The growing vocal call to punish the Syrian regime for its flagrant violation of human rights, including its recent alleged use of chemical weapons against its own people, has become the peg on which to hang the coordinated efforts to cast the regime as a threat to the national security interest of United States. This call is clearly not about punishing the regime, as it deserves. It is about decapitating the regime and building up public opinion to support such a dangerous undertaking. Contrary to the desires of some U.S. media and governmental personnel, the recent U.S.-led strike against the regime’s chemical plants was balanced and morally justified. However, the critical stance of U.S. President Donald Trump on the Iran deal and the growing possibility he may cancel it could become the trigger to a military confrontation between the U.S. and Iran and the Syrian regime. The problem is that this probable confrontation will most likely involve Russia and Israel. Few arguments have underscored this threatening Iran-Syria linkage as meticulously as Bret Stephen’s argument penned on the pages of the New York Times under the title “Staring Down Syria.”
Stephen regurgitates the argument aired by some among the left, the right, and the neoconservatives that the Syrian regime is a terrible one that has engaged in some of the most egregious forms of oppression and suppression against its own people, including the use of chemical weapons, and thus it must be punished. Significantly, he unequivocally asserts that a punishment in the form of a limited missile strike will be ineffective and that the “U.S. should target Assad and his senior lieutenants directly in a decapitation strike, just as the U.S. attempted in Iraq in 2003, and against Osama bin Laden in 2011.” He then emphasizes that “if we [Americans] are serious about confronting Iran, Syria remains the most important battlefield.”
It is mind boggling that someone as astute as Stephen would call for the decapitation of the regime in the same way that the U.S. had done in Iraq without providing an alternative to the regime. No less significant, does “our” seriousness about confronting Iran require decapitating the Syrian regime? Is the eradication of the Syrian regime a prerequisite for confronting Iran? This is a dangerous and flawed logic divorced from the harsh reality of the Levant. How could anyone invoke what the U.S. attempted in Iraq without admitting and internalizing the staggering human and financial cost the U.S. has paid? Has the notion of what may happen the day after the decapitation strike and confrontation with Iran crossed Stephen’s mind, or the minds of those echoing him?
Undoubtedly, this course would impel Syria to further descend into anarchy and chaos, leading to significant regional and international strife. A decapitating strike against the Syrian regime and/or an open confrontation with Iran in Syria would most likely put Moscow and Washington on a path of armed conflict. Russia made its position clear that it will respond to any game-changing attack on Syria. Second, it is no exaggeration to argue that Levantine and foreign Shi’i and Sunni jihadis will abound, focusing on the death of American troops even more than demonstrating their hatred for each other. In this respect, it is noteworthy that although the U.S. has defeated the Islamic State in the Levant, the U.S. has not even come close to vanquishing sister Salafi-jihadi organizations roaming through parts of Syria. Jaish al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham, and al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra (under its fresh name Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham), to name only few, command thousands of jihadi fighters. Significantly, al-Qaeda in Syria or al-Nusra has replenished its ranks from other Salafi-jihadi organizations, including the Islamic State, and has entrenched its power in Idlib province. This development, by itself alone, constitutes a clear and present danger to the U.S., given al-Qaeda’s strategy to target the American homeland and interests. No less significant, the pro-Iranian Iraqi Mobilization Units, which are part of the Iraqi government, have reportedly cordoned off military bases in Iraq in which American troops and weaponry are stationed. They have called on American leadership not to use American jets or planes in any attack against the Syrian regime. Regional countries, split along the Iran-Saudi fault line, will most likely continue stoking the fire of civil war by supporting their proxies. The removal of the Syrian regime by foce would quite possibly lead to the spillover of sectarian strife into Syria’s neighboring countries, where millions of Syrian refugees would find themselves at the mercy of sanguinarily resentful host populations and armed groups.
Most importantly, is it in the national interest of Washington to risk a war over Syria, and by extension Iran, with Moscow after what United States has gone through in Iraq and Afghanistan with little to show for the enormous sacrifices Americans have made?
