With the Iran nuclear deal in hand, President Obama appears ready to focus more of his attention on stemming the wars, mass atrocities and humanitarian catastrophes that have spread across the Middle East during his presidency. He has articulated several big goals he wants to reach before the next president takes office: to put the United States and its allies “on track to defeat” the Islamic State; to “have jump-started a process to resolve the civil war in Syria”; and to defend Israel and other U.S. allies from aggression mounted by Iran and its proxies.
Here’s the problem: The last two of those goals are, as the president conceives them, directly in conflict with each other.
At his post-deal news conference last month, Obama conceded that Iran might use some of the billions it will soon receive to supply the Lebanese Hezbollah militia with fresh weapons, and he vowed to do his best to stop it. “It is in the national security interest of the United States to prevent Iran from sending weapons to Hezbollah,” he said.
At the same time, Obama described the solution to the Syrian war as requiring an “agreement among the major powers that are interested in Syria.” He added, “Iran is one of those players, and I think that it’s important for them to be part of that conversation.”
That remark signaled a reverse of Obama’s previous policy of excluding Iran from Syrian peace talks. At U.S. insistence, Tehran was left out of the two conferences held in Geneva in 2012 and 2014. More important, conceding an Iranian say on Syria contradicted Obama’s goal of stopping its support for Hezbollah. That’s because Iran’s deep and so far unwavering support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad is driven almost entirely by its use of Syria as a land bridge to the Shiite militia.
Hezbollah “is Iran’s aircraft carrier in the eastern Mediterranean,” says Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria. The militia deploys tens of thousands of missiles in southern Lebanon aimed at Israel, and it ensures that no government in Lebanon can be formed without Tehran’s consent. Thousands of its fighters are keeping the Assad regime standing in Damascus — not because of any love for Assad’s Alawite sect but to preserve this link to Iran.
Lacking reliable sea access to Lebanon, Iran needs control over the Damascus airport and the border between Syria and Lebanon to ensure Hezbollah’s resupply. That’s why, as it loses ground to rebels in the north and south, the Assad regime’s army — itself now largely an Iranian proxy — has begun to concentrate on defending a narrow strip of territory between Damascus and the border.
Ford and other experts on Syria say Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will never accept a settlement of the Syrian war that strands Hezbollah. To do so would be to surrender Iran’s regional ambitions, including its ability to threaten Israel. “Iran’s overall policy . . . is focused rigidly (in Syria) on Hezbollah,” former State Department adviser Frederic Hof, now with the Atlantic Council, wrote me.
So how to agree with Khamenei on Syria’s future? “What are we supposed to do?” asks Hof. “Help find an alternative to [Assad] who would work with Iran to keep rockets and missiles pointed at Tel Aviv?”
To be sure, Obama’s description of the prospects for diplomacy on Syria start not with Iran but with Russia, the regime’s other principal backer. U.S. officials say the president has had promising conversations with Vladimir Putin on Syria in recent weeks. It’s at least possible to imagine the form a joint U.S.-Russian settlement formula might take: Assad would be removed, allowing the non-jihadist opposition to join with a new government in war against the Islamic State.
The problem, as Hof points out, is that Russia lacks the leverage to bring about a change in the Syrian leadership. The Assad regime is propped up almost entirely at this point by money, weapons and fighters supplied by Iran. And Tehran, says Ford, “is not ready to give up on Assad.” From the Iranian point of view, there is no reason to abandon the regime unless it proves unable to hold Damascus and the border zone. In the rest of the country, Shiite Iran is content — even happy — to watch the Sunni Islamic State and Sunni Syrian rebel forces fight to the death.
The bottom line is that a serious effort to end Syria’s war will require Obama to choose between challenging Iran’s Syrian land bridge to Hezbollah through more vigorous support for anti-Assad forces, or accepting a settlement that tacitly sanctions a continued Iranian proxy army on Israel’s border. Considering his investment in the nuclear deal, it wouldn’t be surprising if he shrinks from both options — and hands a Syrian nightmare to his successor.