With new U.S. intelligence suggesting Syria’s Assad may be preparing to launch another chemical weapons attack on his beleaguered people, the White House preemptively warned Assad “would pay a heavy price” if an attack was launched.
Assad’s April 2017 sarin gas attack resulted in dozens of innocent civilian deaths. Recall that in response, the Trump Administration served up a retaliatory strike of 59 Tomahawk missiles against the Syrian airbase from which the chemical weapons attack was launched. On its face, Assad may not have learned a lesson, but there is far more below the desert sands than meets the eye regarding Iran’s and Assad’s goal of booting American boots out of Syria. In those baked and bloodied Syrian sands the U.S. is playing checkers against Russia while Iran is playing for keeps while setting a deadly trap for us.
As serious as a military confrontation between Russian and American forces in Syria, it is a diversion insofar as the future of Syria is concerned. Moscow warned Washington following President Trump’s April retaliation that it would “stop” any further U.S. attacks against Assad’s military. The skies over Syria are as crowded as a Beltway traffic jam – ripe for an unintended or intentional incident between Russian and American war planes. Just last week, U.S. fighters shot down a Syrian warplane that had attacked American-supported Syrian Kurdish fighters advancing on ISIS’s stronghold at Raqqa. Soon thereafter, two Iranian-made drones probing American defenses south of Raqqa near the al-Tanf military base were destroyed by an American F-15.
Putin warned Washington that Russian anti-aircraft missiles would fire on any American aircraft flying west of the Euphrates River – Russia’s version of a “no-fly” zone. It is a dicey roll of the dice whether Putin would risk a duel with the American air force over the skies of Syria. But given his doubling down for Assad, Putin can ill afford to turn Syrian airspace over to the U.S. He would rather prove his point than walk back from his own red line.
Washington now confronts another “Kodak” moment in Syria: will the Trump Administration maintain a laser focus to turn the keys over to a Sunni Arab stabilization force to prevent the return of ISIS after Raqqa falls, or will it take Iran’s bait and slide deeper into the Syrian quagmire on Tehran’s terms?
To understand exactly what a slippery slope we are on it would be helpful to have a map of Syria in front of you. It is hard enough for a professional military officer to understand the Syrian battlefield, let alone arm-chair generals (of which I am not).
Near the triangular intersection of the Iraqi-Syrian-Jordanian border sits al-Tanf ― a former Syrian military base now the major headquarters for U.S. military advisers and other anti-ISIS coalition forces, including Maghawir al-Thawra (MAT―Revolutionary Commando Army). MAT are the “good guys” and was founded in May 2015 to battle ISIS incursions into Jordan. Along with their American advisers, MAT recruits are the “southern cousins” of their northern Kurdish American allies advancing in a pincer movement along a north-south axis to encircle Raqqa and cut off fleeing ISIS fighters.
However, Raqqa, and its fall, is a side show to Tehran.
What matters to Iran and Assad is the American base at al-Tanf and the Syrian province surrounding it. Because al-Tanf abuts the old Damascus-Baghdad highway – and is on the geographical nexus of a “Shiite Crescent” land corridor designed to link Tehran with Beirut via Baghdad and Damascus, the Iranians are determined to boot the Americans out. Worse for Iranian strategic aims, the Americans at al-Tanf are about to be reinforced by the first elements of a new Sunni Arab counterterrorism force being deployed to hold and stabilize eastern Syria after Raqqa falls. To put it in historical terms, the American base at al-Tanf is a veritable “Bastogne” standing in the way of that ayatollah aspiration.
The formation and eventual deployment of this combined American/Sunni Arab counterterrorism force is one of the very successful outcomes of President Trump’s U.S. – Arab Summit in Riyadh last month – an essential bulwark to destroy the remnants of ISIS and prevent it from regaining toeholds in the notoriously ungovernable eastern Syrian and western Iraqi deserts. The sooner that expeditionary force is deployed, the better and safer it will be for Americans stationed in Syria.
Iran plans to prevent a linkup of coalition forces along that north-south axis slicing across Syria through Raqqa by deploying an Iranian-backed Shiite militia force to divide American forces in two between those stationed at al-Tanf, and those supporting Syrian YPG Kurdish forces based in northern Syria abutting the Turkish frontier. Iranian-backed Shiite militias advancing from western Iraq (which did not participate in the battle to retake Mosul from ISIS) are moving slowly west as Syrian forces move east to secure this complex route that weaves its way across Arab Iraq into Syrian Kurdish lands into devastated Aleppo.
