By John Ubaldi
Contributor, In Homeland Security
For some time now, Asia and the continued escalation of North Korea’s ballistic missile program have been the major strategic concerns of the United States. But Washington should not forget other areas of the world, especially the Middle East.
As the U.S. pursues its goal of defeating ISIS, Russia and Iran are consolidating their positions in the region. Russia has been strengthening and stabilizing the government of Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad. Iran continues to build a land corridor that will enable Tehran to send Iranian weapons, supplies and troops through Iraq, across Syria and into Lebanon.
Russia and Iran’s Close Cooperation Threatens the Region and US Allies
Russia and Iran’s increasingly close cooperation threatens not only the region, but also some of our closest regional allies such as Jordan and Israel. If left unchecked, the Moscow-Tehran consolidation will have a devastating effect on these allies.
Following their meeting at the APEC conference in Da Nang, Vietnam, on November 11, President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a joint statement in which they praised the Memorandum of Principles that Jordan, Russia and the United States concluded in Amman, Jordan, on November 8.
Trump and Putin “confirmed the importance of de-escalation areas as an interim step to reduce violence in Syria, enforce ceasefire agreements, facilitate unhindered humanitarian access and set the conditions for the ultimate political solution to the conflict,” the statement said. “They reviewed progress on the ceasefire in southwest Syria that was finalized the last time the two Presidents met in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7, 2017.”
The recent “de-escalation zone” brokered by the U.S., Russia and Jordan for southern Syria includes a five-to-seven kilometer buffer or “exclusionary zone” prohibited to all foreign forces. Those foreign forces include Iran and its proxy army Hezbollah.
The flaw in this agreement is that Iran is allowed to leave friendly paramilitary groups and foreign fighters in place. They, in turn, will be able to recruit local fighters also not covered in the exclusion zone.
These local fighters are not only loyal to Iran, but also controlled by the Islamic Republic. As a result, Tehran will continue its military buildup on the periphery of this “de-escalation zone” close to the strategic Golan Heights.
What Is Next Once ISIS Is Defeated?
The campaign against ISIS is far from over. However, once the Islamic State is finally defeated, the conditions that gave rise to this terror organization will not have been resolved or even been discussed strategically.
How will the U.S. deal with Iran’s support for Assad’s tyrannical rule and the marginalization of rural Sunni populations? Current U.S. policy is to preserve and consolidate recent gains and prevent ISIS from re-constituting itself as a potent force.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis, in comments following release of the joint Trump-Putin statement, signaled that the United States will not withdraw from eastern Syria until the defeat of the Islamic State is clear and sustainable.
“We’re going to make sure we set the conditions for a diplomatic solution,” Mattis told reporters. The short-term goal is “to demil[itarize] one area and then demil[itarize] another, and just keep it going, [and] try and do the things that will allow people to return….” he said.
As the U.S. begins painstaking steps to end the long Syrian civil war, Washington must also be mindful of the various strategic issues that cloud prospects for a sustainable diplomatic settlement.
Iran’s Deeper Involvement in Defeating ISIS
One needs to really look closely at who is actually doing much of the fighting in eastern Syria. Recent statements by National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster indicate that 80% percent of the fighting against ISIS is supported by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The stakes inside Syria are high. No one is advocating a conflict with Russia. But the United States needs to find a strategy that doesn’t allow Moscow to strengthen Assad’s grip on power in Syria or allow Iran to gain further influence inside the country.
When Shia militias liberated Syrian towns such as Abu Kamal, an overwhelmingly Sunni area, the Syrian Defense Ministry hailed the liberation as a victory for Assad, whose goal is to re-take “every inch” of Syrian territory.
President Obama Harmed the US Position inside Syria
The U.S. strategic position in Syria became extremely difficult when the Obama administration failed to enforce the president’s own “red line” after Assad used chemical weapons against his own people. Another failure occurred when Russia was allowed to re-enter Syria and the Middle East after being forced out of the area following the Yom Kippur War of 1973.
This situation was made even more difficult by Obama’s singular focus on the Iranian nuclear agreement. The agreement lifted crippling sanctions on Iran and freed billions of dollars from Iranian accounts held by the U.S. under the sanctions.
The money was then used to shore up Assad, strengthen a nearly bankrupt Hezbollah and fund its military adventures throughout the Middle East. All of these actions occurred with minimal push back from the U.S.
The United States needs a careful and strategic policy in dealing with the complex situation in Syria. Defeating ISIS was the easy part; now, the difficult part begins.