The clearest evidence of a gap between America’s rhetorical and functional policy regarding confronting Iran in Syria came when national security adviser H.R. McMaster addressed an audience at the Institute for the Study of War on Monday. He said one of the administration’s chief objectives is to prevent Iran and its proxy Hezbollah from gaining strategic advantage in Syria as the Islamic State is slowly but steadily defeated there.
But when asked to articulate the plan to achieve that goal, he said, “I can’t tell you.”
“There is a strategy to do that,” McMaster said. “It’s a strategy that we are already implementing. The objectives are to weaken Iranian influence across the region broadly.”
The Assad-Iranian-Russian push into southeast Syria near and around the strategic city of Deir al-Zour is helpful against the Islamic State in the short term but hugely problematic in the long term, McMaster said.
“The so called liberation of areas by [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad’s forces and Iranian proxies could actually accelerate the cycle of violence and perpetuate conflict rather than get us to a sustainable outcome,” he said.
The only clue he gave about the plan was to say that U.S. leverage over the long term included huge amounts of reconstruction money, which he said would not be dispersed in areas held by the Assad regime or Iranian-backed forces.
Privately, current and former administration officials admit that there is little prospect of evicting Iran and Assad from the large parts of southeast Syria they are in the process of occupying any time soon. The plan to prevent Iran from solidifying a Shiite crescent of control from Tehran to the Mediterranean rests on stopping Iran on the Iraqi side of their border with Syria, which will also be far from easy, officials admit.
The current strategy on the ground in Syria, officials say, is to deconfict military operations between U.S.-backed forces (including the largely Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces) and the Russian-backed regime and Iranian forces. The deconfliction line roughly tracks the Euphrates River. There have been skirmishes recently near the line and the Syrian Democratic Forces accuse Russian forces of crossing the line to attack them repeatedly. But largely the deconfliction is going to plan.
The problem is, once the Assad regime and Iranian forces take as much territory as they can, there’s no viable strategy to get it back. Part of the blame surely rests on the last administration, which experts say failed to build up local forces over many years.
“[President Barack] Obama ran down our options in Syria so thoroughly, by the time this administration took over there’s wasn’t another force besides the SDF that really could have gone into that Middle Euphrates River Valley and blocked that effort, absent a large interjection of troops,” said Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The biggest change since the Trump administration took over is that the Syrian Arab Army divisions that are moving into Deir al-Zour are increasingly organized by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, have Iranian-backed Shiite militias fighting beside them and are accompanied by Lebanese Hezbollah, he said.
“The Iranian influence is spreading because they are so heavily involved in regime activities,” said Tabler. “It’s a new monster.”
There was a debate in the early months of the Trump administration, officials said, about what could be done to stop the Iranians from taking over the area. Some inside the White House argued for a limited increase in troops near Deir al-Zour to cut off key avenues of the Iranian advancement. Those troops could have been a mix of U.S. Special Operations forces, local forces and Jordanian forces, the argument went.
But there was no consensus on how to move forward and the idea was overtaken by events. In the spring, the few American-backed local groups in the area began to clash with the advancing Syrian and Iranian forces. But the United States provided no reinforcements and the Iranian and Assad armies worked around local forces and made their way into Deir al-Zour city, where they are now consolidating control.
Several top Trump administration officials continue to insist that preventing Iran from increasing its presence, power and control in Syria is a key U.S. goal.
“I think the efforts in Syria have been remarkable,” U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said last week. “And I can tell you, Iran is not going to be in charge, and Iran is not going to have any sort of leadership in that situation to where they could do more harm.”
State Department officials continue to point to the political process as the means for preventing Iran from exerting control over large parts of Syria in perpetuity. They argue that after the fighting stops, Assad and Iran will have to come back to the negotiating table to get the international aid spigot turned on.
“The regime and the regime’s supporters cannot declare a victory solely based on a map and colors of positions on the ground,” Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield said last week after an international meeting on Syria. “Without a political process, the international community — all of those states represented in the room today — are not going to contribute to a legitimization or authenticization or to the reconstruction of Syria.”
But if McMaster is right and the regime and Iran’s occupation of the Deir al-Zour area means ongoing violence and instability, there will be no way to get to the negotiating table, which seems to be what Assad prefers.
What can be done now? Perhaps not much. But the United States and its coalition partners could do a lot more to help the Syrians who are not yet under Assad and Iranian rule to build up their self defense and their civil society. The United States could speed up their expansion of the SDF to bolster its Arab Sunni ranks and then use those forces to take the oil rich lands near Deir al-Zour that represents real leverage in any future political process.
Then, the Trump administration could admit that it is not willing to expend the American blood and treasure necessary to prevent another large portion of Syria falling under regime and Iranian control for the foreseeable future. One of Obama’s greatest failures in Syria was not being honest with the American people about his unwillingness to do more. Trump can at least do better than his predecessor on that front.