Evolving Iranian and US strategy in Syria
Oct 12, 2018 | AIJAC staff
Update from AIJAC
Update 10/18 #01
This Update deals with evolving Iranian strategy in Syria and the wider Middle East – as well as the changing US and Israeli responses to it.
Its core is a piece by Israeli security affairs analyst and journalist Yaakov Lappin on the current state of the Iranian-Israeli confrontation over Syria. His main insight is that, in the face of Israeli determination to prevent a permanent Iranian military presence across its northern border in Syria, Iran is trying a new strategy of integrating its forces, bases and missile production facilities with Syrian regime forces and facilities and trying to disguise them. Lappin also discusses the Russian and American roles in the current situation. For this longish but important article in full, CLICK HERE.
Next up, we have top Israeli expert Jonathan Spyer looking at Iranian behaviour within Syria within the context of the emerging strategy by the US and its allies to contain Iran across the whole region. Spyer particularly focuses on the significance of recent Iranian missile strikes into Syria and Iraq – but only against weak opponents and local militias. Spyer argues that if Iran starts to use its missiles against stronger targets, it will try to hide behind proxies, but the key to deterring such efforts is to respond by retaliating against Iranian assets and not just those proxies. For his complete argument, CLICK HERE.
Finally American analyst Matthew Brodsky, together with former Syrian diplomat Bassam Barabandi, discusses an emerging new strategy for Syria coming out of the US Trump Administration. This strategy, they argue, relies on a combination of public messaging and behind-the-scenes diplomacy, together with a forward-leaning military posture made possible by a new Administration policy of maintaining US forces in eastern Syria, abandoning previous talk of a pullout. Brodsky and Barabandi argue this new strategy will give the US considerable leverage over Iran and Russia, which previously dominated events in Syria, and open the way to an outcome which will serve the interests of the US and its allies, as well as the Syrian people. For more on this new US strategy and what it entails, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in…
- A detailed US State Department dossier on Iran’s rogue state activities, including supporting terrorism, illegal missile program, illicit finance, cybersecurity threat and human rights abuses.
- Also, a new US counterterrorism strategy places a greater focus on Iran and its proxies.
- Plus, more confirmation that Iran has been allowing al-Qaeda to operate within its borders.
- Israeli academic Eyal Zisser on why it makes sense to focus on the Iranian danger first, ahead of the quest for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
- A good analysis, from the Washington Institute, of the implications of an Israeli announcement that its intelligence had identified three Hezbollah missile factories in a civilian neighbourhood of Beirut near mosques, homes, schools, and the international airport.
- Reactions in Israel and the Jewish world to the announcement that American UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, who has earned kudos for her willingness to take on anti-Israel bias at the UN, will be quitting that role at the end of the year.
- Isi Leibler comments on what he calls as a trend toward “non-Jewish Jews” in America.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- AIJAC’s Jamie Hyams explains the borderline between criticism of Israel and antisemitism in the Hobart Mercury – responding to columnist Greg Barns.
- AIJAC’s Ahron Shapiro on the case for defunding UNRWA, in the Herald Sun.
- Colin Rubenstein on the logic behind the Trump Administration’s recent efforts to pressure the Palestinian leadership in the Melbourne Age.
- AIJAC congratulates Nadia Murad, the Yazidi women’s rights activist – and friend of the Jewish people – on winning the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize.
- Naomi Levin on a clarification by US President Trump that he is backing a two-state peace – despite claims to the contrary by some critics.
- AIJAC leaders met with Australian PM Scott Morrison yesterday.
‘The War Between Wars’
Israel vs Iran in Syria
by Yaakov Lappin
Fathom, Oct. 2018
In late August, Iran’s Defence Minister, Gen. Amir Khatami, met with his Syrian counterpart, Gen. Ali Ayoub, in Damascus and signed an agreement for military cooperation.
Iranian Defence Minister Gen. Amir Khatami just signed a military cooperation agreement with his Syrian counterpart – this may appear mundane but was actually a statement of Iranian intent.
