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Powder Keg in Syria

Hussain Malla/AP Images
A Hezbollah supporter during a campaign speech by Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah near Beirut, Lebanon, April 2018

The air strike carried out against Syria on April 13 by the Unites States, Britain, and France—“Operation Desert Stormy” in Bill Maher’s memorable phrase—was carefully pegged to the alleged responsibility of the Assad regime for the chemical attack in Douma on April 7, which killed more than forty people and violated the Chemical Weapons Convention. The strike was explicitly presented as a matter of deterrence, not regime change, and the targets—the Barzah Research and Development Center in the Damascus suburbs and the Him Shinshar chemical weapons complex near Homs—bore this out. No presidential palaces were struck, although the countries responsible for the strike were clearly willing to hit Damascus itself. The regime has kept its nerve throughout the civil war, even when the opposition wiped out almost the entire Syrian war cabinet in 2012 with a cleverly placed bomb, and when in the spring of 2015 Palmyra and Jisr al-Shughour fell to rebels who were simultaneously laying siege to western Aleppo. It is scarcely likely to be intimidated by a single strike on this scale. This does not mean that the Trump administration won’t eventually launch another, but for the moment, the status quo will probably prevail.

Under the cover of the raid and the rhetoric that preceded it—Trump labeled Assad a “Gas Killing Animal” who enjoyed murdering his own people—the Israelis were advancing their own objectives in Syria. Two days after the atrocity in Douma, the Israeli air force hit a Syrian air base near Homs, killing at least seven Iranian military advisers. Tehran took notice. “Iran is not Syria,” said Ali Shirazi, a Revolutionary Guard Corps official. “If Israel wants to survive for several more days, it needs to stop this children’s play. Iran has the ability to obliterate Israel and when prompted to, [it will be moved] to turn Tel Aviv and Haifa into dust.” Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior aide to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, warned that “Israel’s crime will not remain unanswered.”

Since Donald Trump took office, Israel, the United States, and Iran have been lurching toward war. In Jerusalem and Washington, fear and frustration have been accumulating since 2015, when the Iran nuclear deal was concluded. Because it did not result in the permanent elimination of Iran’s nuclear capability, its critics in the US and Israel rejected it as at best irrelevant. At worst it was seen as abetting Iranian tyranny and aggression (by giving Iran legitimacy as a diplomatic partner) and funding its imperial designs (by suspending sanctions). Having lost the fight against the deal, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and their advocates in Washington turned their attention back to Iran’s conventional threat to the region. Iran, they argued, exercised undue influence in Lebanon, supported Shia rebels in Yemen, subverted Sunni rule over the Shiite majority in Bahrain, supported Shia militias in Iraq, and kept the Assad regime on life support as a host for its parasitic effort to encircle Israel.

The Trump administration has linked these security concerns with those that directly bear on Iran’s nuclear program. Iran might be in compliance with the letter of the nuclear agreement, Trump has suggested, but its regional activities demonstrate noncompliance with its spirit—hence Trump’s reluctance to certify Iran’s fulfillment of its part of the agreement. The administration proposed cutting off Iran’s access to Syria using US forces based there, withdrawing from the nuclear deal, reimposing sanctions on Iran, and pushing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran’s expeditionary force, out of the Middle East. This new approach was greeted ecstatically in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Jerusalem as the triumphant return of the United States to the region after eight years of pathetic restraint. It has also helped reignite the periodically hot cold war between Israel and Iran that began not long after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and has lasted ever since.

Tensions between those two countries spiked on February 10, 2018, when an Iranian-made unmanned aerial vehicle, launched from a Syrian air base near Palmyra, crossed into Israeli airspace. The drone was a copy of a US RQ-170 Sentinel that Iran had captured when US controllers in Afghanistan inadvertently let it enter Iranian airspace in 2011. According to Israel, the drone was armed. Although the Syrian government did not comment publicly, one well-connected official privately explained to me that the drone launch was intended to warn Israel that it could no longer treat Syria, which the Israeli air force has struck at least one hundred times since 2011, as a free-fire zone. But Israeli intelligence officials intercepted communications conducted in Farsi by the launch crew, which indicated that Iran was involved. The Israelis believe that the launch crew commander was killed in a subsequent air strike.

It is possible that the launch crew was Iranian and that Syrians were giving the orders, but most explanations have tended to put the blame on Iran, whose Foreign Ministry derided the idea of an Iranian drone flying into Israel as “ridiculous.” US and Israeli analysts in the meantime are trying to figure out why Iran would take such a provocative action now. The risk of escalation would seem to outweigh the benefit of testing Israel’s capability to detect drones or its response to such intrusions. Some have wondered whether the launch is a sign that Iran lacks full control over its forces in Syria. In any case, the launch seems to have been tacitly sanctioned by Russia, because it is unlikely that the Russians would have had no advance knowledge of it.

