Syria: The Proxy Battlefield Between the United States and Iran


Secretary of Defense James Mattis is a hawk on the Islamic Republic of Iran. Since his time as a military officer, he has long worried about the threat that Tehran posed to the United States and the rest of the world. He is correct to be concerned. The Iranians are the greatest threat that the United States faces in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, though, the decision to turn Syrian Civil War into a proxy battle between American and Iranian forces is a mistake. While Syria may be close to America’s theater of operations in Iraq, the Mediterranean, and Israel, it is not and likely never will be an outpost for American influence–not without considerable expenditures from the United States that neither the American people nor any elected leader is willing to countenance.

Here is what The Military Times had to say about America’s role in Syria recently:

Yet top U.S. officials at the Pentagon and the White House are avoiding anything that sounds like a declaration of victory.

Many experts believe that’s because U.S. leaders want to maintain public support for other ground-level missions in the region that are harder to sell to the American people, politically.

But so far, no one has stood at the Pentagon podium and directly said that balancing regional threats like Iran and ‘Shia influence’ is part of the current policy or strategy.

‘Never give up a sales pitch that’s working,’said Barry Posen, director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

I don’t think that somebody’s going to step up and say, ‘We’ve finished the job we came to do. It’s time to leave’.

‘The great thing about the [ISIS] mission is it was already sold to the American people,” Posen said.'”

Barry Posen’s assessment is correct. But, here is the catch. In order to truly defeat the Russian-backed Iranian forces operating in defense of the Syrian strongman, Bashar al-Assad, significantly more American forces will be needed. These forces would need to have rules of engagement that would all but ensure the start of a world war, as such a large American force primed for removing Iran’s undue influence in Syria would need need to directly and openly conflict with the Iranians (and, inevitably, the Russians). This is a prima facie absurd desire on the part of the Pentagon.

To be sure, the United States must counteract the growing Iranian influence. However, as I’ve argued before, anything more than limited counterterrorism operations directed against the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS) and other jihadi groups is far too costly and dangerous for the United States. It’s a mirage for American policymakers to believe that the United States can agitate directly against either Iran or Russia without serious blowback.

Fact is, the American mission in Syria is almost over. ISIS has been physically decimated there. Al-Nusra and other groups are weak and will likely soon be finished off by the Russo-Iranian-Assad-Turkey alliance. We have thus far lost nothing in Syria. Going for broke and allowing for mission creep to set in, converting the limited American mission in Syria into a limitless campaign against either Iran or Russia would mean committing the United States to a world war that will eventuate in a nuclear exchange.

Yet, both Mattis and Trump’s desire for Iran to be contained in the region are apt. Using diplomacy, geoeconomics, and building up the forces of the Sunni Arab states opposed to Iran as well as standing firmly behind Israel will ensure that Iran is rolled back far more efficiently (and bloodlessly) than anything the United States military could hope to achieve in Syria.

Another strategic lever the Trump Administration must use is to strengthen anti-government militants in and outside of Iran and use them as a fifth column. The ongoing protests tearing the Iranian countryside apart offers the best hope. American intelligence services should take advantage of this unrest and attempt to use it for U.S. strategic ends.

These policies would be far cheaper than kinetic action against Iran in Syria (that would inevitably force Russia to intervene on the side of their nominal Iranian partners). The Trump Administration could make a comprehensive geopolitical deal with Russia to split power in the Middle East (since the United States cannot and should not want to have such a heavy hand in the Middle East any longer). Iran can be Russia’s problem.

After all, Iran does not view Russia as an equal partner. They are simply using Russia for their own ends. I suspect Putin understands this). The goal of U.S. foreign policy in the region should be to reduce its presence over time and return to that of an offshore balancer–an interventionist power of last resort, when America’s capable allies in the Sunni Arab states and Israel cannot achieve strategic gains. Keeping a modest American force in Syria indefinitely will only promise a larger regional, potentially, world war.

That’s bad strategy. Besides, the United States does not have the ability at present to hold Syria against a determined coalition–not with its resources being stretched across the globe, from Asia to Europe, and from Africa to Latin America. Eventually, something will break. Syria can wait. Iran can be squelched with longer-term, cheaper strategies, using all measures short of war.



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