This is an event that sounds deceptively mundane. In actuality, it was far from being a routine bilateral defence pact. Instead, it was a statement of Iranian intent – a message Israel paid close attention to – that it has no intention of giving up its goal of turning Syria into an Iranian military fortress in the next phase of an ongoing, explosive regional struggle.
After an extraordinarily effective series of attacks by Israel against its expansion efforts, Iran has had to go back to the drawing board and search for new ways to realise its goal of taking over Syria.
In this fight, Israel is playing an aggressive defence, determined to keep Iran out of all of Syria. Iran is on the offensive, determined to take over Syria militarily, to project its radical power from Tehran all the way to Israel’s border, and convert Syria into an Iranian launch pad for future aggression against Israel.
After turning half of all Syrians into refugees, and killing half a million people, the monstrous Syrian war is drawing to a close, and Iran’s ally, the Bashar Assad regime, has emerged as the de-facto victor, thanks to the assistance it has received from Iranian forces on the ground, as well as Russia air power and diplomatic cover.
Now, Russia’s shift away from Israel and move toward the Assad regime could provide Iran just the encouragement it was seeking to renew its efforts to infiltrate Syria. The Russian – Iranian military alliance, meanwhile, is continuing, despite rising economic rivalry over reconstruction opportunities in Syria. In addition, Iran’s ongoing activities are clashing with Russia’s interest in stabilising and ensuring Assad’s rule for many years to come, by drawing Israeli strikes and creating potential escalation points. What remains unclear is the extent of Russia’s ability or intention to reign Iran in.
THE EVOLUTION OF IRAN’S SYRIAN STRATEGY AND ISRAEL’S ‘WAR BETWEEN THE WARS’ DOCTRINE
At first, Iran used Syria mainly as a weapons transit zone. It moved masses of arms, such as surface-to-surface missiles and heavy rockets, surface-to-air missiles, and other arms along a complex trafficking network, which was run by the Islamic Republican Guards Corps (IRGC).
These weapons are produced in Iranian and Syrian factories, and smuggled along air and ground routes into Lebanon. Their final destination was Hezbollah’s storage depots and launch sites, which are embedded in built-up civilian areas across Lebanon. Once in Lebanon, the projectiles are pointed at Israeli cities and critical strategic targets, enabling Iran to threaten the whole of Israel.
Hezbollah’s offensive firepower, estimated at some 150,000 rockets, missiles, and mortar shells, dwarfs that of most NATO member states. According to IDF estimates, one out of three to four buildings in southern Lebanon is a Hezbollah military asset. With Lebanon already an Iranian-run province, the IRGC had hoped that Syria could be next. Under the IRGC’s plan, Syria would not only turn into a mass transit zone for weapons making their way to Hezbollah in Lebanon but would also itself turn into a base for Iranian missile and rocket arsenals, as well as terrorist networks operating under Iran’s command.
But Iran’s weapons trafficking to Lebanon kept running into major trouble. Since 2012, the air strikes that targeting them displayed a high level of intelligence penetration, and accurate firepower, that deeply troubled both Hezbollah and its Iranian patron, causing them to feel exposed.
These strikes evolved into a broad Israeli campaign, dubbed by the Israeli defence establishment as the ‘war between wars’. The aim of this campaign was to disrupt attempts by Israel’s enemies to build up their military force with improved weaponry. It also aimed at boosting Israeli deterrence, and delaying the start of the next full-scale conflict, by making enemies feel vulnerable, and robbing them of their ability to continue to arm themselves with impunity.
In 2017 the war between wars took a new turn. Over the past 18 months, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) struck no fewer 200 targets across Syria – a very high number of active combat operations for so-called ‘routine’ times. Some 800 missiles and bombs were reportedly used in the Israeli attacks – an indication of the sheer scale of Israel’s low-profile operations.
The increase in strikes was due to Iran no longer just using Syria to transit weapons to Lebanon; it also began to turn Syria itself into a second Lebanon and create a new Iranian-run army there.
