The simmering conflict between the U.S. and Iran heated up last week when, in response to what National Security Advisor John Bolton called credible threats from Iran and its proxies, the U.S. deployed the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group to the Gulf. At the same time, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo abruptly canceled a trip to Germany and visited Iraq instead, where he warned that any attack by Iran or its proxies on U.S. forces would provoke a “swift and decisive” American response. Meanwhile, the New York Timesreported that the Pentagon has begun planning contingency operations against Iranian-backed militias that “could ultimately call for tens of thousands of additional forces to be sent to the Middle East.”
In response to the strong words and military escalation from the U.S., Iranian officials and leaders of militias in Iraq and Syria have been defiant. Akram Kaabi, head of the Iraqi Nujaba militia, said that his fighters were ready to attack U.S. soldiers in Iraq, and would “not remove our military uniforms until we have defeated America and Israel,” bragging that his eight years of experience fighting in Syria had given his group plenty of fighting experience. Yet for the most part, both Iran and its proxies have shrugged off the U.S. threats because of the sheer reality that Iran and its militias occupy wide swathes of Syria and Iraq, giving them strategic depth and the ability to respond in kind. IRGC Commander Brigadier-General Haji Zadeh perhaps best described the Iranian attitude when, on Iranian TV, he described the depth of Iranian forces in the region pointing to a map of Iran’s militias in Syria and Iraq, and then pointing to the presence of American forces among them, as “an opportunity for us” and “like a piece of meat between our teeth.”
The back and forth between the U.S. and Iran and its proxies in the region highlights a stark reality: While ISIS has been defeated, Iran has filled the vacuum and now holds sway over vast stretches of the northern Middle East. As ISIS’s caliphate has collapsed, Iran has cemented its hold on Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. The strategic dilemma for the U.S. is that while the defeat of ISIS has been touted as a signature success, much of it has come about by turning a blind eye to the expansion of Iran and its proxies, which now pose a serious threat to U.S. forces and allies in the region.
Yet this development should not be surprising. In reality, Iran’s growing influence and expanding span of control are not an unfortunate surprise but, rather, the direct result of the Obama era counter-ISIS policy that endured through the first two years of the Trump Administration. The U.S. thus finds itself in a dilemma partly of its own making. Plotting a way out will require challenging some of the entrenched assumptions about the nature of security threats in the Middle East that have held sway for the past decade. But failing to do so will not only embolden aggression by Iranian forces and regime proxies, it will also sow the seeds for the resurgence of ISIS.
ISIS versus Iran
To skeptics of a stronger counter-Iran policy, even the comparison between ISIS and Iran is illegitimate. Iran is a sovereign state pursuing legitimate self-interest, while ISIS is a terrorist organization, they argue, and further, it is only ISIS that carries out terror attacks against the West. But the lines between state and terrorist organization are not so clear. ISIS has ruled over and administered territory in a de facto statelet stretching across Iraq and Syria, while Iran has conducted much of its foreign policy through a network of paramilitary and terrorists groups with global reach. And Iran, like ISIS, makes its eternal enmity to America fully known. Chants of “Death to America” are a staple of the regime’s rallies. IRGC operatives inside the U.S. were prepared in 2013 to bomb a crowded Washington, D.C., restaurant in order to kill the Saudi ambassador. Iran was also linked to the deaths of 500 American service members in Iraq. Most recently, Iran has launched a wave of assassinations across Europe and several of its terrorist plots have been disrupted, including one in France a few months ago targeting an opposition rally attended by a number of former U.S. officials.
Yet, while Iranian-backed militias are as much of a threat as ISIS, if not more, the responses to the two have been anything but similar. Washington led and organized a military coalition to defeat ISIS, while countering Iran remains a “non-military objective” according to the Pentagon. Countries in the region quickly banded together to counter ISIS, while key powers, such as Turkey and Qatar, have relations with Iran that have grown closer in the past few years. Others, such as Jordan and the UAE, have begun re-establishing economic relations with the Assad regime, Iran’s main proxy in the region. The U.S. quickly designated ISIS as a foreign terrorist organization, yet many major IRGC-backed militias, including Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib al-Imam Ali, and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada somehow failed to meet that standard. The U.S. went after ISIS with a robust sanctions regime cutting off its funding and profits in sectors such as the antiquities trade and oil. On the other hand, the U.S. funds IRGC-Quds Forces proxies indirectly in Iraq through assistance to the Iraqi Interior Ministry, which is controlled by an IRGC proxy the Badr Corps,. and is deeply infiltrated by such militias. The U.S. still supports the Lebanese Armed Forces, even though they lost independence from Iran’s main proxy Hezbollah long ago. The U.S. is even indirectly funding the Assad regime, the keystone of Iran’s regional power, by way of the United Nations mission in Damascus, from which Assad has diverted hundreds of millions of dollars of humanitarian assistance.
