by Hanin Ghaddar*
Based on statements by several senior administration officials, the U.S’ priority is now defeating ISIS. Although its ally Saudi Arabia is more focused on Iran’s role and threat in the region, the current U.S administration does not see Iran as a direct or imminent threat. From how the military operations are going on the ground, and President Trump’s decision to cut off aid to the Syrian rebels, it is hard to ignore the fact that the international community is no longer interested in removing Assad from power.
This is all based on the general belief by the West that removing Assad requires a major military operation, with U.S boots on the ground. This is not necessarily true as the opposition groups on the ground were able to achieve great successes in the past with very little support. Of course, this changed when support was cut and after Russia intervened and became a serious player in Syria.
Today, exhaustion and the complication of the scene in Syria is driving the attitude that keeping a weak Assad in power is better than opening Syria to uncertain options. However, this attitude – which will influence the upcoming Syria, or Iran, policies – will not only extend the conflict in Syria, but it will open it to more conflicts that will negatively affect regional security and U.S. interests. Here’s how:
One, keeping Assad as Syria’s president does not mean that other actors (such as Iran) will be contained. On the contrary, Assad will be like former Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, who was the Syrian regime’s instrument during the Syrian hegemony over Lebanon. Like Lahoud, Assad has long ago lost his ability to make decisions or govern. To stay in his palace, Assad traded his decision-making prerogatives and his country to Iran, which is leading all military operations in Syria, and taking over the economy through the multiple investments it is making, and will have a very long-term influence in Syria. This will mean that through Assad, Iran will be the decision-maker in Syria. Some would say that Russia is as influential and that it will not let Iran dictate Syria’s policy. However, not only this is not guaranteed – as Russia does not necessarily have more leverage than Iran over Assad – it is also a mere assumption. So far, no one can evidently say that Iran’s and Russia’s agendas in Syria contradict. If anything, both want to maintain Assad in power and defy western influence.
Two, in addition to having political influence in Damascus via Assad, Iran wants to be a geopolitical power, manifested in its plan to complete the land-bridge that connects Tehran to Beirut via Iraq and Syria. Despite the doubts that this land-bridge is not really an Iranian priority, facts on the ground say that it is. Most of Iran’s military resources are focused at the moment on both Damascus and Deir Ez’zour, which is important for its resources and its proximity to the Iraqi borders. If the U.S. does not do anything to block this land-bridge in Iraq or Syria, Iran will be able to link the border between the two countries and announce the completion of the bridge. In addition to being a platform to project power, this bridge is also a reason for Iran and its proxies to claim victory – or maybe another “divine victory” – that will bring about more public support for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards at home, and to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iran will have a continuous arc of influence that will be very difficult to contain. However, it won’t end the conflict because the remaining opposition groups in Syria, in addition to tribes around Deir Ezzour, won’t accept this corridor and will keep fighting it. It will also give ISIS 2.0 a justification to be reborn with a stronger sectarian message.
Three, Assad as President of Syria will give Hezbollah a free hand wherever is needed on Syrian territory. Hezbollah will use Assad and its forces to gain control over territories in the south and south-east Syria. This will boost and expand Hezbollah as a regional player, and give it more control over Lebanon. However, this amplified influence will probably increase the tension between Israel and Hezbollah, leading to more friction and the possibility of a full-fledged war that will not be limited to Lebanon. As Hezbollah advances its regional role and agenda, the next war with Israel will also take a regional format, where both Lebanon and Syria will be exposed, and where other Shia militias might join Hezbollah in the fight against Israel.
Four, Iran’s control over Syria via Assad also means a bigger role of Iran in Iraq. Political and military gains that Iran will achieve in Syria – most prominently the land-bridge – will probably boost Iran’s power in Iraq, via the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) lead by Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani. Although the Shia political scene in Iraq is more complicated than the one in Lebanon, and Iran certainly faces challenges to its influence over the Shia community and leadership, being able to link Syria to Iraq will improve Iran’s chances in Iraq ahead of the 2018 parliamentary elections.
Five, Assad will never really be the president of Syria. It will be hard for the international community to acknowledge him after he killed his own people and destroyed his own cities and towns. The State of Syria – like the State of Lebanon and maybe the State of Iraq at a certain point – will start disintegrating until they all disappear in one big entity under the Iranian or Persian Empire. This means that future cooperation between these states’ institutions or governments and the international community will indirectly mean coordination with Iran, something that is still considered problematic by many Western governments.
From Washington, the war seems to be almost over. It is no longer in the news headlines or government rhetoric, unless something major happens. The public opinion is exhausted and everyone seems to be more focused on North Korea, which looks more of a direct threat to the U.S. However – and because of the factors mentioned above – the war is far from over, and the international community will realize at one point that it is not enough to defeat ISIS.
Without a post-ISIS strategy, the US will find itself dragged into more wars or conflicts in the Middle East. A post-ISIS strategy requires serious contemplation of the reconstruction phase, which could allow access and influence over Syria’s institutions or an opportunity to limit Iran’s influence, but most importantly, this strategy requires a clear process of transition where Assad will sooner rather than later step down and allow democratic elections to take place. At this point, this might be the best way to keep ISIS 2.0 from coming back, and at the same time roll back Iranian influence in Syria, and eventually in Iraq and Lebanon.
*Hanin Ghaddar is the inaugural Friedmann Visiting Fellow at The Washington Institute.