When the commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, General Qassem Soleimani tried to respond to Israel’s active defence campaign, by firing a volley of rockets at Israel from a truck-mounted launcher in Syria on 10 May, the IAF decimated over 50 Iranian targets in Syria in retaliation.
Israel’s air operations frustrated Iran’s ambitions for Syria. Relying on the highest quality real-time intelligence and standoff fire capabilities, Israel’s defence establishment was able to place a roadblock in front of Iran’s dangerous regional plot.
An entire IDF doctrine developed to serve this campaign, as the war between wars received growing resources. Long-range precise airpower and ever-improving intelligence capabilities came together to give Israel the ability of placing limitations on Iran’s activities. Israel found that it could enforce its red lines, and that it could do so without ending up in a major war. The ability to identify and track a target, analyse the costs and benefits of striking it, and decide on whether to strike in real time represents a major evolution for the Israeli defence establishment. It enabled Israel to not only enforce its red lines on Iranian expansion, but to also signal powerful regional capabilities, which contributed to deterrence against foes, and inspired Sunni moderate states that are equally threatened by Iran’s activities to boost cooperation with Israel.
But Iran has made it clear that it is not going to walk away so quickly, and that it views these developments as short-term setbacks in a longer strategy.
IRAN CHANGES TACTICS
Iran has flooded Syria with Shi’ite militia forces, weapons, missiles, rockets, and drones and established military bases as well, rather than making due with proxy forces. Yet as noted, Tehran’s takeover plans for Syria were severely frustrated by persistent and effective Israeli preventative action. As a result, the Iranians appear to be changing tactics.
An Iranian missile factory in Syria detected from satellite photos – Iran’s new strategy seems to be to integrate its efforts in Syria with Syrian regime facilities and forces.
The defence pact signed on 26 August by the Assad regime and the Islamic Republic is one component of these new tactics, which suggest Iran will try to disguise its future activities in Syria by blending in deeply with Assad’s military, and with the Syrian weapons industry.
Clues to this new Iranian approach could be found in the comments of Iran’s defence minister during his meeting in Damascus. Gen. Khatami in which he stated that ‘Iran hopes to take an active part in rehabilitating Syria,’ adding that the purpose of the agreement was to upgrade the cooperation between the countries ‘as Syria begins the stage of building and rehabilitation’. It appears that Iran is looking to ‘cash in its chips’ from its intervention in Syria’s civil war – an intervention that has been costly to Iran, in both blood and treasure.
It seems highly likely that Iran also wants to take an active role in rebuilding Syria’s decimated military, and in the process, installing its own weapons factories, personnel, and bases in the country. Tehran is seeking to amalgamate its activities with the Syrian army and state. That, Iran seems to hope, will make it harder for Israel to stop it.
Khatami also vowed that ‘no third country’ will have an impact on the presence of Iranian ‘advisors’ on Syrian soil.
In addition to trying to merge with the Syrian military, Iran seems to be trying a few more tricks. These include using Iraq, also under considerable Iranian influence, as an area to store Iranian missiles, away from the exposed Syrian arena. This would presumably involve utilising Iran’s Iraqi-Shi’ite militias for the trafficking and storage of such weapons.
On 31 August, the Kurdistan 24 news services reported mysterious blasts at weapons warehouses in the Iraqi city of Karbala that belong to Iranian-backed militias operating under the Popular Mobilisation Front (PMF) umbrella organisation. They cited the PMF as saying that it spotted drones in the area prior to the blasts, and that the aircraft were ’unfriendly’.
Iran’s reliance on Iraqi militias to move and store weapons in the region appears to be putting the militias at risk. In June this year, air strikes targeted the town of Al-bukamal, on the Syria-Iraq border, reportedly causing a large number of casualties among Shi’ite-Iraqi militias in the area, and destroying structures.
That may have been a strike on a new Iranian attempt to link up the Iraqi and Syrian arenas with a land bridge, enabling forces under Iran’s command to move personnel and arms freely. The air strikes, then, could be one of the latest instalments in this ’cat-and-mouse’ campaign.
CAN AN ISRAELI-IRANIAN MAJOR ESCALATION BE PREVENTED?
