The logical endgame of President Obama’s Iran policy and his “roundtable” approach to Syria has always been to offer American protection for Iranian missile shipments to Hezbollah. Sounds crazy, right? It is. But after all, as the administration’s hard-nosed diplomats will tell you, there needs to be a compromise in Syria to end the killing, which means that Iran must preserve its legitimate core interest—namely, its “link” to Lebanon, where Hezbollah has tens of thousands of missiles aimed at Israel.
The White House announcement that President Obama has brought Iran into formal discussions over Syria in Vienna is yet another public step on the path towards one of the most stunning reversals in the history of American foreign policy: formal American backing of Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad who continues to butcher his own people with the help of Russia and Iran. Although reporters have generally represented this development as something new, the White House has in fact been openly set on this course for at least a year. At the G20 meeting in Brisbane, Australia last year, Obama said so explicitly: “At some point…the various players involved, as well as the regional players—Turkey, Iran, Assad’s patrons like Russia—are going to have to engage in a political conversation.”
Around the same time, Obama also signaled publicly his acquiescence to Assad staying in power and having a role during a so-called “transitional” period, thereby moving closer to the Russian and Iranian position on the role of the Syrian dictator. As far back as late 2013, the White House was leaking that the president regretted ever calling on Assad to “step aside.”
Obama’s Syria policy, and the direct threat it poses to Israel, is a continuation of his broader policy of rapprochement with Iran. By recognizing Iran as a principal “stakeholder” in Syria and the region more broadly, America is choosing to legitimize Iran’s local assets and means of projecting power. So if you legitimize Iran as a “stakeholder,” you also legitimize Iran’s “stake.” But what, exactly, is Iran’s interest in Syria? Very simply, it is to preserve the land bridge to Lebanon through which it supplies Hezbollah with heavy weapons like long-range missiles that can’t be moved any other way.
Needless to say, conflict resolution outfits like the International Crisis Group have recently advocated that a political solution in Syria would require securing “what [Iran’s] foreign policy agenda requires: a link to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria.” By “link,” of course, the ICG actually means a logistical pipeline through which to smuggle advanced long range missiles aimed at Israel, as well as anti-air and anti-ship systems, to a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, the guaranteeing of which now seems to qualify as some kind of humanitarian work.
What has allowed Obama to make his push to formally legitimize Iran’s supply link to Hezbollah is the Russian military intervention in Syria, which also now complicates Israel’s ability to go after Iranian assets in the Golan and elsewhere. Some western intelligence sources are saying that Russia—whose endeavor in Syria is both coordinated with the Iranians on the ground and dependent on an Iranian air corridor—is helping the Iranians fly in weapons to Syria, in breach of UN Security Council resolutions. But with the arms embargo on Iran set to be lifted in a few years, as a result of the JCPOA, no one expects the U.S. president to make a big stink about ignoring Security Council resolutions any more than when the White House seemed as though it couldn’t care less about Iran violating a different set of Security Council resolutions when it tested long-range ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads. Besides, Syria is now Russian-Iranian turf as far as the administration is concerned.
In July, a few days before the signing of the JCPOA, the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat reported that during his recent trip to Russia, Secretary of State John Kerry raised the subject of establishing a Syria “contact group” consisting of regional and international actors who would be tasked with providing support for a political settlement. According to the paper, Kerry proposed including Iran in the group, alongside the U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar. The American Secretary of State also reportedly expressed his willingness to “recognize Iran’s vital interests in Syria and the need to include it in seeking a solution.”
What the White House’s “solution” will look like for the people of Syria, Lebanon and Israel was apparently not high on Kerry’s agenda. But it seems safe to say that it will not be pretty.
Tony Badran is Tablet magazine’s Levant analyst and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.