Mosul is falling. Raqqa is surrounded, with U.S.-backed forces breaching ISIS defenses. Iran-backed and Syrian regime troops are pushing eastward through Syria, reclaiming portions of Homs Province that Assad’s regime hasn’t held for years. Recent moves by the Iranian-Syrian forces put them in Deir ez-Zor Province, some 50 miles from the city of Deir ez-Zor, ISIS’s last major stronghold.
ISIS is on the run, in terms of its territorial holdings in Syria and Iraq. The scope of its geographic core has been reduced to approximately the 150 miles along the Euphrates Corridor from Deir ez-Zor, Syria to Haditha Dam Lake in Iraq, northwest of Ramadi.
The character and purpose of U.S. involvement in Syria and Iraq will have to change, as the U.S. coalition finds its purpose of recovering territory from ISIS overtaken by success. American forces have been backing the Sunni Arab rebels and Kurds in this objective for nearly three years now. The assistance was virtually all from air support – much of that wasted on prohibitive rules of engagement – until the change of administration in January, when President Trump changed the ROE and put Marines in eastern Syria for fire support to the coalition militias.
Coupled with the success of a “grand coalition” against ISIS in Mosul, the battlefield success against ISIS in eastern Syria is changing the strategic picture dramatically. The increased urgency and effectiveness of U.S. coalition operations have galvanized Iran, Russia, and Assad to accelerate their push into eastern Syria. Their objective is not the merely negative one of ridding eastern Syria of ISIS. It is to reestablish control of eastern Syria for Iran and Assad.
It is essential to recognize that that is the order of precedence: Iran first, then Assad. Assad is nothing without Iran’s support, and it is Iran the Middle East and the United States face in Syria (as also, to some extent, in Iraq). More on that in a moment.
Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Committee voted last week to rescind the post-9/11 Authorization for Military Force (AUMF), which in the years since has figured as the pretext for all interventions abroad that were at least nominally about fighting terrorism. That includes the interventions against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
It’s not clear if the full House and the Senate will endorse that vote. But it comes at a critical time, when the basis for our operations in Syria and Iraq is badly in need of review and rethinking. If a congressional revolt forces that rethinking, we will be well served.
It will become increasingly untenable to merely seek to take and hold territory against ISIS. Iran is coming for the territory of eastern Syria – as for ISIS’s remaining stretch of the Euphrates Corridor in Iraq – and there is no such option as merely stabilizing an unresolved situation. The attempt to do that will only result in a more direct battlefield confrontation with Iran.
The reality at the heart of this problem is that there will be a confrontation with Iran, one way or another. It doesn’t have to be a shooting confrontation on the ground (probably via proxies – e.g., guerrilla methods executed by the Iraqi Shia militias and Hezbollah, although attacks by Iran’s own Qods Force are by no means out of the question).
But that’s up to us, because Iran’s purpose isn’t going to change. Our choices are to have a policy and a plan, or not to have one.
And since Iran’s purpose is the control of territory, we cannot pretend that territory is not what our presence is about in eastern Syria and Iraq. It has been all along, actually. But we have refused to define what our purpose is, taking refuge initially in Obama’s vague allusion to “safe zones,” and now in the Trump administration’s framework of “deconfliction zones.”
David French pointed out last week that we are basically backing into an occupation of parts of Syria. And he’s right.
There are few things more dangerous to back into than a foreign occupation. It’s way past time we stopped backing anywhere, and turned around and started moving forward with a deliberate, strategic purpose: a purpose of our own, one that serves our national interests.
Why we mustn’t hand Syria over to Iran
I see as clearly as anyone that the long-suffering American people have no appetite for another large-scale intervention, with thousands of troops and nation-building. I don’t advocate that, in fact, and have never been a fan of nation-building in any case.
I certainly don’t advocate waging a war to topple Assad as the nominal ruler in Damascus. I do think he needs to go, but I also think that could still be arranged without making it the only end-state that can satisfy combat.
But first things first. There are several key problems with gradually allowing Iran to take over eastern Syria (i.e., under the fiction that an independent Assad is regaining control of it). All of these problems map back to the central issue that handing this territory over to Iranian control gives Tehran the geographic basis for establishing a caliphate.
And not just a caliphate, but the caliphate: the one that either controls outright, or holds at risk, the holy sites in Saudi Arabia and southern Iraq, and the key locations of apocalyptic prophecy in Syria and Israel; i.e., Jerusalem.