Israel’s response to these developments was summed up by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who spoke three days after the Damascus meeting. Delivering a speech at the Dimona Nuclear Research Center, Netanyahu declared: ‘We are acting to prevent the military establishment of Iran in Syria. We will not give up on this objective.’ He added that the ‘IDF will continue to act, with full determination, and full force, against Iran’s efforts to deploy forces and advanced weapons in Syria. And no agreement between Syria and Iran will deter us’.
So far, Tehran and Jerusalem have been able to mostly keep this conflict on low flame, but there are no guarantees that they can avoid a major escalation in the future. Netanyahu’s comments indicate that Israel has no intention of being given a role in an Iranian screenplay. That means Israel will not hesitate to launch attacks on the Assad regime’s military sites that have been infiltrated by the Iranians, if intelligence points to a need to do so.
The mysterious car bomb assassination of the head of Syria’s missile programme, Dr Aziz Asbar, who reportedly maintained a very close working relationship with his Iranian missile programme counterparts, could be an indication of Israel’s future responses to Iran’s new tactic.
So too could a wave of reported Israeli airstrikes conducted on Syrian weapons research and development sites, and Iranian targets in Syria on 4 September.
If so, Iran’s actions are placing the Assad regime’s victory in jeopardy. As the war nears its final chapter, Assad will likely turn his focus toward the mammoth task of reconstruction, and would presumably not want to be dragged into a war with Israel, or to be more collateral damage for further Israeli-Iranian confrontations in his country. But Iran seems prepared to take such risks, and so long as it can secure approval from Damascus for its activities, it will continue to try and consolidate itself in Syria.
ISRAEL AND RUSSIA: DECONFLICTION UNDER THREAT?
In the midst of these events, Israel has been able to maintain a good understanding with Russia, but that understanding now appears to have broken down and replaced with a major crisis, following the shooting down of a Russian intelligence-gathering aircraft by Syrian air defence units that were trying to hit Israeli jets.
The incident, which led to Moscow announcing a transfer of the S-300 air defence system to the Assad regime, and a public series of threats and rebukes from the Russian Defence Ministry against Israel, was sparked by just the kind of Iranian activity described above – using a Syrian military facility to house and traffic powerful Iranian weapons. The facility targeted by the IDF in Latakia, on the Syrian coastline, located 25 kilometres north of a Russian airbase, was housing manufacturing kits for precision missiles, which Iran had planned to smuggle to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The fallout from the incident looks severe, with Russia perceiving Israel’s strike as going a ‘step too far,’ and seeking to deter it by placing S-300 systems – presumably with Russian personnel operating them in the first phase – at the disposal of the Assad regime, which has been eyeing a purchase of the system for several years.
Russia’s decision to provide the Syrian regime with S-300 air defence systems, above, may force Israel to find new way to operate.
To date, the Assad regime’s other Russian-made air defence systems, such as the older SA-5, SA-17, and SA-22 systems, have presented serious challenges to the IAF’s operations, but the IAF has evolved to overcome them. In addition, the IAF appears to have evolved to be able to operate out of sight of the S-300, as well as its more advanced version, the S-400, which has already been deployed to Syria by Russia to protect Russia’s airbase at Khmeimim and port at Tartus. In fact, it was the possession of the S-300 by Iran, which uses the batteries to protect its nuclear sites, that was another catalyst that drove Israel to study the system closely. These developments suggest that the IAF is well prepared for the additional challenge posed by the transfer of the S-300 to the Assad regime.
Yet despite the ongoing crisis with Russia, Netanyahu and Israeli defence officials have indicated through statements that Israel’s war between wars against Iran in Syria is not about to come to a stop.
The deconfliction mechanism continues to exist between Moscow and Jerusalem at the highest levels down to the lowest operational ranks, and Russia seems to be well aware that Israel’s red lines are directed only against Iran and its proxies, not against Moscow.
