Planning must start for after ISIS
There are people in the United States who say that Washington should accept the “Iranian Crescent” as a reality. It would be useful to distinguish between the two axes of Iran’s strategy in the Gulf region: There is the axis of the “faith crescent” with a sectarian bent and the axis of the “strategic corridor” based on geographical continuity.
The “faith crescent” is not limited by geographical boundaries and need not be composed of contiguous countries. It includes Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen and any other country with a Shia minority. The “strategic corridor,” however, must include a straight line of adjoining countries, such as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. This corridor is the primary basis for the faith crescent.
US behaviour in the region is perplexing. In Syria, the US Defence Department is following a strategy that is different from the declared official strategy. The latter is based on fighting extremist organisations — the Islamic State (ISIS) in particular — plus halting Iran’s influence in the region.
What we are seeing in Iraq and Syria, however, is a slowing of the pursuit of the first objective so more attention can be given to the second. The United States is fighting Iranian influence on paper only so the results of that fight will be reflected in the fight against ISIS.
The Tehran-Beirut axis was in place long before the United States’ current strategy in the region. The strategy followed by the Trump administration is hampered by the results of the policy of non-intervention followed by the Obama administration.
When senior officials in the Trump administration decided to have the United States return to Syria, they were thinking more in terms of laying hands on Russia’s share in Syria and delaying looking into Iran’s share until ISIS was defeated. The same thing is happening in Iraq. Without intending it, US war planes involved in the battle for Mosul are, at the same time, securing Iran’s corridor leading to the Syrian border via Tal Afar and Al-Baaj.
The US strategy in Iraq and Syria is based on haste. The United States wants to score strategic victories by speeding up operations in Mosul and starting the battle for Raqqa, regardless of future developments. In Mosul, for instance, there is no coherent strategy for the post-ISIS era, just as there was no strategy for the period preceding the arrival of ISIS. The only difference between the periods is that, instead of having Iran’s influence restricted in the south, we find it spread all over Iraq. It is feared that the same is true in the case of Syria.
There is no clear American strategy for that part of the world. The United States simply keeps repeating the same failures.
In Syria, the United States seems to focus on arbitrary objectives, resembling in this particular aspect Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategy. An air strike here and shooting down a Syrian plane there are actions within the context of a “show of strength” between Moscow and Washington with Syria as the prize. Trump and Putin seem to be poised to re-enact the Cuban Missile Crisis in Syria.
The United States knows that Russia has given everything it could to the Assad regime. Russia knows that the United States is burdened by the Obama legacy in the region and therefore has no leverage to impose its agenda. The United States has lost the game before starting it.
The United States is also slow in carrying out its single-purpose strategy, which is doing battle with ISIS. Even the air strike on a Hezbollah convoy near Al-Tanf border crossing between Iraq and Syria was a circumstantial military reaction rather than part of a comprehensive strategy.
Protecting the area around the Al-Tanf crossing would amount to placing a roadblock on the road all the way from Iran through the Iraqi governorate of Karbala and leading to Palmyra and Damascus in Syria. What, however, about other similar roads via Tal Afar and Al-Baaj?
Former US Ambassador in Syria Robert Ford indicated in a recent interview that the United States is aware that Iranian supplies to Syria do not flow only through Iraq but also through Beirut and Damascus Airport and that the Americans are ready to live with that for the moment. The United States, then, is willing to tolerate Iran’s influence in the region if it does not overflow its present confines and reach the Gulf countries and the Suez Canal.
The blurry situation in the region will continue as long as finding a solution to the Syrian war remains outside Washington’s priorities. Only when the phase of fighting ISIS runs its course and the United States turns its attention to the Syrian file can we talk about ending Iran’s influence in the region.
Proper scenarios for the transfer of power in Syria and Iraq will have to be found and this requires effort and time. In the meantime, there is a need to start planning for the post-ISIS era so the region does not go back to where it was before ISIS.