No doubt, Iran has played a spoiler role in the region and has projected its power at the expense of Arab Sunni state. Pointedly, Iran has been trying to entrench its military presence in Syria, including in the vicinity of the Golan Heights, thereby posing a serious security risk to Israel. Israel has tried to prevent Iran and its proxies, especially Hezbollah, from enhancing their military presence in Syria. It has consistently raided Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah army bases and units that could have potentially produced game-changing security dynamics. These raids, with the exception of Israel’s air strike against the Syrian army T4 base on April 9, 2018, have been carried out with the advance knowledge of Russia, with which Israel maintained a hotline to avoid any clash between the two countries. The Syrian T4 military base near Homs hosted, in addition to Russian and Syrian troops, an Iranian drone facility out of which an armed Iranian drone was sent to Israel on February 10. Israel shot down the advanced Iranian drone early on February 10 and subsequently carried out the attack on the T4 base in which seven Iranian were killed, including a colonel. The raid on the base put in sharp relief the conflicted Israel-Iran relationship, but it also underscored the deterioration of Israel-Russian relations. Israel, for the first time, did not give an advance notice of the strike to Russia, and Russia immediately sent a delegation to Iran to draw out a plan as how to respond to both potential wide ranging Israeli and American strikes. This did not happen in a vacuum.
Crucially, Israel-Russia relations have recently become tense, potentially affecting the national security interest of both countries. Israel has not been happy with Russia’s unwillingness to keep Iranian forces far from the Golan Heights, and Russia has not been happy with Israel’s maneuvering with the U.S. to deprive Moscow a political victory in Syria and bleed Iran there.
The defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria has ushered in a new set of dynamics in which Iran, Hezbollah and Iraqi Mobilization Units have strengthened their presence in Syria and have been trying to build up their power in Lebanon. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emphasized that “Iran had taken over Lebanon…When Israelis and the Arabs agree on one thing, people should pay attention. We should stop this Iranian takeover.”
In his policy recommendations for Israel for 2016-2020, former Military Intelligence Chief Amos Yadlin wrote “Israel must prepare itself for a full scale military conflict with Hezbollah.” Conversely, some Israeli analysts have argued that Israel’s shared concerns and growing intelligence cooperation with Saudi Arabia is pushing Jerusalem to the precipice of war. Clearly, the unfolding developments in Syria have made the geostrategic and military dynamics between Israel and Iran more complex and fraught with danger and uncertainty. Israel feels the urgency of addressing Iran’s growing strategic threat today before becoming a harsh and difficult reality.
Conversely, one has to wonder how Iran, representing Shi’a who make up some 15% of the Islamic World, has been able to project its power in a Sunni majority Arab Middle East? How has Iran become an active player in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria? A combination of factors has advantaged Iranian involvement in these countries. One undeniable factor has been the unruliness of Arab politics. The Yemeni Zaydis, who are dogmatically closer to Sunni Islam than to Twelver Shi’a Islam, began their rebellion in the 1990s when the central authorities, supported by Saudi Arabia, sought to dispossess the Zaydis of their historic autonomy in Sa’dah. At the same time, Saudi Wahhabi scholars worked to convert the Zaydis to Sunni Wahhabism. At this point, a Houthi scholar sought the help of Iran and subsequently created the Houthi movement. Though most of the Shi’a of Iraq served loyally in the ranks of Iraq’s armed forces, the Shi’a bore the brunt of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s oppressive rule. Therefore, the Shi’a found in Iran a supportive neighbor. The Shi’a of Lebanon had been politically, socially and economically marginalized in the country. Lebanese from various sects attributed the pejorative term of Mutwali to the Shi’a. Notably, they bore the onus of the Arab-Israeli conflict when the PLO, supported by the Sunni leadership, transformed their villages in southern Lebanon into what came to be infamously known as Fathland. Many Shi’a suffered Jerusalem’s retaliatory military responses to the PLO terror acts in Israel carried out from Fathland. All this led to a Shi’a communal political awakening that found its expression in Ayatollah Khomeini’s religio-political mobilization. Ruling a Sunni majority country, the late Alawi president of Syria Hafiz al-Asad strove to forge intimate and strategic relationships with the Shi’a and Iran respectively. He sensed early on the strong anti-Alawi feelings among a large segment of the Sunni population, led by none other than the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood tried to remove the newly self-installed Ba’thi regime in 1964, years before their rebellion in the early 1980s. Before even supporting a theocratic Iran against a sister Iraqi Ba’thi state during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), Asad had already secured a religious opinion from the Iranian born Lebanese Shi’a religious scholar Moussa al-Sadr to the effect that the Alawis are part of Twelver Shi’a Islam.