Nevertheless, Russia’s advanced military presence in the region, which includes powerful radars and air defence systems, has forced Israel to find new ways to operate, to ensure that it can keep the element of surprise. This factor has forced the IAF to improve, making it ready to continue to operate despite the new crisis with Russia.
Russia remains concerned about the possibility of an escalation – a ‘spark’ that could end up igniting the region and which could ultimately jeopardise the existence of the Assad regime, which Russia has invested much in to rescue as part of the new Russian drive to reinvent itself as a global power that rivals the US.
The potential remains for conflict to develop uncontrollably from any incident. A resulting potential war could destroy the Assad regime, and set off an Hezbollah-Israel war in the process.
While no side seems interested in such a scenario at this time, and Iran has shown an ability to march to the brink without going over the edge, the danger of unintended consequences always remains.
The Russians, for their part, are keen on capitalising on their intervention in Syria to build up their abilities as a world power, and to oversee Syria’s rehabilitation. A regional war between Israel and the Iranian axis fought in Syria is the last thing Russia would want to see.
Russia had previously attempted to ease Israeli-Iranian tensions by offering to move Iranian personnel back from the Israeli border, but Iran’s embed tactics with Syrian forces has already seen pro-Iranian militia forces move into southern Syria, close to Israel, together with Assad’s army, to seize the last remaining rebel strongholds in that area.
Russia seems set on trying to continue to douse the flames, and keep Iran and Israel apart, but its ability to do this has been very limited.
THE AMERICANS ARE STAYING … FOR NOW
The Trump administration, for its part, appears to have been influenced by the position of the Pentagon, and has walked back its call to pull out the 2000 American troops guarding the Syrian-Iraqi border. Their presence has helped block Iran’s land bridge aspirations.
The US is reassessing its role in Syria, after two consecutive American administrations – Obama and Trump – have effectively abandoned the Syrian arena to Russia and Iran, and focusing exclusively on the mission of destroying ISIS.
It remains unclear how the US will act in Syria in the future. So far, there has been no major change in the US’s approach to Syria under the Trump administration, which is continuing to focus on the threat from ISIS, and taking little discernible action on the ground to deal with the Shi’ite-Iranian axis, or to push back against Russia’s domination of the Syrian arena. Washington is attempting to improve its regional posture in a minor fashion. Issuing warnings about the use of further chemical weapons by the Assad regime, and keeping a small contingent of soldiers on the Syrian-Iraqi border, is one example of this.
Israel, for its part, is counting on no one to roll back the Iranians in Syria other than itself.
Still, action taken by the US could influence Iran’s future decision making on Syria. Iran is dealing with an increased strain on its economic resources, due to the sanctions re-imposed on it by the Trump administration. Nevertheless, Iran’s recent actions have demonstrated that its regional aspirations, the goal of territorial expansion, and creating the ability to attack Israel from Syria remain top priorities. It is prepared to invest in these high-cost activities even when the Iranian economy is crumbling. So long as this remains the case, Israel’s defence establishment will have its work cut out for it in containing the Iranian challenge.
Israel is determined to do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran from creating a second Iranian division in Syria, alongside its primary military division in Lebanon. Ultimately, Iran’s actions cannot be understood as anything other than an aggressive threat to Israel’s security, a threat that would clearly metastasise and turn the whole of the northern front into an intolerable threat to Israel’s home front, if left unchecked.
So far, Israel has been able to deal with this threat preventatively, protect its national interests, and place constraints on the Iranian expansion programme without being dragged into a full-scale war.
The coming months and years will reveal whether this achievement can repeat itself, in light of Iran’s changing tactics
Yaakov Lappin is a Research Associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, and a military correspondent.
Iran’s Imploding Strategy
Jerusalem Post, Oct. 05, 2018
The effort by the US and its allies to contain and ultimately roll back the gains made by Iran in the region over the last half decade is currently taking shape, and is set to form the central strategic process in the Middle East in the period now opening up.
New sanctions on the export of Iranian oil are due to be implemented from November 4. Israel’s campaign against Iranian entrenchment in Syria is the most important current file on the table of the defense establishment.
