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Elephants in the Room
Does Trump Realize That His New Iran Strategy Could Suffer a Fatal Blow in Syria?
Without a plan for countering Iranian and Russian interests in Eastern Syria, the administration could find itself in a very bad place in the Middle East.
Note to President Trump: The new Iran strategy that you announced just three weeks ago is hanging by a thread. Its fate will likely be decided in the next few months on the Syria-Iraq border. If you are serious about countering Iranian aggression, you need to act soon to block Iran’s bid for hegemony across this critical battle space — ground zero in the region’s struggle for strategic primacy. If you don’t — if you stand aside and allow the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to assert its political, economic and military dominance over the Middle East’s entire northern tier, giving it an unimpeded land bridge from Tehran to the Mediterranean — your Iran strategy will be stillborn, embarrassingly consigned to history’s ash heap within a few short months of its unveiling.
Too stark? Perhaps. But it’s not at all clear that Trump has been fully briefed on what’s at stake for the United States in eastern Syria or how quickly events are moving on the ground there. The Islamic State is rapidly being driven out of its last remaining strongholds in Syria’s Deir Ezzor province along the Iraqi border. The IRGC, in tandem with the Syrian regime, Russian air power, and multiple Iranian-controlled Shiite militias (including Lebanese Hezbollah), is determined to seize control of the entire area that the Islamic State vacates. With that terrain secured, the Islamic Republic’s strategic objective of a contiguous ground corridor stretching across Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon would be largely complete — underwritten by powerful pro-Iranian proxies in Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut. Iran’s ability to project power across the Greater Levant would be dangerously enhanced, dramatically escalating its long-term ability to threaten critical U.S. allies in Israel, Jordan, and beyond.
The last remaining obstacle to the full-blown realization of Iran’s hegemonic ambitions is a U.S.-backed coalition of Syrian Kurds and Arabs — known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Supported by U.S. air power and U.S. Special Forces on the ground, the SDF drove the Islamic State from its self-declared capital of Raqqa and has continued attacking the group’s remaining strongholds down the eastern bank of the Euphrates River in Deir Ezzor province — in close proximity to the Iran/Syria/Russia axis now fighting the Islamic State on the river’s western side. Kept apart at present by a U.S.-Russian deconfliction channel, both coalitions have been securing critical territory as they advance toward the Syria-Iraq border and the Islamic State’s last remaining garrison — the strategically significant city of Abu Kamal that controls a major transit route and checkpoint connecting Syria and Iraq.
The great unanswered question about Trump’s Syria policy is whether U.S. military support of the SDF is aimed solely at defeating the Islamic State, or whether it is now also informed by the larger objective set out in the president’s new strategy of countering Iran’s growing power as well. If only the former, then once the military rout of the Islamic State is completed, America’s job in Syria will be done and U.S. forces can withdraw claiming “Mission Accomplished” — abandoning the SDF to fend for itself in the face of the Iranian/Syrian/Russian tsunami.
That, of course, is exactly what Iran and its allies are counting on. They are convinced that, while full of tough talk and bluster, the Trump administration does not have the stomach for an extended military face-off in Syria. Already, Iran, the Assad regime, and Russia are signaling to the SDF that they cannot rely on the United States to stand by them once the Islamic State is defeated. Instead, the SDF should cut its own deal with the Assad regime and its backers now rather than wait to confront them alone after the United States abandons the battlefield — as, they insist, it inevitably will.
A brief, but pertinent aside: Recent events just across the border in Iraqi Kurdistan have, of course, only magnified the force of this Iranian argument. Whatever one thinks about the merits of the dispute between the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan region in the wake of the latter’s ill-timed independence referendum, the widespread perception now exists that the United States took a knee as one of its most loyal and reliable partners was humiliated and brought to heel by an Iraqi Army in cahoots with — and heavily influenced by — Iranian-backed Shiite militias and their IRGC masters. Within a matter of days, and with Washington largely watching from the sidelines, the American-backed Kurdish project in Iraq — more than a generation in the making — has been brought to the precipice of ruin and collapse. And all, it must be said, within 100 hours or so of President Trump declaring to the world that working with longstanding allies and partners to stem the rising menace of Iranian regional aggression was now at the heart of American strategy in the Middle East.
Not a great omen, for sure. But Iraq is Iraq. Syria is Syria. Each situation has its unique factors and complications. If Trump nevertheless decides that Iran’s hegemonic designs must be foiled in eastern Syria, he can still do so. With the support of U.S. air power and Special Forces, the SDF remains an extremely capable combat force. Its tens of thousands of Sunni Arab fighters are an especially valuable asset in Sunni-dominated Deir Ezzor. From that vantage, it’s entirely within the U.S. coalition’s capabilities to decide that they — not the pro-Iranian forces — will seize Abu Kamal and the Syria-Iraq border from the Islamic State. Washington can assure its SDF partners that it will remain in Syria even after the Islamic State is defeated to assist them in holding strategic terrain and assets that they have liberated — even in the face of intimidation, threats, and attacks from the Syrian regime and its backers.
The U.S. goal should be to accumulate as much leverage as it can with an eye toward an eventual negotiation on Syria’s future. Especially if the SDF is able to take Abu Kamal, the assets already held by the U.S. coalition are substantial and should not be frittered away for nothing. To list just a few of those assets: Large swathes of territory in northern and eastern Syria. Many of the country’s most important infrastructure projects — essential to its economic future — including Syria’s largest gas and oil fields in Deir Ezzor, as well as some of its largest dams and hydroelectric power stations. Finally, the United States and its partners in Europe and the Gulf hold the key to the tens of billions of dollars in international assistance that Syria will require to recover from the civil war’s devastation — a bill that Russia and Iran are neither able nor willing to shoulder on their own.
With those cards in hand, Washington and its allies will at least have standing to demand that any political settlement in Syria take American interests into account. That means a plan to eventually transition Assad from power; guaranteeing the basic political and social rights of Syria’s minorities, especially the Kurds; and, perhaps most importantly, preventing the establishment by Iran and its Shiite proxies of a permanent military presence in Syria that would light the fuse on a future Israeli-Iranian conflagration. In short, no IRGC land bridge to the Mediterranean.
None of this would be easy. All of it would involve assuming greater risks and costs. But it also would be entirely consistent with a new strategy that boldly announced to the world that the days of America standing aside in the face of Iran’s mounting regional aggression were over. Someone needs to tell President Trump sooner rather than later: Sir, you cannot declare war on the IRGC in October only to turn around and cede the Middle East’s northern tier to the IRGC in November. Sir, without a serious ground game that consciously works to block Iranian hegemony in Iraq and Syria, you do not have a serious strategy to counter the Iranian threat to U.S. interests. The new get-tough approach that you announced toward Iran last month would be reduced to nothing but empty talk and bluster — paper tiger territory. And when it comes to the hard men commanding the IRGC, that would be a very dangerous place to be — for America, the Middle East, and the world.