After months of fighting, ISIL-held Raqqa has fallen to U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led forces. The military campaign against ISIL as a territorial entity will be over soon, and the United States will have to decide what to do with its troops currently operating in parts of Syria seized from the group. Amid months of administration promises to “roll back” Iranian influence in the region, politicians and experts have called for or articulated strategies for the same.
Former Ambassador James Jeffrey has testified to the House Foreign Affairs Committee:
U.S. forces should remain in a train-and-equip capacity in Iraq, as well as in Syria. The ostensible purpose of the latter presence is to protect enclaves and U.S. partners from a resurgence of terrorism, but it would also implicitly put military pressure on Damascus and Iran to negotiate seriously in the Geneva process regarding Syria’s future political situation.
The Center for a New American Security’s Ilan Goldenberg has outlined a strategy suggesting the use of U.S. and allied forces in those post-ISIL areas to “prevent Iranian shipments of weapons.” Goldenberg notes that taking the eastern province of Deir al-Zour “could mean U.S. troops may well stay in Syria after ISIL is defeated, or that the U.S.-allied Kurdish-led forces could function as a proxy for an anti-Iranian agenda, including cutting Iranian lines of communication.” Indeed as early as June, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, then the senior director for intelligence on the National Security Council staff and his colleague Derek Harvey — at the time the National Security Council staff’s Middle East advisor — called for attacking Iranian-backed forces in Syria. Politicians have been less clear: House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (for whom Harvey now works) has warned of the danger of allowing Iran to maintain a land bridge running from Iraq into Syria, and of keeping only a “small footprint” there (though he has not offered an alternative).
There is merit in containing Iranian influence in this critical region, but doing so effectively would require commitment and a tolerance for risk that the current administration seems to lack. Despite its anti-Iranian rhetoric, a frank assessment of interests suggests the administration is likely to pursue dangerous half-measures in Syria. Rather than weaken Iran, such an approach will likely strengthen it by eventually forcing a humiliating U.S. retreat.
The proposed “rollback” strategy would use U.S. troops in bases to deter Iranian expansion and shore up Kurdish-led allies — mainly in Syria’s north and east. Additionally, those combined forces would block Iranian movement of weapons, supplies and fighters from neighboring Iraq into Syria and Lebanon, either through deterrence or military action. The troops would also allow the United States to exert pressure (though the nature of that pressure remains undefined) against the Syrian regime, Iran’s ally. Finally, the United States would be able to build coalitions of armed anti-Assad groups that might give it longer-term assets against Iran, though the Kurdish Democratic Union Party’s PYD militia would be the centerpiece of U.S. strategy.
Containing and indeed reversing Iranian expansion in Syria and the Levant are valid U.S. goals. Iran has enabled an intransigent, repressive Assad to fight a war that has killed hundreds of thousands, displaced millions more, empowered terrorist groups, and threatened to destabilize Syria’s neighbors. Iran remains an adversary to both the United States and its regional allies, and its deepening and widening presence in Syria provides it with strategic depth to support its interests and assets in neighboring Lebanon and Iraq. Its main goal in this regard has been to secure the position of its militant sectarian proxy, Hezbollah, an avowed enemy of the United States, in Lebanon. In fact, Iran is a far more capable and sophisticated adversary than ISIL ever was, and any loss of strategic territory on its part is a net gain for the United States.
Iran is a serious problem, but likely not one that can be managed through an open-ended, small-scale U.S. military presence on the peripheries of Syria. Weakening Assad and the Iranians in Syria is not impossible. The issue, however, is the imbalance of commitment and interests between the United States and Iran. Is the United States more committed to rolling back Iran from the Syrian deserts than Iran is to maintaining its strategic depth, allies, and lines of communication in the Levant — won over decades at the cost of thousands of lives? Is the current U.S. administration — which makes no secret of its contempt for ambitious undertakings in the Middle East — as committed to weakening Assad as Iran is to strengthening him? The answer is: probably not, and Iran knows it.