The US appears set now to maintain its assets and its allies in Syria as part of the emergent strategy to counter Iran. In Iraq, the contest between Iran-associated forces and those associated with the US is the core dynamic in the country, with the independent power on the ground of the Iran-associated Shia militias the central factor. In Yemen, the battle of attrition between the Iran-supported Ansar Allah (Houthis) and the Saudi and UAE-led coalition is continuing, with limited but significant gains by the latter.
Iran’s response is also becoming clear. At the present time, Tehran’s ballistic missile capabilities appear to be the preferred instrument for Tehran to express its defiance.
Notably, for the moment at least, Iran appears to be erring on the side of caution in its choice of targets. This phase is unlikely to last, however, assuming the US is serious in its intentions.
In the early hours of Monday, October 1, the Fars News Agency, associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, reported that the IRGC had fired a number of Zulfiqar and Qiyam ballistic missiles at targets east of the Euphrates River in Syria. The strike came in response to an attack on an IRGC parade in Iran’s Arab-majority Khuzestan province on September 22.
According to Fars, the missiles fired were decorated with slogans including “Death to America,” “Death to Israel,” and “Death to Al Saud.”
“Missiles of Iran,” from the Missile Defense Project, Center for Strategic and International Studies
It is noteworthy, however, that the missiles were not directed at any of the aforementioned enemies of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Rather, the IRGC targeted the Hajin pocket, a small enclave east of the Euphrates still held by Islamic State. This was in response to a claim of responsibility by ISIS for the September 22 attack. (A somewhat more credible claim was made by the Ahwaziya, or Ahvaz national resistance, an Arab separatist group in Khuzestan.) Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani later tried to frame the attack as a response to American threats, because of the close proximity of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces to the area targeted.
Similarly, on September 8, the IRGC fired seven Fateh-110 short-range missiles at a base maintained by the PDKI (Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan) in the city of Koya in eastern Iraq. The PDKI is engaged in an insurgency against the IRGC and the Iranian regime, centered on the Kurdistan Province of western Iran. Eleven people were killed in the attack.
In both these cases, Tehran chose to make its demonstrations of strength against the very weakest of the forces opposed to it (in the case of Islamic State, a force indeed mainly engaged against the enemies of Iran). Shamkhani’s bluster after the fact tends to draw attention to this, rather than detract from it.
By contrast, when Iran wishes to act against or threaten the interests of any of the powerful states whose names were written on the missiles fired at ISIS in Hajin, it takes care to do so in ways that avoid attribution. Thus, the Lebanese Hezbollah organization, in military terms a direct tributary of the IRGC, is the force entrusted with the missile array facing Israel.
When ballistic missiles are fired at Riyadh from Yemen, the act is claimed by the Houthis, and the missiles are identified as “Burkan 1” and “Burkan 2” missiles, developed in Yemen. These missiles are considered by the US State Department and senior US officers to be Iranian in origin, possibly the Qiam 1 or Shihab 2 system with minor modifications. Certainly, the Houthis, a lightly armed north Yemeni tribal militia, did not acquire the knowledge required to operate ballistic missiles locally. There is evidence to suggest that Lebanese Hezbollah operatives are engaged by Iran in Yemen to carry out these launches.
In Iraq, according to a Reuters report in August, the IRGC has begun to transfer ballistic missiles to its militia proxies in that country, presumably with the intention of using these against Israeli or US personnel.
So Iran acts through deniable proxies in its wars against powerful states, but acts directly only against small and marginal non-state paramilitary groups. The purpose, of course, is to enable the Iranian state to avoid retribution, while gaining benefit from the acts of the militias.
This practice has proven effective in recent years, though it projects weakness as much as strength. It is of use only for as long as Iran’s enemies are willing to participate in the fiction of separation between the IRGC and its client militias.
“The threat posed to Israel by Hezbollah” from The Israel Project
At a certain point, if the US and its allies are serious about rolling back Iran from its regional gains, the question will arise as to whether success in this endeavour can coexist with the tacit agreement to maintain this fiction.