Iran has long been the world’s foremost state-sponsor of terror. Yet Washington still clings to an Obama-era focus on ISIS—a view of U.S. Middle East policy that has entrenched itself in policy and media circles. Even at its peak, ISIS in no way approximated the state power of Iran. In raw terms, ISIS’s net worth was $2 billion, while the Supreme Leader’s financial empire is estimated at $95 billion—and this is just his personal wealth. That says nothing of the vast state resources Iran derives from oil used for terrorist activity, nor the global criminal enterprises run by Iran and its Lebanese branch Hezbollah, trafficking in drugs and laundering money that stretch from Africa to Latin America.
At its most expansive, ISIS ruled over some 10 million people. Beyond it own borders, some 70 million Iraqis, Syrians, and Lebanese live under the power of Iran’s militias. ISIS once held territory the size of Great Britain. The IRGC directs elements that control ten times that area. ISIS was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians and displaced many more, while in Syria alone, the Iran-backed Assad regime has murdered hundreds of thousands and made refugees (internal and external) of 13 million people.
ISIS operated with only the semblance of state institutions. The Iranian regime benefits from a full state bureaucracy, dangerous intelligence services, and advanced long-range ballistic missiles that it has transferred to its allies in Iraq over the last few months. ISIS in 2015 commanded a maximum of 33,000 fighters. Major Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander-in-chief of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, recently confirmed that the IRGC commands 100,000 militiamen in Syria and Iraq. IRGC expert, Nader Uskowi has called this the largest militant Shi’a force ever assembled.
Iran’s expansion under Trump
Unlike President Obama, who focused exclusively on defeating ISIS in Syria and Iraq, President Trump has called Iran a “murderous regime” and has signaled that American policy in the Middle East must be reoriented toward countering Iran. Since taking office, Trump has reversed key Obama-era policies like the nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions on Tehran, which were major factors inflaming Iran’s aggressive, expansionist posture in the Middle East.
To understand what led to the reversal from Obama to Trump, it’s important to understand their larger strategic visions for Iran and the Middle East. Obama saw Iran as a country that could share the region with Saudi Arabia, creating peace and stability through a “concert of powers.” In the Obama vision, rather than any one country ruling over the Middle East, the two states—one Sunni, one Shi’a—would would balance and constrain each other’s ambitions, creating a stable framework that would allow the U.S. to minimize its role in the Middle East. The Trump Administration recognizes that this is not possible; Iran can’t be a stabilizing force in the Middle East because it’s an aggressive, anti-American revolutionary power that thrives on instability and uses terrorism as a central part of its statecraft. In January 2018, Secretary of State Rex Tillersonvowed to ensure “Iranian influence in Syria is diminished, its dreams of a northern arch are denied.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed andstrengthened these themes upon assuming office in mid-2018, setting out eight conditions that Iran must meet before the Trump Administration lifts sanctions on Iran, one of which is complete withdrawal from Syria and Iraq.
The shift in vision and policy, however, has not been enough to stop Iran from continuing to expand under Trump’s watch. The problem is that Trump’s counter-Iran policy is directly undermined by the counter-ISIS policy designed under the Obama Administration that is still in effect.
Iranian proxies in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon have all but captured their host states. In Lebanon, Iran’s main proxy Hezbollah and its allies formally attained the reins of political power in 2017 for the first time, having long used the Lebanese Army as an auxiliary force in joint offensives alongside the Assad regime in Syria. In Iraq, the powerful Iran-backed militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which is directly responsible for the deaths of American soldiers, now holds 15 seats in the Iraqi parliament, up from one in the last election, and the broader Fatah Coalition of which it and other Iranian-backed militias are part is now the third largest parliamentary bloc and rising fast. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Quds Forces-controlled militias are now stronger than the state itself, implementing what Lt. Gen. HR McMaster has called the “Hezbollah model” for dominating weak states. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has proposed an amendment that would allow foreigners to gain Iraqi citizenship, prompting popular outrage and fear that the amendment caters to IRGC-backed foreign fighters, much like parallel laws by Assad in Syria.
In Syria, Iranian proxies such as the Nujaba Movement and Abu Fadl Abbas Brigade long ago eclipsed the Assad regime’s fighting forces. Now the Iranian-back groups are aiming for “demographic change” through measures such as Law 10, which allows the regime and Iranian proxies to take property from the original residents and repopulate areas around Damascus. The original Syrian residents are being driven out with no hope of return in what amounts to ethnic-cleansing in all but name. Their houses are now occupied by Iraqi, Afghan, Pakistani, and Iranian owners. Assad’s regime has issued citizenship papers to thousands of IRGC-backed foreign fighters while denying refugee returns to his own citizens, permanently restructuring the demographics in the country. Larger shifts signal a fundamental threat to neighboring states.