Iran has been working hard since 2014 to gain military control of the central line of communication through this geographic core: across central Iraq, with pathways into Syria, via the Euphrates Corridor, and across Jordan and into Jerusalem via Anbar Province. Tehran has used the fight against ISIS as the pretext for this military push.
Now Tehran is using the fight against ISIS in eastern Syria as the pretext for flooding Anbar with Shia militia and drawing a noose on the Euphrates Corridor. The fight in Mosul has filled a similar function.
If Iran effectively controls Anbar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan are at significant risk on their borders with Iraq.
That is just one of the satellite problems attending the central, transformational issue of Iran gaining caliphate-making territory. It may not have occurred to many in the West, but I assure you, it has occurred to the Saudis.
A watershed in geopolitics
Before enumerating the other satellite problems, I want to make this point. Re-creation of the geographic basis for a caliphate is a historic watershed that cannot be undone easily. Iran isn’t the only aspirant to rule the caliphate, and what has been created can be conquered in its new form by someone else. It may take Iran to put a new ideological caliphate in play, but once it is considered established in any form, even without “official” endorsement from the other nations, getting rid of it – Iran or not – will be the very devil.
The further we get from the Westphalian arrangement of “Sykes-Picot,” with sacrosanct national borders intended to discourage border-breaching and caliphate-making, the easier it will be for an aspiring caliph to make his package of controlled territory a fact on the ground.
Once that happens, the Westphalian geopolitical era we have inhabited for nearly 400 years will be over. Instability in the Middle East will be chronic, because there will be no way to enforce there the network of international accords we have come to rely on, to set boundaries on what we regard as acceptable, and possible. International accords are just that: international accords. Where a big swath of territory is ruled by another hand – a non-national hand, against the conventions of nation-states – such accords cannot be enforced.
Revolutionary Iran has been treating Lebanon as if borders don’t matter for years, and has now extended that pattern to Iraq and Yemen. In Iraq, in particular, Iran’s Qods Force and proxies now undertake armed action for Iran’s purposes. In the last few weeks, this anti-Westphalian development has reached a new crisis point, with Iran-backed forces massing in Iraq, to fight in Syria.
By arming the Houthis in Yemen, meanwhile, Iran makes sure to actively encroach on Saudi Arabia, an “already-fact” which clarifies to Riyadh that the emerging threat to the north – Iran in Iraq – will develop ever more ominously in time.
The map below is reused from a post in 2015 depicting Iran’s growing effort to flank the territory to her south and west, and how that affected the calculations of ISIS. It obviously applies to the strategic concerns of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt as well. Note: since 2015, Iran’s influence in Sudan has waned considerably.
A caliphate is antithetical to all the precepts of international order we take as axiomatic today. If we want to give hope to every aspiring hegemonic thug and every rabble of border-breaching “militants” on the planet, letting Iran establish a proto-caliphate across Iraq and Syria is a superb way to do it.
The fight to control such a caliphate would be equally undesirable – but quite inevitable. Recep Tayyip Erdogan won’t sit on his hands and wait to be intimidated by an Iranian caliphate. Nearly a thousand years of Mesopotamia’s Islamic-era history were punctuated regularly by the never-ending struggle for Syria and Iraq, between the Persians and the successor empires of what is now Turkey (i.e., the Byzantines and Ottomans). Without an enforceable Westphalian order, multiple motives – religious ideology, geographic imperatives, water, natural resources – will reawaken this costly, exhausting, interminably destabilizing pattern.
If he couldn’t prevent establishment of an Iranian proto-caliphate, Erdogan or a like-minded successor would simply covet it for himself. So would the Muslim Brotherhood, energized as never before by the emergence of something eschatologically significant to really rule.
ISIS, per se, might or might not survive to figure in this mix. (It may survive in a recombined form with Al Qaeda.) But the existence of such an opportunity would also make uneasy the seats of power in the status quo nations of the region: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan. Any nation with a useful infrastructure and an army would be at risk from ideologues seeking to put the national assets to work, to gain leverage in, or control over, the caliphate.
Remember, all the disruptive actors mentioned here have already demonstrated the willingness to breach borders, foment radicalism, and back terrorists to pursue their goals. If Iran can establish a package of controlled territory gained through these means as a proto-caliphate, the Middle East will be more susceptible to amplification of this pattern – not less.