In Israel’s case, the decision to cease adherence to this convention was taken earlier this year, when Israeli aircraft began openly targeting Iranian facilities in Syria.
For the US, such a decision is likely to emerge, if it emerges, as a result of the dynamics set in motion by the decision to challenge Iran’s advances.
At the moment, what is taking place is something of a “phony war”: missile strikes against peripheral targets, grandiose threats from the IRGC leadership, supplying of militias with this or that weapon system.
If Tehran begins to feel that its interests are truly threatened, however, this period is likely to come to an end. When it does so, Tehran is likely to seek to hit at the US at its most vulnerable points – the US forces and official facilities in Iraq and Syria. Such actions will almost certainly be taken not by the IRGC itself, but, rather, by this or that proxy set of initials. It may come through the use of missiles, or by a variety of other means.
At that point, the US will need to decide whether retribution will be inflicted only on the proxies, or on those sending them. The pattern of Iran’s behavior suggests a great sensitivity toward not including Iranian personnel within the sphere of conflict. This is a vulnerability that should be exploited. The success, or the frustration of the effort to turn back Iran’s advance across the region, may thus depend on the decision taken as and when Iran chooses to end the current “phony war.”
Jonathan Spyer is a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, a research associate at the Jerusalem Center for Strategic Studies, and a columnist at the Jerusalem Post. He is the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict.
The New U.S. Strategy in Syria
It combines diplomacy, messaging, and a forward-leaning military posture.
by Matthew RJ Brodsky and Bassam Barabandi
National Review, October 7, 2018
As the civil-war aspect of the Syrian conflict winds down, the great power struggle among states is intensifying. It appears the Trump team has discovered that its ability to help solve the former will determine how it fares in the latter.
To that end, the president’s team is fine-tuning an approach to Syria to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS, freeze the conflict elsewhere in the country, and reinvigorate the peace process according to UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
To achieve these objectives, the administration is relying on a combination of public messaging and behind-the-scenes diplomacy, but perhaps most important, they are backing it up with a forward-leaning military posture. If recent developments are an indication of future results, the U.S. may finally have a foundation it can build upon. And that’s not just bad news for Russia but for Iran as well.
The early dividends of this strategic shift can be seen in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib, the last major rebel stronghold in Syria and home to some 3.5 million people. The issue of Idlib was bound to cause friction in the Russian–Iranian alliance with Turkey, which already has boots on the ground and is invested in maintaining stability in the area. Despite this temporary partnership, President Erdoğan is against turning the territory over to the Assad regime and his Russian and Iranian backers, or allowing them to indiscriminately bomb and starve the population into submission.
But that didn’t mean that finding common ground with Turkey’s prickly president would be easy for the Trump administration. After all, the bilateral U.S.–Turkish relationship is already fraught with tension and Erdoğan is staunchly opposed to the U.S. alliance with the Kurds. Add to it the fact that Russian president Vladimir Putin has been diligently working to pry Turkey out of NATO’s orbit, and one could see how making any kind of positive progress was far from a slam dunk.
New US special representative for Syria engagement Amb. James Jeffrey is a key player in the new US policy for Syria.
Enter the State Department’s newly appointed special representative for Syria engagement, Ambassador James Jeffrey, and the new Near Eastern affairs deputy assistant secretary and special envoy for Syria, Joel Rayburn – both of whom headed to the Middle East for consultations with key allies and Turkey before they could unpack their offices at Foggy Bottom. By leveraging America’s relationship with the Kurds and agreeing to sort out the long list of bilateral issues with Erdoğan on another day, Washington closed ranks in support of Turkey’s Idlib position and chalked up a win for quiet U.S. diplomacy.
Of course, even successful backroom diplomacy with Turkey wouldn’t necessarily be enough to persuade the pro-Assad axis to abandon its planned offensive. To bolster the diplomatic effort, the U.S. turned to a public messaging campaign that relied on multiple corners of the administration, including the president, National Security Adviser John Bolton, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, and Ambassador James Jeffrey. They abandoned the narrow definition of America’s opposition to Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Idlib in favor of a stronger stance that considered any regime-sponsored military campaign to be a significant and reckless escalation.