These IRGC political victories were the fruit of territorial expansions that took place earlier in the Trump Administration. In Syria, IRGC proxies such as the Zulfikar Brigade and Fatimiyun Brigade seized the critical Syrian Desert region to attain a ground corridor from Iran to Lebanon, then parlayed those victories into an expanding presence near Israel. In Iraq, IRGC-QF proxies such as Nujaba and AAH, as part of the Popular Mobilization Forces, a coalition of militias dominated and commanded by by Quds Forces proxies, swept through Nineveh Province to cement the corridor, then played a vital role in an Iraqi Army offensive against the Kurdish Peshmerga that cut Iraqi Kurdish territory nearly in half.
At the same time that Trump announced the defeat of ISIS last month, Secretary of State Pompeo held a regional conference to combat the IRGC, visiting Israel, Kuwait, and other countries. Yet that same week, the defense ministers of Syria, Iraq, and Iran all met in Damascus and announced unprecedented security cooperation in the modern era, including opening a vital border crossing to ease IRGC arms transports. Iranian backed militias now control key strategic locations on both sides of the border including Deir al-Zawr province and the Abu Kamal border crossing, so this deal could cement a direct weapons pipeline from the Iranian capital Tehran to the Israeli border and the Mediterranean port of Latakia.
There have been some important success stories. The New York Times hasreported that Trump’s sanctions on Iran, reimposed as part of the pullout of the JCPOA, are beginning to have an impact on Iran’s regional presence. Iran-backed militias and Hezbollah fighters were forced to slash salaries by a third due to U.S. sanctions. But sanctions alone can not compensate for ongoing Iranian military and political victories. The Trump Administration has largely removed constraints on the Israelis and Israel has accelerated its efforts targeting Iran’s efforts to entrench military forces in Syria. It isreported that the Israeli military has struck more than 200 targets in Syria and fired 800 missiles and mortar shells over the past year and a half, focusing on Iranian weapons convoys and other Iranian targets in Syria. But each strike involves a delicate and dangerous dance with Russia, in which Russia tightly circumscribes Israeli strikes and at times appears intent on thwarting them entirely, all while numerous Russian promises to push back Iranian forces on the ground have gone unfulfilled. Iranian militias continue to expand despite these strikes.
Iran and its militias control more territory and natural resources in Syria and Iraq than before President Trump took office. The question is why the Trump Administration’s policies, which appear to have sound goals, have largely failed to curb Iranian expansion.
The Obama-era origins of our counter-ISIS policy
Only a month before Trump’s inauguration, the world was shocked by images of atrocities in Aleppo, the Syrian opposition stronghold that was overrun in an Assad regime offensive spearheaded by Russian airpower and IRGC-backed fighters on the ground. Many of the major Iranian military victories under Trump occurred in the first year of his presidency. To a great extent, these victories can be chalked up to the policies of the Obama years. Michael Ratney, the Special Envoy for Syria, and Brett McGurk, the President’s Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, were responsible for perpetuating the single-minded focus on ISIS—a policy that turned a blind eye to Iranian expansion.
Despite putting in place a coherent and strategic policy for Syria and Iraq predicated on countering Iranian aggression, the Trump Administration continued implementing counter-ISIS policies that were explicitly designed to look past Iranian expansion. In truth, an ISIS-focused policy could have been meshed with an anti-Iran policy by privileging anti-Iranian partners in the ISIS fight. But Obama-era holdovers like Ratney and McGurk appear to have been empowered by former Secretary of State Tillerson and had significant influence on the Syria file where they exploited the inter-agency process to shore up legacy policies from the Obama years. McGurk himself confirmed this a few weeks ago when he tweeted that the anti-ISIS campaign plan was “designed by Obama and carried forward by Trump.” By extension, and in contrast to other areas such as sanctions, this means that the anti-ISIS policies implemented under the Trump Administration reflected Obama’s sensibilities toward Iran and not Trump’s.
Obama sealed the fate of Iraq and Syria when he reneged on his “red line” in the use of chemical weapons in Syria in 2013. He then dismissed ISIS as a “jayvee team” after it seized the Iraqi city of Fallujah in early 2014. He had to reverse himself when ISIS stormed into Mosul and declared a Caliphate months later, but even then, he wrote a secret letter to Iran’s Supreme leader reassuring him of supposed shared U.S.-Iranian interests in Iraq and Syria.
