Iran strengthened by Syria withdrawal and Mattis resignation

Defence Minister of Syria, Iran and Russia. Photo: Tasnim News Agency

Two significant developments out of the United States will have likely have implications for the Middle East’s – including Israel’s – immediate and long-term security. Most importantly, they are likely to leave a dangerous space that will be perfect for Iran to fill.

The first was US President Donald Trump’s announcement he would withdraw US troops from Syria saying “we have won against ISIS … and now it’s time for our troops to come back home”. The second was the resignation of US Defence Secretary James Mattis.

To the Syria withdrawal first. In a series of Tweets, President Trump said his only reason for the US being in Syria was to defeat ISIS and that had been done. He elaborated: “Russia, Iran, Syria and others are the local enemy of ISIS. We were doing their work. Time to come home and rebuild.”

Commentators have noted that Trump’s analysis is not entirely accurate. While ISIS does not hold the territory it once did, the threat has not subsided and the US has continued to launch airstrikes against the terrorists as recently as this month.

In fact, the withdrawal of an estimated 2000 US troops from Syria leaves a power vacuum, as Yossi Kuperwasser told ABC radio this week, that will most likely be filled by Iran.

President Hassan Rouhani did not directly comment on Trump’s announcement but declared Iran and Turkey would take steps to bring peace to the region.

His declaration is trite considering Iran has dangerous regional ambitions and a significant presence in Syria, helping to entrench the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Iran has also been arming its proxy militia in Lebanon, Hezbollah, via Syria. Hezbollah’s stated aim is to destroy Israel. Iran has also increased its support for Hamas, which continues to indiscriminately attack Israel.

The withdrawal of the US from Iran will likely allow Iran to complete its control of a ‘Shi’ite crescent’ extending from Iran across the Middle East through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean Sea. This will give it free reign to move money, weapons and people across the region.

In response, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced Israel will redouble its efforts against Iran. Netanyahu and Trump have spoken in the wake of the announcement, including further discussions on Iran’s aggression.

The day after Trump announced his Syria withdrawal, Jim Mattis resigned as Secretary of Defence. In his resignation letter, he emphasised the importance of strong allies to achieving US goals and noted that the US must take an unambiguous approach to its strategic rivals. He added: “Because you have the right to a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.”

A retired general, Mattis had served as America’s top military commander in the Middle East. He was considered a cool head in the Administration, who for decades called out and truly understood the global and regional threat posed by Iran.

While the dust is yet to settle on his announcement, it is likely Mattis’ experience will be a loss to the Trump Administration.