Washington’s mixed messages over Iran’s role in Syria
The Trump administration has acted, in recent weeks, more aggressively against Iran’s presence in Syria, including attacking pro-Iranian militias. However, the US Defence Department spokesman in Iraq seemed to suggest that the United States might not object to Syrian forces battling the Islamic State (ISIS) if there is “de-confliction” with US and US-supported forces, suggesting that the United States is not eager to have a major confrontation with Iran despite reports to the contrary.
One of the goals of the Assad regime is to take the Deir ez-Zor region of eastern Syria where the country’s main oil resources are. The regime hopes that the weakening of ISIS in Syria will allow its forces and those allied with it, such as Iran-supported Shia militias, to capture Deir ez-Zor.
Syrian President Bashar Assad’s goal has run up against US plans to have the Syrian Democratic Forces, made up mostly of Syrian Kurds and Syrian Arab tribesmen who have been advised and armed by the United States, to spearhead the fight against ISIS.
There also appears to be an effort by the US-supported Free Syrian Army, based near the town of Al-Tanf close to Syria’s borders with Iraq and Jordan, to move north and attack ISIS positions in eastern Syria.
Part of the Iranian calculation, in the opinion of one unnamed White House official who spoke to the Washington Post, is to “block us from doing what our commanders and planners have judged all along is necessary to complete the ISIS campaign.” The stronger Iran is in Syria, this official said, the greater the potential of Tehran to disrupt Washington’s anti-ISIS campaign and bring about “political reconciliation” in Syria.
Iran remains strongly opposed to ISIS but is equally opposed to the United States being seen as the victor in Syria.
Although it is not clear what the Trump administration has in mind for political reconciliation in Syria post-ISIS, it is not advocating for immediate regime change, as was evident during the meeting between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
While there have been a couple of US shoot downs of Syrian planes and drones, along with US attacks on pro-Iran militias, the US Marines General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a congressional committee that actions against pro-regime forces by the United States “have been in self-defence.”
This comment was followed by the Pentagon’s spokesman in Iraq saying the United States had “absolutely no problem” with the Syrian regime and “others” wanting to “fight ISIS and defeat them.” He added that as those forces move east towards Deir ez-Zor to confront ISIS, the United States would be happy as long as “we can de-conflict,” meaning not get in each other’s way militarily.
It is hard to believe that these comments were made without clearance from Washington, suggesting that the Trump administration is unsure about what to do about Iran’s role in Syria.
Iran’s other major goal is to create a contiguous land corridor through Syria and Iraq that would allow Tehran to supply the Syrian government and its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon. Syrian military and Iran-supported militias in Syria have sought to control a small area along the Iraq border between Al-Tanf and Bukamal to link up with pro-Iranian Iraqi militias. Indeed, reports suggest that some Iraqi militiamen from the Popular Mobilisation Forces have joined with their allies across the Syrian border.
The United States, however, has not attacked these Iraqi militias because the Iraqi government, a US ally, has found them useful in the anti-ISIS fight.
Nonetheless, a long-term US goal is to rebuild the Iraqi Army as a strong national force that would diminish the need for and the role of the pro-Iran militias. Although the Trump administration seems to understand that the Shia-dominated government of Iraq is going to have a relationship with Iran, it hopes that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will have the strength to weaken, if not disband, these militias once ISIS is defeated. Part of the US strategy to maintain several thousand advisers in Iraq post-ISIS is probably designed to help Abadi in this endeavour.
Indeed, Abadi is deploying national army troops and special forces in the fight to retake Mosul, almost completely in government hands, to show the Iraqi public that these forces can protect the country instead of the militias.
What accounts for these mixed messages? It is possible that Trump and some of his advisers have allowed US Defence Secretary James Mattis to pursue an aggressive posture against Iran-supported militias in Syria but, then realising that such actions could draw the United States into the kind of quagmire Trump has long railed against, decided to ease up on such military actions. All of this points to the lack of a coherent policy.