by Ilan Goldenberg, Nicholas A. Heras
In a May 21 speech on U.S. strategy following President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo struck a tough tone, promising to confront Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its multinational Shiite militia networks throughout the Middle East. But strong words have yet to be matched with action. For years, the United States has struggled to come up with a strategy for containing and eventually rolling back Iranian influence in Syria, the most hotly contested battlefield in the Middle East.
That may be about to change, thanks to an emerging fracture in the alliance backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. On one side of the divide is Iran, which seeks to consolidate its gains in Syria in order to apply military pressure on Israel. On the other side are the Assad regime, Hezbollah, and Russia, all of which fear a major conflict with Israel that could undermine what they have fought for in the Levant over the past decade. These divisions may finally provide Washington with the opportunity it has been seeking to check Tehran’s ambitions in Syria.
Assad’s position today is as strong as it has been since 2012, when Syria’s armed opposition first started gaining momentum. Over the past two years, the regime and its allies have made significant territorial gains, especially in the strategic areas in and around the capital of Damascus and in the last pocket of rebel rule in Homs Province. Assad’s opponents lack either the will or the capability to stop him from slowly winning the war.
Russia has been instrumental in helping Assad remain in power, but the regime’s most important ally has been Iran, which has used its intervention in Syria to lay the foundations of a permanent military presence. The IRGC’s expansive investment in the country has allowed it to reshape many sectors of Assad’s security state—it gave its blessing to Hezbollah’s deployment of thousands of troops inside Syria, has imported thousands more Afghans, Iraqis, Pakistanis, and Yemenis to fight on behalf of Assad, and has recruited and mobilized local militias from Syria’s various identity communities, including Sunni Arabs. The IRGC has also become enmeshed in the Syrian economy by winning contracts for rehabilitating and expanding the country’s mining and telecommunications industries.
Iran is now trying to use its forces in Syria to apply strategic pressure on Israel. It is working to help Hezbollah build rocket and missile production facilities inside Lebanon and the Lebanese-Syrian border region and continues to transfer sophisticated weapons to the group, which can use them to threaten Israel. And in recent months, Iran has made a number of provocative deployments close to Israel’s border and launched rockets into the Golan Heights, triggering a fierce Israeli retaliation.
But this drive for confrontation is where Iran’s priorities are coming into conflict with those of Assad and his other allies. As Assad consolidates his rule, he and his backers are attempting to normalize his presence and secure funding for reconstruction. And although Assad is unlikely to get reconstruction money from the West, he is hoping that Brazil, China, India, and even some European states such as Italy may seek investment opportunities in a rebuilding Syria. Assad does not want war with Israel, a military power capable of doing significant damage inside of Syria and undermining his drive for consolidation and normalization. Moreover, there will be no international investment if the Syrian civil war is replaced by fighting between Iran and Israel.
The Russians also wish to avoid a Syrian conflict with Israel. Russian President Vladimir Putin, for his part, would like to end Syria’s civil war in a way that brings him credit and international prestige. Moscow wants to solidify its hold on its naval base in Tartus and its only air base in the Middle East, in Khmeimim, which it is currently expanding to support future military operations across the region. Putin also wishes to secure reconstruction contracts for his allies, especially those concerning the natural gas reserves off the Syrian coast and the energy-rich desert areas of central and eastern Syria. A major Israeli intervention puts all of that at risk.
Hezbollah, too, is wary of conflict with Israel. Its position within Lebanon is stronger now than ever before, with the group having consolidated political power in the elections in May. It has also warded off the threat of extremist Sunni organizations such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS), both of which tried to establish Lebanon as a base for fighting in Syria. The one event that could threaten these gains would be a war with Israel, which could destroy all that Hezbollah has built since the last Israeli-Hezbollah war in July 2006.
The challenge for Hezbollah is that it is currently in a much weaker position vis-à-vis the IRGC than at any point in its history. Whereas Hezbollah used to be Iran’s only proxy in the Levant— giving it significant leverage against its patron—since the start of the Syrian civil war the IRGC has established a larger, multinational militia network inside Syria. It is an open question whether Hezbollah could refuse if the IRGC pushed it to go to war with Israel.
These tensions are already dividing Iran from its erstwhile partners in Syria. For instance, Israeli air strikes against Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria have been carried out with the acquiescence, if not support, of the Russians—Russia has chosen not to collocate its forces with those of Iran, which, when combined with the Israeli-Russian deconfliction agreement over Syrian airspace, grants Israel the flexibility it needs to attack Iranian assets in Syria. Together, these act as a reminder from Moscow that the IRGC should not push its luck as it tries to make the Assad-controlled areas of Syria into a rear base for a future war with Israel.
