If Trump Wants to Fight Iran, He’ll Soon Get the Chance in Syria

  • Forces backed by U.S., Iran in race to take Islamic State land
  • ‘This is the most complicated battlespace anyone’s ever known’

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, assisted by Russia and Iran, saw his forces retake Aleppo in the biggest victory against rebels in almost six years of civil war. The Syrian civil war started in 2011 on the heels of the Arab Spring. It has seen the creation of the Islamic State, half of the country's residence displaced from their homes, and outside forces getting involved. This QuickTake on the state of Syria looks at how the war unfolded, the players involved, and where the conflict is headed. (Video Updated Dec. 20 2016) (Source: Bloomberg)

Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in eastern Syria is surrounded by some of the world’s strongest military powers. Their forces are advancing on several fronts. The battlefield odds aren’t even close.

That’s why the commanders of those armies -- in Washington, Moscow and Tehran, as well as Damascus and Ankara -- are looking beyond the coming showdown with the jihadists. When they’re killed or driven out, who’ll take over? It’s an especially sharp dilemma for President Donald Trump. Because for the second time this century, the U.S. risks defeating one Middle Eastern enemy only to see another one, Iran, emerge as the big winner.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 toppled Iran’s bitter rival Saddam Hussein and replaced him with a sympathetic Shiite-led government. In Syria today, Iranian ally Bashar al-Assad has survived six years of civil war during which U.S. leaders repeatedly insisted that he had to go. His army, fighting alongside militias loyal to Tehran, is driving into Islamic State-held territory, setting up a race with U.S.-backed forces to liberate it. Even the areas where the Americans arrive first may eventually revert to Assad’s control.

That might not have been a problem for Trump the candidate. Before the election, he vowed to smash Islamic State without getting sucked into a wider war, and said he’d work with Russia, Assad’s other key backer. It could be a problem for the President Trump who told America’s regional allies last week that he’ll help roll back Iranian power -- a promise that, in Syria at least, won’t be easy to keep.

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‘Cares More’

“There’s not much the U.S. can do about Iran in Syria,” said Cliff Kupchan, chairman of Eurasia Group, a New York-based risk consultancy. “They’re just not going to walk,” he said. “Iran is closer, and cares more.”

Iran faces growing hostility from Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies to the south. That makes preserving the Shiite-friendly governments to its west, in Baghdad and Damascus, even more important. A land corridor through those countries allows Iran to supply weapons to the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, a vital instrument of Iranian power, which is also fighting on Assad’s side.

“What’s left of Islamic State territory is the key part of Iran’s plan to connect Iran to Lebanon,’’ said Firas Abi-Ali, senior Middle East analyst at IHS Country Risk in London.

Islamic State’s stronghold in eastern Syria blocked that route -- and the blockage will remain if American-backed forces take over. In Raqqa, the jihadist capital, it’s likely that they will. The ground campaign there is mostly being waged by Kurdish fighters armed, trained and given air support by the U.S.

After they win, “what we envision is a governance reflective of the local population” in Raqqa, which is mostly Arab, Defense Department spokesman Eric Pahon said in an interview. He said the U.S. could provide “civil affairs troops” as it’s done elsewhere, giving guidance on how to fix infrastructure, for instance.

Still, it’s not clear what relationship those new local authorities would have with Assad’s government, which says it expects to regain power over the whole country. Damascus has extended an olive-branch to the Kurds, saying their fight against Islamic State is “legitimate.” And the Kurds say they’re ready to negotiate with Assad for autonomy -- because the opposition groups backed by Turkey and Gulf Arabs are radical Islamists who are “even worse,” according to Abdsalam Ali, a representative of the Syrian Kurdish PYD party in Moscow.

So some of America’s local allies, at least, are ready to cut a deal with the Iranian camp. If others aren’t, it’s not clear what kind of backup they could expect.

‘Bunch of Tanks’

The U.S. “would certainly respond as necessary” to protect local partners, Pahon said. But in the event of an Assad advance on Raqqa, “I don’t think our response would necessarily be to move in a whole bunch of tanks,” as diplomatic options would be pursued, he said.

The Kurds face another threat from Turkey, which also has troops inside Syria and strongly opposes any move toward Kurdish autonomy there. Last month, after Turkish planes bombed Kurdish fighters, the U.S. had to send soldiers to shield one of its allies from another.

Farther south, it’s the forces of the Assad-Russia-Iran alliance -- which has shown little sign of internal dissension -- that are leading the fight to oust Islamic State. Russia said on Wednesday it carried out cruise-missile strikes against the group near the ancient city of Palmyra. In what could become a key battle, government forces are pushing toward Deir Ezzor, a city about 140 kilometers (85 miles) southeast of Raqqa, which has been besieged by the jihadists since 2015, and also offers control of the frontier with Iraq.

The border regions have seen the most direct clash so far between the American and Iranian sides. On May 18, American planes bombed a convoy of pro-Assad fighters. The Pentagon said they ignored warnings to stop approaching a base at At-Tanf, near the border with Iraq and Jordan, where U.S. troops are training anti-Assad militias.

‘Anything Can Happen’

As armies from both camps maneuver around a smallish stretch of land in eastern Syria, there’s the potential for more such flashpoints. The U.S. and Russia have set up a so-called de-confliction hotline to prevent them. “Anything can happen,” the Pentagon’s Pahon said. “This is the most complicated battle-space anybody has ever known.”

Pahon said the U.S. hasn’t pivoted toward taking on Assad. The At-Tanf strike was in response to a direct threat and, “now that they’ve backed off, we’re not going after them,” he said. “This is not a new policy.”

America’s stance has already shifted under Trump. He ordered missile strikes on Syrian army positions last month, as punishment for a chemical attack he blamed on Assad; in a similar situation, his predecessor Barack Obama decided against military action. Still, defeating Islamic State has remained the overwhelming U.S. priority.

That’s a short-sighted view of the Middle East, a region that’s already witnessed “the most dramatic collapse of American power since World War II” on Obama’s watch, according to James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Iraq.

America “gravitates toward fighting ISIS and claiming that’s the center of everything, which is easy to do and wins universal applause,” but doesn’t constitute a “long-term strategy,” he said. “In 2017, ISIS is not a threat to regional stability. The threat now is Iran.”

In the Persian Gulf and Israel this month, Trump heard a similar message.

But to policy makers in Russia, it’s the U.S. and its allies who are destabilizing Syria, and their anti-Iranian rhetoric lacks realism.

“Does anyone think Iran is going to leave this region and Syria?” Russian Middle East envoy Mikhail Bogdanov said in an interview. “As if you could wave a magic wand and Iran would disappear?”

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