After Islamic State’s defeat, we can’t abandon Syria to Russia and Iran

After Islamic State's defeat
Putin and Assad's meeting at Russia's Hmeymim air base in Syria's Latakia Province last week

Colin Rubenstein

Australian Financial Review – 18 December 2017

The so-called Islamic State is on the verge of defeat in both Syria and Iraq. With the sun about to set on this murderous organisation in both countries, the Americans and the Russians, both with boots on the ground, are engaged in complex and delicate multi-sided negotiations to redraw the map of Syria.

Modest as it may be, Australia also has a claim on this moment as the Middle East is being re-shaped. Australia’s military and diplomatic contribution to the success of eradicating the IS threat in Syria and Iraq is significant. Canberra has access to US President Donald Trump’s ear and the potential to assist Washington in consolidating a coherent and viable strategy for the morning after IS.

Attempting to exercise such influence would be in line with the new Australian foreign policy white paper, which notes: “In the United States, there is greater debate about the costs of sustaining its global leadership … in this dynamic environment, Australia must seek opportunity while protecting our interests in the face of complexity and uncertainty.”

Such an opportunity now presents itself with regards to Syria.

Pushing back against Russia

The Russians want to fully capitalise on their risky decision in 2015 to intervene on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a dictator then apparently on borrowed time. This means, among other things, safeguarding their stronghold in Damascus and keeping their air and naval bases in Syria. At the same time, Russia must pay dividends in Syrian currency to its key partners in Syria, the Iranians.

On the other side of the table, the Trump administration – with its distinct isolationist tendencies – may be tempted to declare “mission accomplished” with IS gone and simply withdraw its forces from Syria. Given the Russian and especially Iranian plans for the region, this would be a grave mistake.

Reports about the emerging agreements concerning Syria are worrying: they essentially amount to allowing Syria to be a permanent base for both Russian and Iranian forces. A Russian foothold in Syria without a US counterbalance in the region spells the end of Washington’s ability to shape the future of this vital, strategic area.

Worse, allowing Teheran’s presence to continue unhindered in Syria is an assured recipe for volatility and future conflict.

The Iranian threat

Iran, both as the heir to Persian regional empires, and as apostle of the Shi’ite Islamist revolution, is seeking to establish a “Shi’ite Crescent” across the Middle East that will allow it to be an effective regional hegemon. To that end, Iranian Revolutionary Guards and various Shi’ite terrorist militias, led by the Lebanese Hezbollah, are deployed where there is a governance vacuum in the area: in Yemen where they support the Houthis, in Syria, Iraq and, of course, for many years, in Lebanon. The Iranians actively export their fundamentalist Shi’ite ideology into these areas, building bases for their forces and proxies, and erecting weapons factories to arm local organisations modelled on Hezbollah.

This Iranian geo-political thrust constitutes a grave threat to the Western-aligned Sunni powers of the region, especially Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain and the UAE. At the same time, Iran is dramatically extending its reach and ability to threaten vital Western allies in the Middle East, such as Egypt and Israel, with its rockets, missiles and, in the future, nuclear capabilities.

In other words, after having invested blood and treasure in Syria to fight IS under two administrations, the US now risks leaving an even more unstable situation there if it allows the Iranians and Russians alone to dictate Syria’s future.

To counter this dangerous development, the US administration should act decisively and develop a comprehensive and coherent policy. Yet it is not clear if any such policy will be forthcoming from the White House. Carrying the scars of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (and Vietnam years beforehand), Trump and many others in Washington will likely be very resistant to any proposal that may result in renewed military commitments. Moreover, Washington’s stances on Syria and on Iran should be closely intertwined.

Sitting on the fence not viable

Trump has signalled his disapproval of the deeply flawed nuclear deal (JCPOA) reached with Iran during the Obama administration. But the nuclear deal is only part of a wider pattern of Iranian bad behaviour, including not only threatening its neighbours, but acting as the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism. Dealing with Iran, therefore, requires containing and pushing back Teheran’s rogue state activities across a variety of fronts. The nuclear dimension is one, economic sanctions are another, but, without a concrete US regional presence and role in reshaping Syria, any such strategy will be profoundly flawed.

Today, all regional players, including Assad, are rushing to Moscow to promote their interests in Syria. And while Trump launches rhetorical salvos against North Korea, Iran is developing into a potentially even more dangerous nuclear adversary, because, unlike Pyongyang, it has the potential to subvert or dominate most of its regional neighbours.

When weighing up all the risks with regards to the situation in Syria, sitting on the fence or leaving it to others to sort it out is simply not viable and endangers vital Australia interests. The Australia government should take the initiative and encourage Washington to remain engaged in a major, well-conceived way in Syria, or risk having the most unstable and dangerous, yet strategically vital, region of the world dominated by rogue regimes, nuclear proliferators and state-supporters of terrorism.

Dr Colin Rubenstein is executive director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, and previously taught Middle East politics at Monash University for many years.