Hezbollah is now playing a much larger role in Syria and Lebanon than monitoring Israel. The militia is fighting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in that country’s civil war, and just completed the final phase of a successful operation in conjunction with the Lebanese army to finally clear the Syrian border of ISIS militants, cementing Hezbollah’s image among many residents as protector of Lebanon.
Three years after ISIS appeared on Lebanon’s northern border, Hezbollah has emerged from the morass of the Syrian conflict stronger and more powerful than ever, thanks to a steady stream of funds and advanced weaponry from its patron, Iran.
This is one troubling consequence of a policy of now two administrations that took no meaningful action to push Assad out of Syria, thereby giving Iran and it surrogate Hezbollah a commanding position on Israel’s border.
“The Trump administration remains unclear about its goals, with administration officials often contradicting each other,” writes former CIA acting director John McLaughlin. “Based on actions, however, the White House has narrowed its objective to the destruction of ISIS. The problem? This opens the door for Iran, Russia and Turkey to pursue their ambitions, which are very large indeed.” He observes, “With about 7,000 troops in Syria, and coordination of thousands of militia fighters, Iran has taken over 1,000 casualties and established a firm foothold. This will allow it to maintain a lifeline through Syria for its proxy partner, Hezbollah, which has both a terrorist wing and government seats in neighboring Lebanon.”
President Obama’s reversal on the red line and concern about upsetting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the Iran nuclear deal, led to American passivity as Iran and Russia took a commanding position. President Trump has never seemed to grasp that his “deal” with Vladimir Putin on a truce in Syria secured Assad’s position, vindicated Iran’s and Russia’s commitment and furthered Iran’s wish to become the dominate player in the region. “Hezbollah’s Iranian sponsors have spotted an opportunity,” the NBC report explains. “At the behest of Iran, Hezbollah has been quietly training thousands of Shiite militiamen in Iraq and even Yemen, spreading its military might across the region and leading to concern that Iran might be trying to remake the Middle East, with Hezbollah as Iran’s enforcer.” A Hezbollah commander grasps what Trump does not: “Saddam was in Iraq, and then the Americans came, so that path was closed. Now we’re with the Hashd al-Shaabi [Shiite militias in Iraq], and we practically control Syria. The Shia Crescent they were so afraid of — we stepped on their noses and created it. There is now an open road from Tehran to Dahieh.”
The Trump administration is now scratching its head, trying to think of ways to deter Iran’s aggressive behavior. Its best opportunity however may have been in Syria. With virtually no resistance from the Obama and then the Trump administration Iran has scored a major victory and transformed the effective borders of the Middle East. “In Syria, the U.S. has empowered Iran under two administrations — Obama and now Trump,” says Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution. “Trump is pushing back against Iran more generally in the region but Syria is a piece of the puzzle he has not come close to figuring out.”
Moreover, the chances for escalating violence between Israel and Iran’s surrogates is real. A conflict between Israel and Hezbollah may soon escalate into a confrontation between Israel and Iran.
The United States will “not allow the ‘Lebanonization’ of Syria” and will push back against Iranian influence there and elsewhere in the Middle East, a senior state department official said Monday. . . . Brian Hook, the head of policy planning at the State Department, told reporters in New York that Iran will be mentioned in the president’s speech, and not favorably. He said Trump is devoted to stopping Iran from creating a long-term presence for itself in Syria in the way it did with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
That’s laughable. Trump has not lifted a finger to stop Iran and its long-term presence in Syria via Hezbollah is now a done deal. “Iran has dramatically increased its power to influence and shape events in Syria while the Trump administration stood passively by and allowed Iran to operate under Russia’s umbrella,” says Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress. “Iran has flooded key parts of the country with irregular forces, and it has aided and abetted the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Syrians. So it’s going to take a lot more than bluster and erratic rhetoric from President Trump to counter and compete with this.”
If possible the gap between rhetoric and action that we saw with the Obama administration has now widened. “It is hard to make sense of Administration statements. I certainly welcome Brian’s comments recognizing that the U.S. must have geo-strategic goals in Syria beyond the elimination of ISIS,” says former ambassador Eric Edelman. “But it is hard to discern any actions that would underpin an effort to contest Russian and Iranian gains in Syria that were facilitated by the ceasefires negotiated by Secretary Tillerson and which have been touted as the administration’s successful effort to limit the violence in Syria in cooperation with Russia.”
Many Americans won’t notice or care, but Iran and Russia do. They’re watching and have figured out that Trump’s Syria policy is as weak and incoherent if not more so than Obama’s.