Is Trump about to let Iran ‘take care’ of Syria?

Tehran’s programme of regional expansionism and attempts to marginalise the Sunnis will provoke a radical Sunni backlash.
Sunday 08/04/2018
A Shia fighter clashes with members of the Sunni-dominated Free Syrian Army in the town of Hatita in the countryside of Damascus. (AP)
Filling the void. A Shia fighter clashes with members of the Sunni-dominated Free Syrian Army in the town of Hatita in the countryside of Damascus. (AP)

US President Donald Trump’s remarks about a hasty military withdrawal from Syria were interesting for all sorts of reasons. They contradicted his own administration’s position as well as his declared twin-pronged policy of defeating the Islamic State (ISIS) and preventing Iran from filling the regional power vacuum.

If Trump follows through on the statement, the same old problems of militant Sunni radicalism and Iran’s growing hegemony in the Middle East will probably resurface.

Trump’s promise of imminent US military withdrawal from Syria seems oddly out of sync with his recent appointments. Mike Pompeo, Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, and John Bolton, the new national security adviser, have a hard-line approach to Iran. Both have advocated a proactive policy to contain the threat posed by the regime in Tehran. Both have called for the defeat of ISIS as well as ensuring the subsequent vacuum is not filled by Tehran and allied Shia militias.

The media in Iran have been as surprised by Trump’s remarks as everyone else. Tasnim News Agency, a mouthpiece of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), tried to analyse the policy shift, speculating that Trump was probably acknowledging the “understanding” between Moscow and Ankara and the fact that it may bring order in war-torn Syria.

Tasnim further suggested that Trump may be trying to pull US troops out of Syria before he decertifies the Iran nuclear agreement. “Increased tensions could put the lives of American military personnel in Syria in danger,” the agency explained.

The Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) interpreted Trump’s statement as a tactical manoeuvre. “Was Trump trying to force new economic concessions out of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, who currently is in the United States?” IRIB News asked.

It warned against attempts to derail Trump’s declared policy. “A few false flag operations in the name of the Islamic State but perpetrated by opponents of Trump’s decisions can convince him that the Islamic State is still alive and that the United States’ exit will further strengthen the organisation.”

Perhaps Tasnim and IRIB’s analysts have been reading too much into Trump’s unscripted remarks. Lack of coordination with the Pentagon and the State Department suggests presidential improvisation rather than a policy shift. There is always the possibility the Pentagon and the State Department could persuade the president that the “other people” that would take care of Syria are Iran and its regional allies. They might convince Trump of the risk of ISIS’s re-emergence even as Sunni powers try to check Iran’s regional expansionism.

What happens, however, if Trump does not listen to advice from his own Defence Department and withdraws US forces from Syria? Obviously, Iran and its allies will quickly fill the void.

Tehran’s programme of regional expansionism and attempts to marginalise the Sunnis will provoke a radical Sunni backlash. ISIS, or a similar group with a different name, may emerge as Sunnis resist the Tehran regime and its allied Shia militias.

If that happens, Trump will be seen as the architect of a failed strategy. His predecessor, Barack Obama, infamously sidestepped his own red line on the Syrian conflict. As a candidate, Trump ridiculed Obama’s Syria policy but now he seems to be signalling a similar abdication of responsibility.

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