Ironically, Arab Sunni blunders, including the social ramifications of their authoritarian and oppressive rule, affected Israel the most as it became a rallying cry for both political mobilization and political scapegoating across the Sunni-Shi’a divide in the Middle East. As such, Tehran’s projection of power stems no less from Iran’s regional ambition to prevent Sunni dictation of power in the Middle East than from Sunni political and social blunders. Confronting Iran, therefore, could not be adequately sustained without addressing Arab Sunni socio-political flaws, which helped create incubators of jihadis.
Similarly, Russia feels that Syria is integral to Moscow’s vision of what it considers its strategic sphere of influence. Damascus was a Soviet capital satellite, which President Putin of Russia considers today as essential to project Russian power across the Eastern Mediterranean. This is reinforced by a) Russian concerns of preventing Syria from becoming a jihadi transmission belt deepening transnational Islamism and Salafi-jihadism at the expense of Russia’s moderate Islam, and by b) Russian need to use Syria as a leverage card in its strained relationship with the European Union in relation to the Crimean and Ukrainian crises. No wonder Russia has signed long term agreements with Syria to maintain virtually permanent naval and air bases in the country. The agreement, ratified in January 2018, will allow Russia to expand the Tartous naval facility, Russia’s only naval foothold in the Mediterranean, and grant Russian warships access to Syrian waters and ports. The agreement could be renewed after it elapses in 49 years. In much the same vein, the agreement has also given Russia an indefinite access to Hmeimim air base, from which Russia has launched most of its air strikes against jihadis. Certainly, Russia is in Syria to stay and will not easily buckle under pressure, whether be it political or military, should its presence in the country become threatened.
In this respect, Russia’s strategy to proceed with a political plan to cement its presence in Syria without incurring a heavy financial and military cost, reminiscent of Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, has more or less been affected by the United States and Israel’s doubling down on Russian efforts, the Syrian regime and by extension Iran. Russia needs them to regulate its military involvement in Syria. But this neither means that Russia is at one with Iran leading a Shi’a axis nor one with the Syrian regime extending its oppression to the rest of non-Western Syria. Russia has often made it clear to Jordan, Egypt and Arab Gulf countries that it is not supporting an anti-Sunni Shi’a axis. At the same time, Russia cannot disassociate what’s happening in Syria from the rising tension between NATO allies and Russia, as well as from what Moscow perceives the evident shift of the U.S. government toward an anti-Russian stance.
Taking this into consideration, one can easily argue that a premeditated plan to change the politico-military configuration in Syria would entail, at a maximum, a Russian military response, and, at a minimum, further Russian political and military support to Iran and its proxies. Herein lies the real challenge for the U.S. and Israel. How to punish and/or curb the power of the Syrian regime and Iran without pushing Moscow headlong into a strategic alliance with Tehran? This challenge will undoubtedly come again to the fore as the Syrian regime attempts to clear Western Syria from opposition groups. Will the regime use chemical weapons again? The use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians has been the most convenient, yet horrifying, tool for ethnic cleansing. Saddam Hussein used it strategically and expediently against both the Iranians and the Kurds to horrify them into submission and fleeing what he considered his territories. The recent reportedly use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime against civilians in Douma brought about the swift surrender of the Salafi-jihadi opposition group Jaish al-Islam.