Obama tasked McGurk with crafting an anti-ISIS strategy that would minimize damage to the Assad regime or Iranian interests, avoiding a confrontation that might scuttle the president’s dreams of a nuclear deal; Jay Solomon revealed in his latest book that Obama also canceled the chemical red line for this reason. Obama’s isolationist instincts also drove him to seek the absolute minimum in deployed U.S. troops. This is revealed in another recent tweet by McGurk that “the counter ISIS campaign was designed in 2014 specifically to apply hard lessons learned from the last decade. By design it was low cost.” Rather than recognizing that the ISIS phenomenon could not be isolated from the role played by Assad and his Iranian backers, Obama tried to target ISIS alone and, as a result, could achieve only temporary victories.
It should be recalled that McGurk was not Obama’s first choice as anti-ISIS envoy. The initial year of American anti-ISIS operations was coordinated by General John Allen, who advocated a far more aggressive anti-ISIS strategy that would also empower anti-Iranian actors. For Syria, he advocated a no-fly zone to stop Assad regime airstrikes on civilians and told Obama that a durable defeat of ISIS required that Assad go. For Iraq, he advocated inserting U.S. air control teams to direct airstrikes, thereby marginalizing the Iranian proxies then dominant on the ground.
Obama chose a different path. In November 2014, the United States provided air support to IRGC proxy militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a group well known for having American blood on its hands. The tactical alliance between Asaib Ahl al-Haq and U.S. airpower pushed ISIS back from Baiji in a battle that ultimately led to a victory tour through the city by IRGC head Qassem Suleimani. Meanwhile, the White House strangled Allen’s train-and-equip program for Syrian rebels by insisting participants cease fighting the Assad regime, even as Assad bombed them and their families. This ultimately led to mass defections, the collapse of the program, and Allen’s resignation.
McGurk stepped into this void. Under his aegis, the anti-ISIS campaign in Syria pivoted quickly to the Kurdish PYD, the PKK’s branch in Syria, later rebranded as the Syrian Democratic Forces, due to that group’s tendencies to avoid clashes with Assad regime and Iranian forces. The Assad regime has stationed troops and operated offices in PYD core areas since 2012. Until today Syrian regime officials occupy Qamishli concurrently with the PYD, side by side with U.S. forces. Since leaving office, Ratney has admitted that the PYD does not pose a threat to the Assad regime.
Even more, only days after taking office, McGurk legitimized Iranian proxies in Iraq by tweeting, “The U.S. commends progress by Iraqi Security Forces & popular mobilization forces against #ISIL terrorists in #Bayji…These units performed heroically over months of fighting.” When confronted on abuses by these forces one year later, he doubled down, saying, “We cannot do that [defeat ISIS] with only Iraqi security forces.” As part of the counter-ISIS campaign in Iraq, the U.S. began to help train Iraqi militias historically tied to Iran, including groups such as the anti-American Badr Corps. The Badr Corps controlled Iraq’s Ministry of Interior, and Hadi al-Ameri, leader of the militia and political party, was held up as a potential partner of the U.S. In April 2019, after ISIS was defeated in Iraq, Badr’s spokesman called the United States “the number one sponsor of terrorism” in an official press conference.
Meanwhile, anti-Assad rebels whom Allen viewed as the centerpiece of an anti-ISIS strategy faded into the background. Rebels outside the opposition stronghold of Aleppo maintained the only major ISIS frontline in which anti-ISIS forces did not receive air support, contributing to regime and Iranian encirclement, conquest, and slaughter of Aleppo residents in late 2016. A Pentagon-backed group called the New Syrian Army, and later renamed Revolution Commandos (Maghawir al-Thawra), maintained a small outpost on the border with Jordan but conducted few operations.
The transition from Obama to Trump brought new hope for the Revolution Commandos and anti-Iran efforts. On April 4, 2017, the Assad regime killed some 90 civilians in a nerve gas attack in northern Syria. Trump reacted quickly with Tomahawk missile strikes on the regime. Newly appointed anti-Iran and anti-Assad voices within the White House were suddenly empowered, and the U.S. soon launched airstrikes to defend the Revolution Commandos from an Iranian proxy offensive—the first U.S. airstrikes of the war on behalf of a Free Syrian Army group. The Commandos had already been expanding after receiving increased arms earlier in 2017; aided by a handful of U.S. strikes, they were on the cusp of seizing territory that would block an Iranian corridor.
But McGurk’s team soon reasserted themselves. In June 2017 they even got to the point of directly and explicitly encouraging the Assad regime and Iranian-backed militias to expand in eastern Syria and take land from ISIS. That month, Ryan Dillon, the Anti-ISIS Coalition spokesman all but ceded Al-Bukamal town, the main link in the Iranian corridor through Syria, to Iran, saying, “We as a coalition are not in the land-grab business. We’re in the killing ISIS business…if the Syrian regime wants to do that…in Abu Kamal or Deir Ezzor or elsewhere, that means we don’t have to.” IRGC-backed forces soon seized Al-Bukamal town to complete the corridor.
