Elephants in the Room
Does Trump Intend to Thwart Iran’s Ambitions in Syria?
For the United States, the time for choosing what to do when it comes to the gathering Iranian menace has now come.
As if President Donald Trump isn’t facing enough problems already (some, unfortunately, of his own making — see Charlottesville, Virginia), here’s one more to add to the list: If he’s not careful, the president risks going down in history as the man who defeated the Islamic State only to make the Middle East safe for Iranian hegemony.
There’s not much doubt about what the Iranians are up to. As the U.S.-backed coalition drives the Islamic State from its remaining strongholds, forces led by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and backed by Russian air power — the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah, and Shiite militias — are racing to fill the void, securing strategic terrain along the Iraq-Syria border and a land bridge stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean. From there, the IRGC will seek over time to establish a series of ground, air, and naval bases across the Middle East’s northern tier, dramatically escalating its ability to threaten key U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf, Jordan, and especially Israel.
Does the Trump administration intend to thwart Iran’s dangerous ambitions? The short answer is: We just don’t know. Its messages are decidedly mixed. At a general level, administration officials regularly express determination to combat Iranian aggression. More specifically, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that the IRGC and its foreign proxies “must leave and go home” as part of any eventual resolution of the Syrian conflict. And on the handful of occasions this summer when Iran and its proxies have sought to challenge U.S.-backed positions in Syria (near the Islamic State’s capital in Raqqa and on the Jordanian border), they’ve been met with a swift and forceful response — including the shoot-down of two Iranian drones as well as a Syrian Su-22 bomber.
All well and good, as far as it goes. But on the other hand: The U.S. military has been at pains to stress that it will only confront pro-Assad elements for narrow force-protection purposes, with no mention of preventing Iran’s strategic land grab. After taking out the Su-22, the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition issued a statement underscoring that “The Coalition’s mission is to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The Coalition does not seek to fight Syrian regime, Russian, or pro-regime forces partnered with them, but will not hesitate to defend Coalition or partner forces from any threat.”
Days later, it got decidedly worse. The U.S. spokesman for the coalition, Colonel Ryan Dillon, went even further, effectively welcoming a concerted push by IRGC-allied forces to seize oil-rich Islamic State strongholds in the all-important Iraq-Syria border region of Deir Ezzour — precisely the terrain necessary to complete the Iranian land bridge. In response to several questions about the U.S. view of an ongoing offensive by pro-Assad forces to reconquer eastern Syria, specifically Deir Ezzour and the vital border town of Abu Kamal, Dillon repeatedly said that the coalition would not stand in opposition — so long as there was appropriate deconfliction with U.S.-partnered forces. His answers were so stunning, and reflected such a far-reaching strategic myopia, that they’re worth quoting at length:
Well, if the Syrian regime — and it looks like they are making a concerted effort to move into ISIS held areas. And if they show that they can do that, that is not a bad sign. We are here to fight ISIS as a coalition, but if others want to fight ISIS and defeat them, then we absolutely have no problem with that. And as they move eastward toward Abu Kamal and to Deir Ezzour, if we — as long as we deconflict and make sure that we can focus on what it is we’re there to do, without having any kind of strategic mishaps with the regime or with pro-regime forces or with Russians, than that is — we’re perfectly happy about that….
You know that the regime has moved in, and they have made some significant, you know, progress, as it looks, towards moving to Abu Kamal and perhaps Deir Ezzour. If they want to fight ISIS in Abu Kamal and they have the capacity to do so, then, you know, that — that would be welcome.
We as a coalition are not in the land-grab business. We’re in the killing ISIS business, and that is what we want to do. And if — if the Syrian regime wants to do that, and they are going to again, put forth a concerted effort and show that they are — are doing just that in Abu Kamal or Deir Ezzour or elsewhere, that means that we don’t have to do that in those locations…. But if our access to Abu Kamal is shut off because the regime is there, that’s okay.
Dillon’s statement of U.S. policy has been allowed to stand for two months without refutation or challenge by more authoritative sources in Washington. On the contrary, in the interim the United States has actually taken several additional steps that will have the effect of making the advance on eastern Syria by Iran, Russia and the Assad regime easier.
To wit: In early July, the administration gave its blessing to a series of Russian-negotiated ceasefires in western Syria, including one near the border with Israel and Jordan that U.S. diplomats helped broker. Though hailed as a breakthrough that could advance an eventual end to the civil war, the ceasefires’ more immediate impact has been to help the Assad regime consolidate battlefield gains in western Syria while freeing up scarce manpower resources to support this summer’s offensive in the east.
Shortly thereafter, the administration confirmed that it had ended a controversial Obama-era CIA program to support anti-Assad rebels. And just days later, in late July, the U.S. military announced that it had cut ties with one of its main Sunni Arab partners in southern Syria after the group, Shuhada al-Qaryatayn, sometimes known as the Shuq, had launched operations to impede the eastward progress of pro-Assad forces. Explaining the move, Dillon acknowledged that “The Shuq have been important partners in the fight against ISIS in southern Syria.” But he noted that “We have made it very clear time and again that our goal in Syria and Iraq is to fight ISIS and fight ISIS only…. So we have since talked with [the Shuq] and made them know that we cannot support them if they want to pursue objectives other than defeating ISIS.”
Needless to say, America’s seeming strategic incoherence when it comes to Iranian designs in Syria has many of its most important regional friends alarmed — and none more so than Israel. A high-level Israeli security delegation that just returned from Washington expressed “grave concern” that the U.S. balked when pressed to condition any Syrian settlement on the evacuation of Iranian-allied forces. The Israelis reportedly told their American counterparts, “We rushed here to warn of the deployment of Hezbollah, Iranian and Syrian forces; to explain exactly what’s going on there. Without a significant change [the U.S.] position, if you don’t become more involved, tougher and more aggressive, you will leave the Middle East to the Iranians, under Russian auspices.” In response to their warnings, however, the Israelis perceived only “a kind of embarrassment” on the part of the Trump administration resulting from their “lack of a clear position … with regards to the nature of the future agreement and disagreements on what should and what should not be done in Syria to bring quiet to the region. As far as they’re concerned, the matter is still wide open.”
Anyone who has spent time with senior Israeli officials in the past year knows how deadly serious they have been about the emerging Iranian threat in Syria. They have left little doubt that an outright victory for Iran — defined in terms of any enduring Iranian ability to use Syria as a launching pad for military aggression against Israel — would be unacceptable. The consolidation of an IRGC-controlled land corridor stretching from Tehran to the Golan Heights, replete with Iranian-backed forces and permanent military outposts, would see that nightmare realized on steroids. While Israel has strongly preferred that the United States take the lead in blocking such a dangerous deterioration in its geostrategic situation, there is every reason to believe that it will take matters into its own hands should America falter.
It’s now beyond question that the endgame in Syria is rapidly approaching. Regrettably, after nearly six long years of the Obama administration’s abdication of U.S. leadership, there are no successes to be won there anymore — only worse disasters to be mitigated. At the top of the list should be preventing a fundamental shift in the balance of power in favor of America’s most determined enemies in a region of the world long deemed vital to U.S. interests. A close second might be avoiding a major Israeli-Iranian conflagration that could make the Middle East’s current unraveling seem like mere child’s play. Heading off those dueling catastrophes will no doubt prove difficult. It will be impossible, however, unless the United States first decides to do so. For the Trump administration, the time for choosing what to do when it comes to the gathering Iranian menace in Syria has now come.
Photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO via Getty Images