Recently, there has also been a spat between Iran and Russia over whether foreign militias—the IRGC and its Shiite militia networks—should remain in Syria as the conflict winds down. In May, Putin said that all foreign forces should leave Syria. His Syria envoy, Alexander Lavrentiev, later clarified that Putin meant the Americans, Iranians, Turks, and foreign Shiite militias—but not the Israelis. In response, the Iranian Foreign Ministry stated that no one could force Iranian forces out of Syria and that they would remain until Assad formally asks them to leave.
There have also been reports of a decision by the Assad regime to acquiesce to the withdrawal of Iranian forces and allied Shiite militias from the de-escalation zone near the Israeli and Jordanian border. Instead of a military offensive in the southwest, which is what Iran would prefer, Assad may choose to work through Russia to peacefully co-opt opposition-held territories through reconciliation agreements that provide for a small degree of local autonomy. Local reporting from the southwest, especially in Daraa Province near the Syrian-Jordanian border, suggests that there is currently a withdrawal of Iranian and Hezbollah forces from the area, although no one can say for how long. If the withdrawal is real, it could be a major step in keeping the IRGC away from Jordan and Israel. It could also serve as a model for how Iran’s interests can be curtailed when faced with unified opposition from Assad, Hezbollah, and Russia and the threat of Israeli force.
Because the United States has chosen to limit its engagement in Syria—especially in the country’s west, where Iran is strongest—it does not have a great deal of leverage. Yet there are a number of steps the U.S. government can take to exacerbate the current divisions in the pro-Assad alliance, thereby diminishing Iran’s influence in the Levant.
First, the Trump administration’s official position still emphasizes regime change through the application of economic pressure and a refusal to normalize Assad. This position, however, keeps Assad close to the IRGC, without which he would be vulnerable, at a time when Russia is trying to drive the two apart. Sadly, at this point the self-interest of Damascus and Moscow is the best defense against Tehran. The United States needs to recognize that and take advantage of it. This does not mean full reengagement with Assad, who is responsible for the deaths of some 500,000 of his own citizens. But it does mean abandoning the delusion that Assad or his regime can be displaced anytime soon.
Second, the United States must state in no uncertain terms that it plans to remain in northeast Syria for the long term. The U.S. zone in northern and eastern Syria contains the majority of the country’s major oil, water, and agricultural resources, providing the Trump administration with a lot of leverage over the future of Syria. Trump’s comments expressing a desire to get out of Syria were unhelpful, even if he later walked them back. If the United States leaves eastern Syria, it will unify Assad, Iran, and Russia in an effort to retake this territory. Moscow and Damascus covet this region’s energy resources, which could help fund both the Russian intervention and Syria’s reconstruction. For Iran, the control of this territory by friendly forces would significantly increase the maneuverability of its militia forces across Iraq and Syria. As long as the United States keeps forces in this part of the country, pro-regime forces will be forced to focus elsewhere, exacerbating divisions inside the alliance.
Third, the United States still has the ability to shape the outcome in southwest Syria, where, working with Jordan and Israel, it has invested successfully in a moderate opposition force that has held this territory for the past few years. This area is in the crosshairs of the IRGC, and it is where a war in Syria between Israel and Iran is most likely to break out. The Trump administration should state, publicly and clearly, that the opposition-controlled areas in southwest Syria should remain autonomous, maintain control over movement to and from their communities, and continue to access humanitarian assistance and cross-border trade with Jordan.
To support these objectives, Trump should unfreeze the $200 million earmarked for stabilization funding in Syria. A significant part of these funds is set aside for training and transitioning armed opposition groups into local security roles and supporting local governance in these communities. These efforts are practical and pragmatic: none of them would derail the current negotiations between Jordan, Russia, and the United States over the future of the southwest, and they would signal that Trump is still invested in the region’s stability.
Finally, in regard to Israel, the Israel Defense Forces has demonstrated its ability to strike Iranian targets in Syria. The threat of future strikes is an important point of leverage against Tehran. However, this is a stick that should be wielded cautiously. The United States will certainly continue to support Israel, but it should also encourage restraint on the part of its ally.
A U.S. strategy that focuses on containing Iran’s influence in Syria by exploiting divisions with its partners will be consistent with limitations Iran has run into in other parts of the Middle East. The IRGC has succeeded by taking advantage of the opportunities presented by the region’s civil wars—first in Lebanon and more recently in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. It has entered these conflicts by working with local partners who grant it wide freedom to operate because their objectives converge. But time and again we also see the IRGC overreach, causing a nationalist backlash from its local partners. It may now be hitting a wall inside Syria, as its interests finally diverge from those of its allies. The United States and its partners should take advantage of this opportunity.
This article was originally published on ForeignAffairs.com.