The ultimate prize sought by the Iranians: the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor, where most of Syria’s oil resources are located and a land corridor to enable Iran to resupply and embolden its terrorist proxies, notably Hezbollah, without having to rely on an air route into Damascus.
Iran would never risk a head-on confrontation with American-backed forces. Instead, Tehran is hoping to divert American attention (and forces) away from the al-Tanf triangle to far south-western Syria where its terrorist proxies ― Iran-backed Shiite militias and Hezbollah forces ― are probing Israeli defenses on the Golan Heights as a feint. Once Raqqa falls, Iran is planning to enable the deployment of fresh troops from Assad’s Syrian army to secure the strategic lands of eastern Syria hitherto under ISIS control and lay the groundwork for a terrorist attack against American forces in eastern Syria, the rationale being that the American public has no appetite for another 1983-style Beirut Marine barracks attack ― perpetrated by an obscure terrorist group called Islamic Jihad, which was nothing but a cover for an Iranian Revolutionary Guard cell.
All of this is to say that no matter what Putin’s long-term objectives may be in Syria (maintaining a friendly Shiite regime in power and his western Syrian military bases secured), Iran has more complex anti-American strategic objectives in Syria – centered on securing the Euphrates river valley by punishing the Americans out of Syria through bloody terrorist attacks not readily traceable to Iran.
American acquiescence in Tehran’s strategic goals in eastern and central Syria (as well as in the eastern Golan Heights region abutting Israel) will define – for better or for worse – the Trump Administration’s near-term Syrian strategy – no matter what happens to Assad.
Iran’s barely-concealed imperialist ambitions across the Middle East (instigating proxy wars in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Libya) are a major threat to Israel, as well. The eastern, Assad regime-controlled portion of the Heights has been the scene of escalating Israeli military strikes against Iranian-backed Hezbollah forces which sniff an opportunity to carve out a “zone of control” opposite Israeli forces.
Israel has warned it will not tolerate a new Hezbollah “eastern front.” That may be academic. Hezbollah now possesses enough missiles (100,000 according to open source intel) to represent an existential threat to Israel, and the more Iran wins in Syria, the more likely Hezbollah will be at war with Israel.
The great failure of the Obama Administration’s Iran policy was naively hypnotizing itself into believing that the Iran nuclear agreement would incubate a more moderate Iranian regional policy. That double-down is proving to be a sucker’s bet – as many analysts warned. Uber liberal Democratic foreign policy wonks, notably ineffectual wonk-in-chief John Kerry, are still whistling past the Middle East graveyard hoping against hope that Iran can be charmed into acting more responsibly. They remain mesmerized by their Iran nuclear agreement handiwork at the expense of acknowledging more must be done to contain Iran’s emboldened agenda.
The “new” Iran is the same old Iran, only worse.
The most effective counterweight against Iran is to turn the tables on the Ayatollah’s regime. A rapid deployment of Sunni Arab forces to stabilize eastern Syria and western Iraq is the best defense against this Iranian offense. That must be Job #1 for the Trump Administration… no ifs, ands or buts. It is one thing for Iran to plot a terror attack against an American base (Afghanistan is a reminder how easy that can be), it is another for Iranian Shiite militias to take on Sunni Arab forces fighting ISIS with American support.
The unfolding dire position the U.S. faces in Syria is one more strike against President Obama who foolishly took Iran regime change off the table – even when the hated Ahmadinejad was still in power. That pill is still hard to swallow.
The Trump Administration should not put it in neon lights, but setting a course to provide more support for internal dissent in Iran is the Achilles heel of the regime. It’s time to force the regime to mind the store, instead of mining our forces. This means working with domestic and international Iranian opposition groups (including the National Council of Resistance of Iran), without having to publicly affirm that deposing the terrorist-led regime is U.S.-declared policy. Discrediting the regime in the eyes of the Iranian public is essential.
Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei, his likely successor, and his Revolutionary Guards constitute a major strategic threat to world stability and to American security. Almost two years after the nuclear agreement, Iran remains the principal state sponsor of terror in the world.
We need to be as good at Syrian chess, or better, than the Iranians. But Tehran has a strategy, and, at least for now, the U.S. doesn’t. Syria’s fate is not nor should it be in our hands. Its killing fields should be an American “no boots zone” to the maximum extent possible. An effective American policy cannot be premised on those like Mr. Kerry and his “Diplomacy Works” amen choir of Iranian apologists who wring their hands fearing that provoking Iran could destroy their nuclear agreement handiwork.
Cold realism about Iran’s goals must trump those who place their heads in the sand hoping it is we who will see the light.