi arena with battle lines drawn up on religious, sectarian, ethnic, tribal and clan lines. Sunni against Shia, Alawite against Sunni, all against the Christians, and with the country squeezed from either side by Assad’s allies, the fanatical Shia regimes of Lebanon’s Hizbollah in the west and Iran in the east.

Whatever the reason, and however much the world community – and Syrian civilians in particular – may regret it, the fact is the world community failed to act against the Syrian dictator two years ago. The clock cannot be turned back. Although it might seem unfeeling to say so, today Assad is irrelevant. Having ignored the need to crush Assad when he launched his murderous mission two years ago, now the world community instead has to deal with the much larger threat of Iran – the regime that empowered, trained, financed and directed Assad’s war on his own people and that is continuing to do so today with Tehran’s authorisation of his use of chemical weapons on his own civilians.

Make no mistake: this is a Syrian battle, but it is part of an Iranian war.

So our attention should be on Tehran, not Damascus.

The point many analysts have been making for some time now, with some but not enough success, is that Syria/Hizbollah/Iran is not a specifically Syrian issue. And it is definitely not an Israeli issue, however much various Muslim regimes try to drag the Jewish state into the equation. The lesson that should be firmly etched in everyone’s minds is North Korea. The world community failed to stop a rogue state from acquiring the ultimate weapon of terror, and now not just the Korean peninsula but the entire world is being held hostage by the latest incarnation of a North Korean head of state with a penchant for killing his own people. Back when Assad launched his heinous war against his own population, inaction on Syria signalled the likelihood of inaction on Iran. Iran has been and still is watching very closely. Western action on Syria benefits Sunni Islamist radicals and extremists who make Bashar al-Assad look like a boy scout by comparison, but failure to act against Assad today gives Shia Tehran a free rein tomorrow.

Two points are important here:

  1. This is not solely about Syria but about the credibility of the entire Western world, led by America and her allies. And if the United States suffers from a credibility deficit, so too by default will the rest of the western world.
  2. This should in no way be interpreted as eagerness for military action against the mullahs in Iran. Western paralysis whenever the subject is the Muslim world, compounded by stupidity bordering on criminal negligence, inaction and kowtowing to some particularly unpleasant regimes in the Middle East (among them Iran, Syria, Hizbollah, Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Egypt et al) has led us to a situation in which we’re damned if we do act, and doubly damned if we don’t.

Without entering into the realm of domestic US politics, it is nonetheless safe to say that Obama’s unsteady hand on the tiller of regional foreign policy has led to the current volatile state. But having someone to blame for the problem does nothing to actually solve the problem. And we need to solve the problem. In the unfortunate position in which we find ourselves as a result of Western (read US-led) vacillation, the US now finds itself faced with the prospect of allying itself with al Qaeda militants against Assad, an ally of Iran – and reluctant to deal robustly with Iran tomorrow out of fear of repercussion. How could that possibly make sense? Action against Assad today can only be a precursor to action against Iran (whether economic/diplomatic/military), otherwise why would the USA pay the price of allying itself with murderous al Qaeda radicals who will once again turn on the USA as soon as opportunity presents itself?

The only glimmer of sanity in this otherwise insane scenario is the element of double-bluff: the West withdraws from action in Syria, the West is roundly berated for its spinelessness, its unprincipled behaviour and callous disregard for the massive loss of civilian Syrian lives, and this encourages the Iranian regime to follow in the footsteps of its puppet Assad; Iran accelerates its nuclear weapons programme safe in the knowledge that the West has no stomach for confrontation. The West responds by dealing with the Iranian regime’s genocidal programme the way it failed to deal with the Syrian regime’s genocidal programme: with total destructive force, and with absolute determination to terminate both the programme and the regime, giving the Iranian population their first opportunity for free and democratic elections since 1979.

A gamble, a double bluff, luring the Iranian regime into a false sense of security and then hitting it between the eyes. Terminally.

There comes a time when we’ve got to give up all pretence of moral equivalency, that the US or UK government has the same moral foundation as the Iranian or Syrian. They’re poles apart. We should be embracing regime change in the latter – proudly, openly.

Here’s hoping the US administration has internalised at least some of the lessons it ought to have learnt from the ongoing debacle in Syria. The USA and its democratic allies should be thinking strategically and long-term.

Hopefully the era of the sound-byte presidency is over – too much is at stake.