Already mentioned above is the problem that the status quo nations of Saudi Arabia and Jordan would recognize themselves as gravely at risk from an established Iranian presence across Iraq and Syria. That would drive all their national priorities henceforward.
To a lesser but still significant extent, the other Gulf nations, and Egypt, would recognize a growing risk – especially with Iran continuing to arm the rebels in Yemen. Egypt has recognized a threat from Iran in the Sinai since before the Arab Spring, and that risk would only grow with an expansion of Iran’s military opportunities across Mesopotamia, as well as along the Red Sea.
Israel, too, would be gravely at risk. Prior to 2011, the removal of Saddam Hussein had made Iraq effectively a buffer against Iran for the nations south and west of her. Israel has had to deal for decades with Hamas and Hezbollah, Iran-backed terror organizations located on the immediate Israeli perimeter. But until Iran began driving into Iraq with military force in late 2014, there was no developing threat of direct, combined-forces military action by Iran against Israel. There was no path for such an enterprise.
Now there is. Iran cut the path with the battles of Tikrit, Ramadi, and Fallujah in 2015 and 2016. (See maps above.) Iran’s ability in 2017 to mass the PMU militia forces against the Syrian border, in both the north and the south, demonstrates that Iraq is supine before Tehran in this regard.
The threat is very real, as part of a group of threats Iran can pose to the region if she can position military forces further west. Another complex of threats reaches beyond the Middle East, into the shipping lanes of the Eastern Mediterranean, and indeed, on both maritime sides of the Suez Canal. The further west Iran can position herself, the further west she can make mischief.
Few things illustrate that quite as clearly as Tehran’s launch of short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) at targets in eastern Syria on 18 June. The stated purpose was a retaliation against ISIS for the attacks on the Iranian parliament and Khomeini shrine on 7 June. But the unprecedented action established a principle of regional missile launches by Iran that has far-reaching implications.
Missile launches are certainly not the only Iranian military activities that can have an encroaching effect on third parties and draw a reaction from them. But in terms of setting up the conditions for them, they are, at this point, one of the least costly. Missiles can be launched from positions where third parties will think hard about preempting them or retaliating. And the more Iran is perceived as “defending” her own interests, the less acceptance there will be of such interference.
Few would question retaliation for a direct terrorist attack on Iran’s parliament. And if Iran gradually establishes, in practice if not in formal recognition, an interest in the ground fight in eastern Syria, mental resistance will erode to the idea of Iran using short-range missiles to affect that fight – even if it’s not necessarily about “ISIS.” Iran could even employ missiles from inside Iraq, to get them further into Syria.
The infrastructure for this has reportedly been set up already, with an Iranian base and missile storage facility just inside Iraq across the northern border, near As-Sulaymaniyah. The maps depict the range of one of the missiles Iran used in the 18 June strike – launched from positions near Kermanshah – and where she would have to launch them from to support military operations in eastern Syria, and in the entire Syrian theater.
Before you object that Iraq wouldn’t tolerate this, consider that in June, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi reportedly approved the establishment of a dedicated Aviation Directorate for the PMU militias: the Shia militias organized and trained by Iran, and directed by Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani in his push across central Iraq in 2014-2016. These are the militias that massed on the Syrian border in June, at Um Jaris in the north and At-Tanf in the south.
As things stand today, Iraq has little ability to prevent or control what Iran does with military force from Iraq territory. If Iran can exert military control over aircraft and missiles operating from Iraq, it is only a matter of time until such forces are made a threat to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel.
Fight hard or deter smart
We can assume, of course, that other nations in the region won’t simply roll over for this. But their ability to interdict Iran’s current effort is limited. Moreover, when they do feel driven to take kinetic action, the consequences will be sanguinary and debilitating, but indecisive. Russia and China, however cynical and extortionate they are, will be invited in as brokers and patrons, if the U.S. is ineffective as a great-power referee. Such eruptions would send destabilizing ripples outside the region, to a degree that could be prevented with deterrence up front.
The ideal deterrence strategy would have features to truly isolate and put pressure on Iran, including continued sanctions and trade limitations; encouragement for reformers and dissidents; gutting the operations of Iran’s proxies (e.g., Hezbollah, including in Latin America); and targeting Iran’s nuclear and missile programs by all possible means. An important economic measure is one Trump already intends to take: boosting American exports of oil and gas, which will help bring down the unit price of both, and reduce Iran’s revenues and leverage from those resources. (Since I first composed this paragraph, Mark Dubowitz published an op-ed on this very topic at the Wall Street Journal. Highly recommended.)