If the United States really had a stronger will and deeper stakes in Syria than Iran, policymakers would be openly discussing the deployment of tens of thousands of combat troops to Syria, not several hundred. This or an all-out proxy war would be the only way to deal a meaningful blow to Iran’s position there, which is protected by tens of thousands of pro-Iranian militia fighters in addition to Syrian regime forces. Those options are certainly not on the table (indeed the Trump administration has deliberately eliminated the proxy war option). And is the United States willing to stick around as long as Iran is? If U.S. troops number too few to go on the offensive, or if their mandate is merely to garrison part of the country rather than breaking Iran’s forces, the small U.S. force will effectively sit around idly on Syria’s margins until it is inevitably shot at by agents of the power it seeks to roll back. Of course, the U.S. coalition could still pursue Sunni radicals. But if it ignores Shia ones, it will simply be helping to weaken Iran’s enemies, which would help Iran rather than roll it back.
The main accomplishment of a small, open-ended, U.S. presence in Syria would be complicating Assad’s potential plans to retake territory from the PYD, which is allied with the Americans but also an affiliate of the PKK, a U.S.-designated terrorist group. U.S. aid to the PYD may or may not be justified. Regardless, protecting the PYD with U.S. troops would further undermine the U.S. relationship with Turkey, a NATO ally, which views the PYD as part of the PKK, its own domestic Kurdish enemy. Even those who believe the Turkish alliance has become a burden would need to explain why this mission would be worth the price. Eventually, Iran and the Syrian regime will seek to sabotage the U.S. presence and reclaim Kurdish-held territory through asymmetric war. Assad has repeatedly vowed to retake all of Syria, and he is sincere — for that matter, it is not clear the PYD would stand its ground everywhere rather than cut deals with the regime. If (or when) the first bullet is fired at U.S. troops, or the first U.S. vehicle blown up by an Iranian IED, would the United States go to war with Assad and Iran? If so, why hasn’t it done so already, when the terms were more favorable, and solved the problem? If, on the other hand, war is not an option, wouldn’t retreating be the worst of all possible scenarios for U.S. credibility?
For five years I have called repeatedly for direct and proxy military action against the Syrian regime and its Iranian-backed militia allies, to decisively end the Syrian war and avoid a situation in which the costs and risks of “rollback” become much higher. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what has happened, which means that now only bold and costly measures will succeed. President Donald Trump has praised Bashar al-Assad and his Russian backer and ended covert support of the anti-Assad insurgent program, and seems reluctant to rebuild even the areas the United States destroyed while fighting ISIL. His administration is ill-prepared for the challenge, commitment, and political sacrifice of reshaping the strategic landscape of a highly contested space like Syria. Without such leadership, such a complex undertaking will fail. Halfhearted efforts to find an easy middle ground will fail even more severely.
The administration’s repeated belligerent statements on Iran and promises to roll back its influence may be cathartic, but they are also unfortunate. Such rhetoric perpetuates a decade-long trend of the United States discrediting itself by making idle threats and “calling out” enemies who have clearly decided not to take us very seriously. Given the costs and risks, a real anti-Iranian effort in Syria is unlikely to materialize, yet anything less than that will not achieve the worthy goals of containing or weakening Iran there. The only significant U.S. efforts against Iran are likely to focus on lower-risk issues, such as the proxy war in Yemen, or U.S. sanctions on a regime that has remained robust despite decades of them. Of course, these actions are low-risk precisely because Iran can easily absorb them. That is not rollback. A direct or proxy war against Iran in Syria — exactly what is needed to weaken Iran over an issue it cares about — would certainly have impact. Yet this strategy is highly unlikely given current U.S. leadership. In this context, the half-measure alternatives being considered will do more harm than good.
Faysal Itani is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, where he focuses on the Syrian conflict, and an adjunct professor of Middle East politics at George Washington University. He is from Beirut, Lebanon and holds an MA in Strategic Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
Image: U.S. Marines/Zachery Laning