Iran Baiting the US into Deeper Syrian Quicksand?
June 28, 2017
new U.S. intelligence suggesting Syria’s Assad may be preparing to launch
another chemical weapons attack on his beleaguered people, the White House pre-emptively
warned Assad “would pay a heavy price.”
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 another
lesson, but there is far more below the desert sand 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 and setting a deadly trap for us.
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.
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.
now confronts another “Kodak” moment in Syria, courtesy of the Obama
Administration’s fatal failures 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?
understand exactly what a slippery slope we are on it would be helpful to
consult a map of Syria. It is hard
enough for a professional military officer to understand the Syrian battlefield,
let alone arm-chair generals (of which I am not).
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.
Raqqa, and its fall, is a side show to Tehran.
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 may/may soon 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.
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.
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 and its allied 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
ultimate prize sought by the Iranians: the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor,
where most of Syria’s oil resources are located and the location of a
potential land corridor to enable Iran to resupply and embolden its terrorist
proxies, notably Hezbollah, without having to rely on an unreliable air route
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 it’s 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. The Morning Email
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 easily
traceable to Iran.
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.
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.
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.
great failure of the Obama Administration’s Iran policy (which contributed to
its Syrian failures) 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.
“new” Iran is the same old Iran, only worse.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
realism about Iran’s goals must trump those who place their heads in the sand
hoping it is we who will see the light.