So narrow was the U.S.’s ostensible focus on ISIS that when, two months later, the anti-Assad Commandos-linked group Qaryatayn Martyrs tried to break out of a tightening IRGC siege, the Coalition abruptly cut its support in retaliation. Explaining the decision, McGurk said the Martyrs had violated the “rules of the road for groups that we work with” by seeking to “use the protection of living with us to go out and conduct attacks against the regime … that’s completely unacceptable, because it puts U.S. personnel at risk.” Though McGurk apparently drew a clear line, viewing attacks on Assad and Iran as illegitimate, this was not consistently applied. When U.S.-supported Kurdish PYD forces redeployed away from the frontlines with ISIS to defend the Afrin enclave from Turkish forces in March 2018, the Anti-ISIS Coalition not only refrained from taking disciplinary measures, but even declared an “operational pause” in the anti-ISIS campaign to facilitate the redeployments. Suddenly, the rules had changed.
U.S. anti-ISIS policy has also helped Iranian proxies trickle over the Syrian Desert toward the border with Israel in southwest Syria. In early 2017, the U.S. and Russia agreed to turn Free Syrian Army-held southwest Syria into a “de-escalation zone” without fighting. Ratney and McGurk, two main architects of Obama’s Syria policy, led the U.S. negotiators in making this agreement with the Russians, a fact that McGurk bragged about publicly as “another example of how some decisions have been delegated down. Secretary Tillerson really asked us [McGurk and Ratney] to get after this opportunity.” In truth, the decision freed up Iranian, regime, and Russian forces to eliminate rebels elsewhere and contributed to the fall of multiple key Syrian opposition centers.
Once the regime had liquidated these pockets of resistance, it circled back to southwest Syria and shredded the U.S.-negotiated ceasefire in the summer of 2018, with Russia bombing from the air and IRGC proxies such as the Zulfikar Brigade and Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigade leading advances on the ground. The attack left hundreds of civilians dead and hundreds of thousands displaced in what some aid groups called the largest displacement of the war. By November 2018, an IRGC militia base was reported in Daraa Province, under 40 miles from Israel. Earlier this month, Israel reported that Hezbollah terror cells are emerging on the Israel-Syrian border.
Surveying all of this wreckage, McGurk is unbowed. He continues to argue for policies empowering the Assad regime and its Iranian militia partners while out of office, writing in a Washington Post op-ed in January 2019, soon after he resigned early in protest at Trump’s pullout decision, that “with America leaving, it [the SDF] will need a new benefactor…the SDF may have no choice but to reach accommodation with [the Assad regime in] Damascus.” Although McGurk frames this as a reaction to the new circumstances, the reality is that McGurk was advocating for the same policy, an SDF-Assad accommodation, before the pullout was ever announced. In a March 2019 interview, SDF head Mazlum Kobane confirmed that U.S. policy under McGurk had been “you are a part of Syria and you need to strike a deal with the regime,” a policy push in the reverse direction of Trump’s efforts to keep the SDF fromtrading oil with Assad and Iran. McGurk has gone further, despite putting in place the policies which turned a blind eye to Iran’s expansion in Syria, he has argued recently in Foreign Affairs that National Security Advisor John Bolton’s mission to remove all Iranian forces from Syria is unrealistic and should be abandoned and instead replaced by a more limited goal of working with Russia to remove some Iranian militias from Syria.
McGurk’s departure imprinted on a media with no historical memory an image of principled American commitment. In fact, McGurk was fine with withdrawing troops which were used to protect Syrian rebels fighting Iran. According to a number of media reports he pushed for the outright closure of the U.S.-run Tanf base that housed the Commandos and Martyrs in 2018 in exchange for Russia pulling Iran back from southern Syria. A memory reaching back beyond a few news cycles could have been useful in evaluating McGurk’s statements. Some useful context could have been found in the op-ed he wrote for the Washington Post in 2011, defending President Obama’s troop withdrawal from Iraq—a decision that would lead directly to the re-emergence of ISIS. At the time McGurk wrote: “Critics charge that the withdrawal is a defeat for the United States and a victory for Iran, and leaves Iraq vulnerable to a rekindled civil war. They could not be more wrong.”