In this instance, the recent U.S.-led campaign to strike the Syrian regime’s plants of chemical weapons has been adequate and morally justified; and can be repeated should the Syrian regime again use chemical weapons.
When all is said and done, it is the Syrians who have born the brunt of Arab political blunders, Middle Eastern oppressive rule, regional jockeying for power, and international disorder. The tragedy of Syria has long since transcended the country’s borders. Only a political resolution to the Syrian crisis is adequate. In this respect, Washington, as it debates what it is going to do with the Iran deal, can pursue the following broad guidelines to avoid becoming militarily involved in the Syrian crisis:
- Washington does not need to increase its number of troops in Syria. Washington already has leverage vis-à-vis the other actors for it controls a large swath of territories in the northeast of Syria, including an important bread basket fertile ground next to the Euphrates River and few oil wells.
- Washington, despite its growing tension with Moscow, needs to sanction Russian influence in Western Syria and maintain at all times the American-Russian deescalating mechanism.
- Washington needs to create a parallel yet integral deescalating mechanism including the U.S., Russia, and Israel.
- Washington needs to create an American-Russian commission to debate and negotiate contested points as a precursor and a complement to American involvement in the Astana talks.
- Washington should actively engage in the Astana talks, co-sponsored by Russia, Iran and Turkey to deescalate conflict in Syria and pressure the addition of Saudi Arabia and Jordan to the group.
- Washington can balance its relationship with both the Kurds and the Turks, both of whom Washington needs to defeat Salafi-jihadism in Syria. True, the battle against ISIS has been won; nevertheless the war against Salafi-jihadism is far from over. Washington can promise the Kurds a form of autonomy east of the Euphrates, and promise the Turks no support for a contiguous Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria. At the same time, Washington should persuade Syrian Kurds to act separately from the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), as is the case with the Kurdish parties in Iraq.
- Washington should create a context for a political trade-off between northwestern Syria and eastern Syria. Washington needs the cooperation of both Turkey and Russia to bring about the defeat of al-Qaeda in Syria (Al-Nusra) in northwestern Syria, sanctioning thereafter Russian influence there. In exchange, Russia would sanction some form of autonomy for the Arab tribes of eastern Syria, whose security could be enhanced by American and Jordanian support.
- Washington should work on a compromise between Russia and Israel over the security measures of the deescalation zone in southern Syria. Russian and Jordanian troops, supervised by British and American intelligence units and ground surveillance equipment (similar to that alongside the Lebanon-Syria border), can man military outposts and checkpoints to enforce the agreed-upon security measures.
- Parallel to creating an American-Israeli-Russian deescalating mechanism, Washington should encourage revitalizing Israeli-Russian relations.
- American efforts should precede and then complement UN efforts.
In sum, the Syrian crisis is a complex one. It pits domestic, regional and international actors against each other. The growing tension between the U.S. and both Russia and Iran has the ingredients of an armed conflict in the making. Nevertheless, changing the political-military configuration in Syria and curbing Russian and Iranian power is hardly possible without a strong American military presence in Syria and regional cooperation, neither of which are possible for the time being. The words of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates ring true: “The Last Thing the Middle East Needs Now Is another War.”
*Robert Rabil is a professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. The views expressed in this article are his own. He can be followed @robertgrabil. He is the author of Embattled Neighbors: Syria, Israel and Lebanon (2003); Syria, United States and the War on Terror in the Middle East (2006); Religion, National Identity and Confessional Politics in Lebanon: The Challenge of Islamism (2011); Salafism in Lebanon: From Apoliticism to Transnational Jihadism (2014); The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon: The Double Tragedy of Refugees and Impacted Host Communities (2016); and most recently White Heart (2018).