These efforts were backed up by a third element that undergirds and adds credibility to the effectiveness of quiet diplomacy and uniform public messaging. It is a forward-leaning military posture and a willingness to kinetically engage one’s adversaries if needed. Critically, it wasn’t confined to the recent announcements that the U.S. intended to remain in Syria but could be witnessed by those who needed to see it the most, namely Assad’s Russian and Iranian backers.
The new US strategy in Syria requires a “forward-leaning military posture” – meaning US troops must remain in Syria and be seen as ready to act by Assad’s Russian and Iranian backers.
These actions included fortifying U.S. positions in Syria’s northeast with both offensive and defensive military assets and conducting week-long live-fire exercises with America’s allies. Farther south, it involved the addition of the Marine aircraft carrier USS Essex, which recently arrived in the Arabian Sea with its deck full of F-35B stealth fighter jets – the first U.S. deployment in the region of its advanced stealth warplane. “Our primary mission is crisis response,” Colonel Chandler Nelms, commander of the military expeditionary unit aboard the Essex, explained. That means “being current and absolutely ready for anything the geographic combatant commander needs us to do while we are here.”
The administration’s combined efforts led Assad and his Russian and Iranian partners to put their planned offensive on hold and helped stave off what U.N. secretary-general António Guterres predicted would otherwise have become “a humanitarian nightmare” and a “bloodbath.” In other words, America’s military readiness for a crisis is helping to avert one, at least for now.
There are also other benefits to the new approach that strengthen America’s hand. Consider Putin’s plan to weaken the U.S. position in the Middle East. The best way he can accomplish this is by dislodging American forces from Syria, which explains why Russian and Iranian forces are again preparing for “cross-river operations” and “consolidating command-and-control structures in Eastern Syria,” as the Institute for the Study of War has detailed. These moves and warnings are designed to threaten and ultimately challenge the U.S. and its local allies.
The Russian leader recognizes that his seat at the political negotiating table is determined by where he and his allies stand on the Syrian battlefield, and at this point, he is figuring that it’s best if no one but Assad and Iran joins him at the table.
The Trump team, however, has a different plan. Adding the roughly 10 percent of Syrian territory under Turkey’s protection to the 30 percent already under the control of U.S. and allied forces, close to half of Syria’s landmass remains outside of the Assad regime’s fold. As Ambassador Jeffrey put it, “Assad is sitting on a cadaver state with almost no economy, no access to his fuel and gas resources . . . and no promise or hope of reconstruction because the United States, as part of its policies,” is working with the European Union and Middle East allies to keep him isolated.
Putin’s Syria problems amount to more than territory percentages and military prowess; he stands to lose in global politics as well. The Russian president is counting on his political alliance with Iran and Turkey to present a united front to the international community because it forms the basis for his Astana process, which he views as the key to locking in his long-term political gains. Of course, it is also a farcical Russian-led effort designed to maintain the same Syrian power structure with Assad at the helm while retaining Putin’s position as Syria’s ultimate arbiter. But by strengthening the U.N.-led process, which already has significant buy-in among Middle East allies and European states, the Trump administration is further weakening Putin’s grasp on Syria’s future.
Mr. Trump inherited a complex set of problems in Syria in which Iranian and Russian stock was on the rise, and the perception of American power – and its utility as an ally – was on the decline. The good news is that with a new and capable Syria team, the United States is finally putting its ample leverage to good use while leading its allies who are now willing share this burden. By continuing to effectively combine diplomacy, messaging, and a forward-leaning military posture, the U.S. can provide a pathway towards a Syrian endgame that works in America’s favor and that of the Syrian people.
— Matthew RJ Brodsky is a senior fellow at the Security Studies Group in Washington, D.C., the author of the SSG monograph “The Financial Viability of the Assad Regime in Syria,” and a co-author of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies report “Controlled Chaos: The Escalation of Conflict between Israel and Iran in War-Torn Syria.” He can be followed on Twitter at @RJBrodsky.