Empowering Iran and its proxies may have been the path of least resistance in crafting an anti-ISIS policy but this approach will have extensive costs in the long term. Ratney and McGurk’s strategy never looked at the day after ISIS, yet now that the day has come, it has become apparent what threat the region now faces. In Iraq, an expanding Quds Force-led Iranian militia proxy force has hijacked the state, is armed with ballistic weapons, and increasingly threatens the Kurdistan Regional Government as it continues to occupy Kirkuk in violation of the Iraqi constitution. In Syria, the Assad regime remains in power yet wholly reliant on Iran’s new foreign legion, with militias now directly on the border with Israel. YPG forces linked to the PKK now sit on the border with Turkey, a NATO ally, creating a crisis in relations that is being exploited by Russia. And ISIS is still not fully defeated. Iran’s efforts in engineering demographic change and brutally repressing the Sunni Arab population are only sowing the seeds for the re-emergence of the group or a different mutation.
This state of affairs, which threatens U.S. and regional security, cannot change as long as America’s approach to the Middle East continues to enact anti-ISIS policies that reflect Obama-era prioritization of rapprochement with Iran. President Trump has undertaken admirable steps such as withdrawing from the Iran deal, designating a number of Iranian-backed militias as terrorist organizations, and increasing sanctions on Iran’s ally, the Assad regime. The Administration is also working to bring together a diplomatic coalition to counter Iran and its expansionism throughout the region and is giving more freedom to regional partners including Israel and Saudi Arabia to combat Iran’s proxies head on in Syria and Yemen. But Iranian regional advances under Trump have opened up a path, both literally and figuratively, for Iran to circumvent U.S. sanctions by interweaving its terror militias deep within the governments and societies of U.S. allies. Such a strategy can not be countered with sanctions alone or relying on regional countries.
Halting the Iranian expansion
First, the minimum that the U.S. should do is to stop funding institutions and entities co-opted by or indirectly supporting the IRGC. Security cooperation with the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, and specifically the Iraqi Federal Police, should be cut until these entities are no longer controlled by the pro-IRGC Badr militia and infiltrated by Iranian-backed militias. A similar logic applies to the Lebanese Armed Forces due to their ties to Hezbollah, and even to UN humanitarian aid in Syria due to its ties with the regime-controlled Syrian Arab Red Crescent. As researcher Annie Sparrow has written, UN-affiliated entities in Syria have propped up Assad even going to the point of directly funding the Syrian Ministry of Defense. Aid has been consistently diverted to the Assad regime and Iranian militias and used to pave the way for sectarian cleansing programs in the capital. It should not be the case that IRGC proxies can lure ordinary residents of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen into their extremist visions by way of social welfare programs and conventional political activities.
The U.S. should also stop regional partners from funding such co-opted institutions and from supporting the governments of Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. Specifically, the U.S. should continue efforts to discourage Jordan and the UAE from expanding trade relations with the Assad regime, and Qatar and Turkey from expanding relations with Iran.
Second, the Trump Administration should at least designate all IRGC proxies in Syria and Iraq as terrorist organizations and not give any of them a free pass. The Administration took an important step in designating the entirety of the IRGC, as well as proxies Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, Fatiemyoun, and Zeinabiyoun as terrorist organizations. Yet the administration should complete the designation and sanction of these militias by designating key proxies such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Imam Ali Battalions, and Sayid al-Shuhada Battalions. The fact that Asaib Ahl al-Haq is a political party in the Iraqi government makes it more, not less, urgent to designate these groups to prevent them from accessing the U.S. financial system or indirectly benefiting from U.S. security assistance.
Third, at the very least, the administration should learn the lessons of past policy failures and halt further IRGC-backed militia expansion in Syria. The Administration should redouble its efforts in preventing an impending assault by the Assad regime and IRGC militias on Idlib province. The Administration can do this by backing up words with deeds. President Trump warned the Assad regime from attacking the province last September in a famous tweet, but as was learned in the southwest de-escalation zone, words are not enough if not backed up by the threat of force. The Trump Administration must expand its threats of using force against the Assad regime not only for the use of chemical weapons, but also of any attack or violation by the regime, Iran, or Russia of the de-escalation zone in Idlib province. Bombings take place nearly daily with high death tolls among civilians. Designating a line for chemical weapons only legitimizes killing by all other means.
The U.S. should also keep troops at its Tanf base in southwest Syria. While the SDF controls wide swathes of territory east of the Euphrates River in northeast Syria, the current route of the Iranian corridor runs entirely west of the Euphrates. The 50-kilometer zone around Tanf is the only territory held by the Anti-ISIS Coalition that is west of the Euphrates, and that could cut off Iran. The United States should not walk away from this without substantial concessions. Seeking deals with the Russians over the terms of evacuating the base is an exercise in self-delusion. And begging the Russians and the Assad regime to allow UN aid to the residents in nearby Rukban Camp, many of whom are relatives of Pentagon-backed fighters, is unseemly.
