To Obama, the choice was to face Iran down or share the region with it. Will President Trump be different? Will he take the hard line that Riyadh is hoping for? He doesn’t hide his hostility toward the Iranian regime. He withdrew from the nuclear agreement, earning praise from the Saudis (and the Israelis) and reimposed sanctions. Israel has reportedly launched targeted airstrikes on Iranian-linked sites in Syria, but Iran is still holding its ground in the country. Also, it is now exerting more power in Lebanon than ever; and there is no need to mention its growing influence in Iraq.
Iran does not need a lot to maintain its presence in Syria. It is assisting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in putting down a rebellion against his oppressive regime. With the help of the Russians, Assad and Iran have succeeded in stamping out the rebels whom most of the world declined to arm or protect. They drove them out of their own cities and regions with extreme brutality. Now Iran is reportedly orchestrating demographic and cultural changes in certain areas of Syria through repression and displacement.
All this, of course, has to be done without an open conflict with Israel. Taking on the Israelis means the terrible troika will be denied its biggest prize: control of Syria well into the future. Israel’s targeting of Iranian-linked positions in Syria should be seen as an attempt to define the rules of engagement. Taking Iran out of Syria would require a ground intervention, which is why the Israelis told the Saudis to “get out of the closet” and cooperate with them publicly, to complete that mission against Iran.
Is Riyadh ready for such a challenge? What is going on in the region now is complex. A historical transformation is underway, with Iran reviving a sectarian mood incompatible with our times. Of 20 million people who once lived in Syria, 11 million have left home. In May, the Assad government proposed Article 10, which requires citizens to return home within 30 days or forever forfeit their property. With the war still raging in many areas, and sheer devastation in almost every major city, this law will force millions to remain displaced or refugees and will reshape the region.
The new residents are likely to be Syrian Shiites from the north and Shiites from Iraq who will repopulate a country that has been overwhelmingly Sunni for centuries. Such changes will reverse the history that made the Shiites minorities and the Sunni Muslims the ruling majority by force.
The Assad regime and Iran are setting the stage for a future sectarian war. Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week in Paris that Iran could “spark another religious war” leading to increased migration to Europe. The weak and fractured Sunni majority will wait bitterly to take revenge. It will only add insult to injury, unless the deteriorating situation in the Middle East becomes important to America. The region must be saved from Iran.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, perhaps realizing Trump is not willing to take direct action against Tehran, is keen to make common cause with Netanyahu. But for all its saber-rattling, Israel will not risk Tel Aviv or Jaffa to remove Iran from Damascus and Aleppo.
Trump was right to call on the Saudis in particular to play a bigger role in Syria. If Saudi Arabia is truly concerned about the Iranian presence in Syria, it should seek to get Tehran out itself and not wait for the Americans or the Israelis to do it. When Syrians are able to gain the freedom they have demanded since 2011, only then will Iran be forced out of the game.