Fighters of Syrian Democratic Forces walk through rubble, on the way to their positions as they battle Islamic State militants at the frontline in Raqqa, Syria October 7, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

October 23, 2017

Trump faces a reckoning with Syria

Originally published in The Hill

Now for the hard part in Syria and Iraq. American strategy in Syria is completely incompatible with the strategy to address Iranian regional influence that President Trump recently announced. The United States has largely ignored the expansion of Iranian military forces and proxies in Syria while focusing on driving ISIS from Raqqa and Mosul. With that goal accomplished, the administration must correct the fatal contradiction in American policy toward Iran.

Iran’s military position beyond its borders is stronger than it has ever been in modern times. Iranian conventional ground forces operate in Syria, controlling many tens of thousands of proxy militias drawn from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Lebanese Hezbollah. Tehran has solidified its coalition with Moscow and is perfecting techniques for integrating Russian airpower into Iranian-controlled ground operations.

The United States has taken little action against Iran and its proxies in Syria and has achieved no meaningful effects. American officials have repeated the mantra that “Bashar Assad must go." President Trump ordered a missile strike on the airbase from which Assad launched a chemical weapons attack. U.S. forces have shot down Syrian and Iranian planes and drones threatening U.S. forces. None of these statements or actions have slowed the expansion of the Iranian military footprint in Syria. 

On the contrary, Iranian forces and proxies, backed by their Russian allies, have pressed eastward toward Deir Ezzor and also toward the limited footprint U.S. forces maintained around Al Tanf. These forces are insufficient to clear ISIS from the lower Euphrates River Valley or even to retake the city of Deir Ezzor from ISIS control. Their movement is intended, rather, to drive the United States out and keep it from entering eastern Syria. So far they have been successful, as American forces have generally given way rather than resist.

This acquiescence to Iranian military dominance and expansion in Syria is completely incompatible with the recently announced regional strategy toward Iran. The idea of reducing Iranian malign activity in the region without confronting the most flagrant example of that activity — Iranian military, financial, diplomatic and political support for the mass murdering, chemical weapons using, war criminal Assad — is absurd.

The need to fight ISIS provided the excuse for ignoring Iranian activities in Syria. ISIS is not yet defeated in Syria, as it retains safe havens in the east, but the clearing of Raqqa should be enough to eliminate this excuse for tolerating the most significant Iranian military deployment abroad in the Islamic Republic's history.

A strategy for pushing back on Iran in Syria should attempt to coerce and constrain Iranian actions without escalating to full scale war, which is exactly what the Iranians have been doing to the United States. America should expand and strengthen its footholds within Syria near Iranian positions and accept the risk that Iranian proxies might attack them, where upon U.S. forces should counterattack decisively.

When Iranian, Syrian or Russian forces attack or threaten American allies on the ground in Syria, as they have repeatedly done, the United States should protect its partners from and retaliate against those attacks. President Trump should make clear in word and deed that he will respond to Iranian provocations anywhere in the Middle East with actions to weaken and dismantle the Iranian military footprint in Syria, including military strikes.

The administration’s determination to strengthen the non-nuclear sanctions regime should also include a Syrian sub-strategy. The U.S. should not only advance strong sanctions against Lebanese Hezbollah, as Congress is now considering, but should also impose aggressive secondary sanctions on any entity — Russian, Iranian or European — doing business with the Assad government. It should block efforts to channel reconstruction assistance through the Assad government, and especially to the Iranian and Hezbollah companies that seek to benefit from international largesse.

The aim of these efforts is not in the first instance to overthrow Assad, an undertaking that requires a complex and sophisticated strategy to terminate the conflict in Syria on acceptable terms, but rather to roll back the Iranian military and proxy presence in Syria. Some will warn that any such efforts will lead to war with Iran and Russia, and that the United States must avoid the risk of such conflicts at almost any costs.

Escalation to war is not, in fact, the inevitable consequence of the approach outlined above. The same calculations that have deterred the Russians and Iranians from going to war with the United States in Syria, and the region to this point will continue to hold, namely, that America can do fearful harm to both of them should conflict escalate.

Russian air defense and anti-shipping missile systems present an unprecedented challenge in Syria, to be sure. Defeating them would require concentrating American forces in the area at the expense of other global theaters and would cost the United States lives and equipment. But the American military can defeat them, can destroy every single ship and airplane the Russians have in the Middle East, and can decimate the Iranian military forces and proxies in Syria.

The fact that Americans rightly wish to avoid the costs of such a conflict if possible does not alter the reality that Iran and Russia would pay a far higher price in such a war and would lose. This is the calculation and the principle that underlies deterrence and that can allow an intelligent American strategy to escalate against Iran in Syria with a reasonable expectation of avoiding all out war.

The alternative is to subordinate American security objectives in the Middle East permanently to the coalition of  Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. That subordination is the inevitable result of a policy that seeks to avoid conflict at all costs. The long-term price of such subordination is too high. It will provide Iran long-term bases in Syria from which to dominate Lebanon and threaten Israel and Jordan. It will strengthen Hezbollah tremendously. It will allow Tehran to expand the threat to American allies to such a point that it will be able to deter U.S. actions against Iran simply by threatening them with overwhelming force. It will be a long step toward the establishment of Iranian regional hegemony.

The focus on clearing ISIS out of Raqqa was always excessive. Success in that fight does not even destroy the ISIS threat, and it has distorted American policy in Syria in many ways. Now that Raqqa is cleared, it is time to reform U.S. strategy in Syria so that it coheres with American strategy toward Iran overall rather than undermining it completely.