Northeast Syria is a trickier problem given that both the PYD and most of the Arab groups that make up the SDF are amenable to making a deal with the Assad regime. The U.S. must work to prevent this scenario by using its remaining troops in northeast Syria as leverage to prohibit the SDF from entering into any sort of agreement with the regime. The U.S. should also use its continued presence in the northeast as leverage to pressure the YPG to allow back dozens of anti-Assad Kurdish political parties and fighters which have been sent into exile back to their homes and to share political power. Furthermore, the U.S. must continue expanding sanctions on entities within the SDF which attempt to sell oil to the Assad regime, or enter into discussions with the Iranians.
While these three steps may work in halting or slowing down Iranian expansion, they do not achieve the much more difficult goal of rolling back Iran’s gains. Doing that will require a greater American commitment, yet there is no alternative in the long run to achieve stability in the region and to avoid squandering gains made in the campaign against ISIS. The following steps should be taken to roll back Iranian militia expansion in the region.
Firstly, the U.S. must work to reverse Iran’s hijacking of the state in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon by at least recognizing that changing the nature of these regimes is a U.S. foreign policy objective, and then matching U.S. strategy with that objective. Despite the fact that the diverse peoples of all three of these countries seek to push back against Iranian expansion, the Trump Administration has largely been absent from empowering them partly due to the continuation of the Obama-era counter-ISIS policy.
In Syria this can be done through working toward a political transition where the Assad regime leaves power. In March 2012, then CENTCOM Commander Jim Mattis said “It’ll be the biggest strategic setback for Iran in 20 years when Assad falls.” Yet despite over half a million killed, over half the country displaced, and industrial scale torture as was seen in the “Caesar” photos, current Trump Administration policy unrealistically seeks to change Assad’s behavior rather than his regime, saying that the Syrian people will decide his fate. Such hesitation will be seen as a sign of relief in Damascus and Tehran that the U.S. has given up on a political transition in Syria especially as the U.S. champions regime change in places such as Venezuela.
At the very least, the U.S. must return to saying “Assad must go” as a political objective and abandon unrealistic goals such as over a dozen rounds of the Geneva peace process. It is sheer fantasy to think that the regime would ever participate in constitutional reform negotiations or presidential elections. Going forward with these efforts only serves to legitimize the regime at a time where Syrians continue to protest the regime even in Assad-controlled areas such as Daraa. Instead, a more attainable objective would be maintaining the pressure on the Assad regime and its backers Russia and Iran to increase the costs on all three to remain in power in the long term. The Trump Administration is right to increase the sanctions architecture on the regime, Russia, and Iran and work to isolate the regime diplomatically and economically. In this vein, Ambassador Jim Jeffrey and Special Envoy Joel Rayburn have succeeded in deterring further UAE normalization with the Assad regime and warning Jordanian businessmen not to do business in Syria. Yet, the administration should abandon the false premises of the Obama-era Geneva peace process, which has failed to achieve results. While the Assad regime will not relinquish power in the short term, in the long term it should be clear to the regime and its backers that U.S. sanctions, prohibitions on funding reconstruction, and other forms of pressure will remain even if the Assad regime changes its behavior or participates in an election. Any positive change should be conditional on the removal of Assad from power. The Assad regime should not get the message that it will ever be accepted by the international community.
The U.S. should back the low-cost insurgency approach that has already shown potential in southwest Syria to bleed the IRGC and increase the costs for their expansion and support for the Assad regime. It makes no sense that Iran can fund low-cost insurgencies to bleed American allies in the region, but the United States cannot counter with the same. The Administration should also consider expanding support to proxy forces that the Administration continues to work with such as the Revolution Commandos near al-Tanf garrison in southwest Syria, for the purpose of fighting and eliminating Iranian-backed militias. This limited escalation can curb Iranian expansion and put pressure on the Assad regime in the long term.
Furthermore, in this vein, the U.S. should empower peaceful Syrian civil society groups and local councils operating outside Assad regime control. Last year, the Trump Administration eliminated assistance for stabilization in Syria including funding going to secular anti-Assad civil society groups that were also combating al-Qaeda’s ideology, as well as the Syrian White Helmets, before quickly backtracking on some of the funding. Yet the funding has still not completely been resumed, and if the administration takes an approach similar to the Obama Administration in relying on regional powers to take care of Syria, those powers such as Turkey will not fund the same groups that are in the U.S. interest and instead fund groups with an ideological affinity with the Muslim Brotherhood. This is already happening in Idlib
The United States must jettison Obama-era tropes about the Syrian conflict. Obama’s instinct to seek the absolute minimum in military deployments and a defensive military posture has, unfortunately, carried forward into the Trump era with the Syrian “de-escalation zones.” These zones were from the start largely a Russian ruse to help the regime conquer opposition areas, and they succeeded. Now that the regime controls most of Syria and IRGC proxies are dominant within the regime side, support for de-escalation is tantamount to support for Iranian expansion. The United States must prevent further expansion by the Assad regime and Iran in parts of the country that they still do not control. This means abandoning the goal of de-escalating the conflict in Syria, and instead escalating efforts to roll back Iran and the Assad regime. The de-escalation objective actually has things backward: The conflict in Syria will not be de-escalated without rolling back the assault by the Assad, Russia, and Iran axis, and that will require limited but sustained escalation.
