According to Steven Cook of the Council for Foreign Relations, “the Syrian war is over and America lost… Washington has proved either unable or unwilling to shape events in the Middle East… which is to say, it has abdicated its own influence.”
But is it too late or still in American interests to influence the endgame in Syria and beyond?
American foreign policy in Syria since 2014 has prioritized the defeat of ISIS, choosing to sideline the more important and challenging confrontation with Iran over its permanent entrenchment and expansionism in the region. Syria is just one theater of operation among many interconnected pieces of the jigsaw puzzle which includes Iraq and Lebanon, where all roads lead to a malevolent Iran.
But Syria is ground zero with its outcome still uncertain, still susceptible to American influence, and affecting all aspects of Iran’s quest for a Shi’ite corridor to the Mediterranean. America’s Syrian policy or lack of one reverberates throughout the region and the world.
The Trump administration has been saying all the right things about Iran’s malign influence on American security interests. The administration has put the world on notice that it is not business as usual and has taken tangible actions, including withdrawing from JCPOA (the Iran nuclear deal) and re-imposing escalating sanctions against Iran and her proxies, in part because of its role in the Syrian civil war.
But the next crucial step for the administration is to articulate a longer term, more comprehensive policy with a less ad hoc approach in Syria. The goal is nothing less than a return of American leverage in the region to advance our interests. This is in direct contradistinction to the isolationist approach of Stephen Walt of Harvard who wrote in Foreign Policy that he would like to forge an alliance with socialists against American exceptionalism and outsized influence in the region. (This the same Walt who, with John Mearsheimer has been arguing that America is fooled by the “Israel lobby” into thinking Israel is an ally worth supporting.)
To advance American interests, the president will need to overcome his impulse to prematurely withdraw troops from Syria, as their presence is essential to prevent Syria from becoming a permanent Iranian base threatening Israel and Jordan, which would fly in the face of US President Donald Trump’s stated vision.
This is the lesson to have learned from former president Barack Obama’s disastrous premature withdrawal of American soldiers from Iraq after the successful surge, which left Iran in the driver seat in today’s Iraqi politics, undermining American interests.
America must articulate its strategic goals and redlines to all the actors operating within the Syria theater, so miscalculations can be avoided and small problems won’t snowball into a significant escalation. The accidental Syrian downing of a Russian plane with blame ascribed to Israel is a case in point.
It was just a matter of time before Russia and Israel crossed paths in the crowded skies over Syria.
Without an American Syria policy, Russia can distance itself from cooperating with Israel without repercussions, while avoiding putting any pressure against Iran’s permanent presence in Syria, which they know crosses Israel’s existential redline.
Russia took notice when America did not utter a peep while Russia invaded Syria’s de-escalation zones in Daraa and Quneitra without paying any price. With a lack of an American policy on Syria, Russia feels free to threaten Israel, now offering to supply the advanced S-300 anti-missile system to the Assad regime.
An American Syria policy should not only make clear that Israeli strikes on Iranian military targets is in American interest, but be willing to enforce a no-fly zone over its Kurdish and moderate Sunni allies in the 40% of Syria they still control.
The downing of the Russian jet is just the tip of the iceberg for future game changing confrontations that threaten to bring the local war of Israeli preemptive attacks into a regional conflagration. The lack of an American policy and redlines contributes greatly to regional instability, while Israel is more isolated without an American plan for its interests in the Levant.
So what should be America’s Syria policy?
1. America will support its Kurdish and moderate Sunni allies in Syria. This does not mean any more boots on the ground, but does mean that America won’t leave Syria until Iran, and its proxies, the PMU’s (Iranian controlled Shi’ite militias) and Hezbollah are permanently gone. According to James Phillips and Luke Coffey writing for the Heritage Foundation.
“The pace of (US) withdrawal should be based on security conditions on the ground in eastern Syria, not on a pre-determined timetable.
2. America supports Israel’s objective to end any permanent Iranian presence in Syria. As the Washington Institute of Near East Policy’s Assaf Orion, Anna Borshchevskaya and Matthew Levitt wrote, “So long as Iran and its agents – especially foreign fighters – are active in Syria, US policy should be to contain the Assad regime and oppose steps that would strengthen it.”
3. America’s goal is the complete disarmament of Hezbollah in Lebanon according to UNSC Resolution 1701, even if it is not realistic at the moment.
4. America considers Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Hezbollah, PMU’s, or any political entity controlled by Iran to be the equivalent of an Iranian presence, and will hold Iran responsible for any attacks on Americans or her allies.
5. Reaffirm America’s commitment to NATO, as this directly confronts Russian influence in Syria. However, all NATO members i.e., Turkey, must not integrate any non-NATO military systems into NATO defenses. NATO is still important, even if Turkey decides to commit suicide by aligning with Russia and Iran, and is forced from the alliance.
Trump has put America in a position of strength by withdrawing from the JCPOA and re-imposing sanctions. But the president must realize that the revolutionary Islamist entity of Iran will let its people starve before capitulating to the West.
Former US secretary of state John Kerry has told the Iranians that they should wait out this administration. Let’s leave aside how inappropriate this is for a former secretary of state. The Iranians do plan to wait this president out for a more compliant president, no matter how harshly present-day sanctions affect its people, and Iran will not leave Syria any time soon. That is why it is important to articulate a longterm American policy that the next administration will have a harder time distancing itself from.
America’s national interest is not isolationism. “Mission accomplished” in Syria may be generations away. America needs patience, something this president and every one before has shown little interest in. No less than American and Israeli security interests are at stake.The writer is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. Dr. Mandel regularly briefs members of the Senate, House, and their foreign policy advisors. He is a regular columnist for
The Jerusalem Post, and a contributor to i24TV, The Hill, and The Forward.
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