But it is equally necessary now to directly interdict Iran’s race for control of eastern Syria. That emergency is the one that is already building, and cannot wait. To do that, it will be necessary to go beyond merely establishing some disembodied deconfliction zones along the Euphrates. It will be necessary to back coalition forces firmly holding key territory in eastern Syria, and to marginally but significantly shift our posture with Iraq.
Geographically, the way to thwart Iran is to keep Iran out of the Euphrates Corridor in Syria: back the U.S. coalition forces in seizing and holding Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor, and the road between them. In the best case, the Iran-Assad forces outside Deir ez-Zor would not be allowed to take over the city. Rather, U.S.-backed forces would be the ones to do that. And the ideal way to accomplish that without having to make capture of the city a U.S. action would be to open up a path to Deir ez-Zor from the Iraqi border.
The concept is not infeasible. The Sunnis of Anbar are by no means satisfied to have Iran-backed Shia militia all over their province. It would take a substantial and coordinated effort – both political and military – to generate U.S.-backed force from central Iraq up along the ISIS-dominated stretch of the Euphrates to Al-Qaim. The time factor would be challenging at this point; no question.
But Haider al-Abadi’s interest in having the U.S. keep forces in Iraq speaks to the Iraqis’ concern to retain some independence from Iran. If the U.S.-led effort to open up the last ISIS stronghold on the Euphrates were couched as an anti-ISIS fight – as it properly can be – Baghdad could sign on to it without making an overt turn against Tehran.
Iraqi troops – i.e., forces from Anbar and other Iraqi national troops – should not be involved in fighting in Syria. But by opening up the ISIS-dominated Euphrates Corridor in Iraq, they would create a flanking path to Deir ez-Zor, one that would be usable by U.S. coalition troops inside Syria. Instead of having only the option of plowing down the road from Raqqa, into opposition from all sides, coalition forces would not only have two approaches to Deir ez-Zor, but would control the back door to the east.
The proximate political purpose of this strategy would be to hold a strong position in negotiations for the future of Syria: blocking the key territorial aspiration of Iran. Those negotiations must be about establishing a sustainable Syria that is not under the controlling domination of Iran.
The only way to start the negotiations on that basis is if Iran does not already have most of Syria under her controlling domination. There is no option of letting Iran gain the upper hand in eastern Syria, and yet also somehow wringing concessions from her at the negotiating table.
Every one of Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and the UAE would understand this strategy, and I suspect all but Turkey would place few if any conditions on approving it. The Turks, of course, will hold out for incentives, given their understandably immediate concerns about the overall disposition of Syria, and how the Kurds will fare in a negotiated settlement.
As for Russia, if the U.S. starts from the perspective that Russia does have national interests in Syria, and it is not our goal to exclude Moscow from a special relationship with Damascus, I think that would go a long way toward smoothing the path of negotiations. Russia has done some egregiously bad things in the last several years, and we mustn’t forget that. But in the long run, it is better to keep a vigorous diplomatic balance between our interests and Russia’s in Syria and the Eastern Med, than to try to bottle Russia up in the Black Sea.
Ideally, the U.S. and Russia would make verifiable and enforceable commitments to each other about our activities in Syria – commitments consistent, of course, with a settlement satisfactory to the Syrians. We don’t have to be BFFs to behave pragmatically and in the interest of stability and a fair, sustainable solution.
But the only way to be in a position to arm-twist for concessions is to hold some cards to begin with. We can take it for granted that revolutionary Iran cannot be trusted to honor agreements, and it must be our going-in position that no settlement is acceptable that sees a reunified Syria dominated by Iran.
The United States does not need to author the outline for the reunification of Syria. But our national interests demand that we prevent Iran from authoring it, and from dominating the shell of a “Syria” that results.
If the process of being thwarted encouraged Iran to behave in a more seemly manner, that could only be a good thing. But the threat of being thwarted won’t accomplish that for us. There will have to be actual thwarting. That’s the deal, this time around.
There isn’t time left to back into a posture that can thwart Iran. We’ll have to approach this one facing forward, with intent – or we will lose the opportunity, and face an ugly future that doesn’t have to be.