In Iraq this can be done through working to empower a growing movement of Iraqis seeking to push back against Iranian domination of their country. Despite the strong showing of the al-Fatah Coalition in Iraq, the results were not all bad, with Moqtada Sadr, a Shi’a cleric more independent of Iran taking first place in the results. Last September, protesters in the Shi’a heartland of Najaf, Basra, and other cities in southern Iraq, came out in the thousands chanting “Iran out” and protesting Iranian proxies such as AAH. Masud Barazani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), which has taken an increasingly anti-Iran stance since events in Kirkuk last year, won the most seats amongst Kurdish political parties. And there exists significant will in the Kurdish community to pushback against Iran after Qassem Soleimani’s assault on Kirkuk in October 2017.
Although the Sunni community in Iraq is decimated, ignoring their plight and disenfranchisement, especially when they suffered greatly from ISIS, would be a strategic mistake. There exists a cross-sectarian majority in Iraq willing to take on Iran, but the U.S. has not been willing or able to out-compete the Iranians on the political scene. The U.S. should facilitate coordination between rival Iraqi factions, helping to unite them around a common platform as government formation talks continue into 2019. The U.S. should learn the lessons of the military surge that peeled off Sunnis from al-Qaeda over a decade ago and seek to implement a “political surge” in peeling off Shi’a leaders and political parties from Iran by working with and empowering anti-Iran Shi’a parties and civil society leaders and making clear that while the U.S. firmly opposes Iranian expansion it does not oppose the Shi’a people.
In Lebanon, the Cedar Revolution of March 15, 2005, has been completely reversed as Hezbollah and its allies have taken a majority in the parliament for the first time. This is the future that Iraq faces if the Iranian-backed militias there continue to grow unchecked and engage in the political process. The U.S. must understand that Lebanon no longer exists as an entity independent of Iran and Hezbollah but instead now exists solely as a vehicle for Iran’s machinations. The U.S. should abandon rhetoric that views Lebanon as a “partner” or “a democracy” but should instead continue expanding U.S. sanctions on Hezbollah and entities connected to Hezbollah as part of the maximum pressure campaign. If reports are accurate that the U.S. intends to sanction Lebanese parliament speaker Nabih Berri of the Amal Party, a close Hezbollah ally, this would be a good sign of serious pressure on Lebanon to illustrate that the U.S. will not make a false differentiation between Hezbollah and the state as long as the state is connected to Hezbollah.
On the international level, the U.S. should put together a coalition to counter Iranian-backed militias in Syria and Iraq just as one was put together to counter ISIS in June 2014. The Warsaw summit in February brought together more than 60 countries with the purpose of countering Iranian aggression and was a good first step. More still needs to be done, though, especially as regional actors like Qatar and Turkey that previously opposed Iranian expansion in Syria have now moved closer to Tehran, and others such as Jordan and the UAE that have previously opposed the Assad regime are now attempting to shore it up economically and indirectly support the Iranians in the process.
America’s anti-ISIS strategy was crafted to defeat ISIS at the lowest cost possible. But what’s low-cost in the short term is not always low-cost or even viable in the long term. It is now only the threat of Iran’s proxies in and of itself, such as were seen in the past week, which are now a problem that have to be dealt with. By turning a blind eye to Iranian expansion, our anti-ISIS policy has heightened sectarian polarization, planted the seeds for future conflict, and increased the likelihood that threats to the U.S. such as ISIS, Al-Qaeda, or other radical Islamist groups will reemerge.
We know from the rise of ISIS that Iranian domination in Iraq and Syria created the hyper-sectarian atmosphere necessary for such a group to appear. Today, conditions that prevailed on the eve of ISIS’s rise are as bad as or worse than they were then, and ISIS is already making a comeback in parts of Iraq. President Trump understands that reducing Iran’s regional influence should be a key plank of U.S. Middle East policy. Trump now has an opportunity to re-calibrate U.S. policy, ensure the true defeat of ISIS, and lay the groundwork for the lasting regional stability that has eluded his predecessors.
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Omar Hossino is a foreign policy consultant focused on Syria and Iraq. He is also a 2018-2019 Penn Kemble Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. He has written for a number of different publications, including Foreign Policy, the Henry Jackson Society, Syria Deeply, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The views here are his own.