The US’s Catch-22: Defeat ISIS, don’t empower Iran

The US fears confronting Iran could destabilize Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.

A US soldier runs at a coalition forces forward base near West Mosul, Iraq June 21, 2017 (photo credit: REUTERS)
A US soldier runs at a coalition forces forward base near West Mosul, Iraq June 21, 2017
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On August 27, the mountains of Qalamoun fell quiet as a cease-fire between Hezbollah, the Lebanese army, the Syrian army and the Islamic State went into effect.
A week before, Hezbollah, the Syrians and the Lebanese army had been striking ISIS from both sides of the border in a coordinated assault. The coordination in the battle and the cease-fire that followed is another piece of evidence how closely Hezbollah is entangled within the Lebanese state and Syria.
Yet, for all the entanglement, recent reports in Reuters note that “proposed tighter US sanctions on Hezbollah have been altered enough to allay fears of major damage to Lebanon’s economy.” The fear was that sanctions could potentially have a domino effect and then extremists, like Hezbollah or Sunni jihadists, would fill the vacuum.
The US faces a “Catch-22” dilemma throughout Lebanon, Syria and Iraq today. The more ISIS is defeated, the more the vacuum is filled by Iran.
Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies argued in 2016 that “the destruction of Islamic State is a strategic mistake.”
Inbar asserted that the defeat of ISIS would “encourage Iranian hegemony in the region.”
A US soldier looks out of an army helicopter near West Mosul, Iraq June 21, 2017 (Reuters)
A US soldier looks out of an army helicopter near West Mosul, Iraq June 21, 2017 (Reuters)
Thomas Friedman argued in The New York Times in April that “in Syria, Trump should let ISIS be Assad’s, Iran’s, Hezbollah’s and Russia’s headache, the same way we encouraged the mujahideen fighters to bleed Russia in Afghanistan.”
American policy makers do not agree with this assessment.
Since 2014 they have made the defeat of ISIS a priority. This has led them to view Bashar Assad’s regime as a lesser evil.
It has also led to a draw-down of support for Syrian rebels, many of whom the US concluded were unreliable allies.
A Pentagon-first and ISIS-first strategy has resulted in giving anti-ISIS – mostly Kurdish – fighters in Syria the most support.
The US-led coalition in Iraq – which numbers around 70 countries – is also prioritizing defeating ISIS. It has partnered primarily with Iraq’s central government but is also working closely with the Kurdish Peshmerga.
When US policy-makers are asked about the Syrian regime advancing alongside Iranian-backed militias they say they are “deconflicting” with the regime. That means the regime can continue to advance as long as it doesn’t attack US allies. The same is true in Iraq, as the Iranian- backed Shia militias, known as the Hashd al-Sha’abi (PMU), lead the way in liberating parts of the country from ISIS. They put up checkpoints with colorful Shia flags wherever they go, and in exchange, the US does not express clear concern about their influence over Iraq.
Asking the US why it isn’t as concerned with Iran’s influence as it is with ISIS, seems akin to asking policy-makers in 1944 why they weren’t as concerned with Stalin’s Soviet Union as they were with the Nazis.
Policy makers’ Manichean worldview would wonder how does one fight both. US allies in Lebanon, such as Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri, oppose Hezbollah’s power. Hezbollah was implicated in the murder of Hariri’s father in 2005 but is, today, a rising power and nothing short of a civil war in Lebanon will change that.
Syria is the same story. Any hopes that the Syrian rebellion would defeat Assad and present a moderate and democratic alternative were dashed two years ago. Border states that supported the rebellion – such as Jordan and Turkey – realize their limitations. In Iraq, the US sees two sides, either ISIS or the Iraqi government. This forces the US to hold its nose to obvious pro-Iranian sectarian penetration of portions of Iraq in order to accomplish its goals.
This leaves Washington, and its regional allies such as Israel, in a Catch-22. Any decision to challenge Iran is said to spread “chaos” in the region because Iran’s enemies in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq are either weak or they tend to be seen as jihadists.
Undermining the government in Baghdad, Damascus or Beirut would lead to “instability,” which policy-makers fear more than Iranian hegemony.
The third force in Syria and Iraq is made up of Kurds who are close allies of the US. However, the US fears that too much support for Kurds in either country would also erode the “unity” of Iraq and Syria.
In a statement on August 22 in Baghdad, US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis was quoted telling Iraq Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi that the US was committed to the “maintenance of Iraq’s unity and rejects any action aimed at dividing and destabilizing it.” This was a soft message against Kurdish plans for an independence referendum in the autonomous region of the Kurdistan Regional Government in September.
In March 2016, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the US was committed to “the territorial integrity and unity of Syria” and opposed any “autonomous zones.” That means the US has opposed its Kurdish allies carving out an area for themselves when the battle against ISIS is over.
In short, the US is tethered to Beirut-Damascus-Baghdad.
However, it sees Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, does not work with the Assad regime, and does not coordinate with the PMU in Iraq.
Washington’s addiction to “unity” means it won’t be able to properly confront the Iranian land corridor stretching from Tehran to Syria and Lebanon without first confronting the governments enabling that to happen. Doing so threatens “unity” and “stability.” That is why, absent a major policy change in Washington, nothing will be done to roll back the emerging Iranian hegemony, including alleged Iranian bases in Syria and Lebanon.
Washington’s other allies in the region, such as Turkey, seem to understand that. Press TV, which parrots the Iranian regime narrative, celebrated last week that “Turkey is moving toward Iran in historic alliance shift.” Washington needs to take note.