The Israelis anticipated the drone and shot it down with a missile from an AH-64 Apache helicopter gunship approximately ninety seconds after it crossed into Israeli airspace in the southeastern tip of the Galilee, not far from the junction of the Israeli, Jordanian, and Syrian borders. The Israeli air force then struck the air base from which the drone had been launched and, it claims, destroyed Syria’s main command-and-control bunker and rendered half of Syria’s air defense infrastructure unusable. Iranian installations were also targeted. Israel lost an F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft to a Syrian antiaircraft missile over Israeli airspace. The loss, the first of an Israeli aircraft to enemy fire in thirty-eight years, appears to have been due to pilot error: the crew evidently failed to take defensive measures, perhaps because it was too confident.

Israel and Iran both seemed to recognize that the situation was at risk of escalating dangerously. They are said to have communicated their respective intentions to stand down through Russia, which has strong links to both Tehran and Jerusalem and an interest in controlling escalation within Syria. But there are no clearly defined and mutually acknowledged red lines in this conflict, and the two countries could clash directly again. This was clearly on the mind of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who insisted that Israel would not just strike Iran’s facilities in Syria but was prepared to take the fight to Iran itself. This was an extraordinary claim, which the clerical regime might not take seriously. But Israel does have the capacity to strike Iranian targets with missiles from submarines patrolling Iran’s coast, long-range aircraft refueled over open ocean or in the airspace of Iran’s Arab adversaries in the Gulf, and even special forces that have been trained to carry out operations inside Iran.

Lennart Preiss/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Munich Security Conference with a piece of an Iranian-made drone launched from Syria that Israel shot down over its airspace, February 2018

Netanyahu’s warning suggests that he believes Iran intends to establish permanent military bases in Syria, which would constitute a second front against Israel, along with Hezbollah’s presence in Lebanon. For Israel, which is already threatened by as many as 150,000 rockets from Hezbollah, a second armed adversary, on its border with Syria, would be intolerable. The last time a Hezbollah–IRGC unit carried out a reconnaissance operation along the border, in January 2015, Israel wiped it out in an air strike that killed a Revolutionary Guard general and the son of Imad Mughniyah, Hezbollah’s best-known operative. Israel’s current strategy seems to be to walk a fine line between deterrence and provocation. This is difficult to do.

It is hard to say just how likely Iran is to establish a second front in Syria. Autonomous Iranian bases would be relatively easy for Israel to target and difficult for Iran to defend. In light of these risks, Iran might opt instead to negotiate access to Syrian bases once the civil war ends, much as the US maintains access to bases in Israel, Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Kuwait (the latter six countries are part of the Gulf Cooperation Council). But if the experience of the US is any indication, this sort of situation may not be ideal for Iran. The terms under which the US can use local bases were established by agreements that took decades to negotiate—they began in 1951 in Saudi Arabia and in 1979 in Oman—and involved delicate compromises. The host countries wanted a guarantee of security, which Congress was reluctant to confer; American planners, meanwhile, needed the kind of unimpeded access that could complicate the host government’s domestic politics.

The resulting agreements gave the US restricted access—for example, the US cannot simply attack other countries from these bases without the explicit permission of the host—and there is no reason to expect that Iran’s access to Syrian facilities would be any more permissive. The Syrian regime is fiercely nationalistic; it would likely view a permanent Iranian presence in the country both as an affront to its sovereignty and as a cause of trouble with Israel and the United States. The regime will certainly continue to welcome the Iranians and their proxies as long as they are useful. After that, one suspects the welcome will expire.

At the moment, Iran’s presence in southwestern Syria remains relatively small: a few hundred advisers and technical personnel, and as many as five thousand Shia fighters drawn from Syrian villages, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In the mainstream media, those statistics have been absurdly exaggerated. The New York Times, quoting Washington-based pressure groups largely funded by Persian Gulf governments, reported that the number of proxy fighters was “as many as 20,000.” The report was illustrated by a map of western Syria speckled with red squares indicating specific locations where Iranians or their proxies were based—“headquarters, logistical nodes, drone control rooms, training centers.” But none of these entities was defined: a “headquarters” could be a half-dozen fighters with a radio, a logistical node could be in a parking lot, a drone control room in a trailer, or a training center consist of a ramshackle rifle range and a port-a-potty. The illustrations accompanying the story showed only four Syrian air bases, which were identified as Iranian. This would come as a surprise to the Syrian regime.

The Syrian government concedes that there are five to six thousand of these Shia fighters inside its borders, but contends that it needs them because they augment regular Syrian forces during especially demanding operations. They are currently in the southwest, but the regime says that they will eventually be moved eastward to join the fight to secure Deir ez-Zour, near the Iraqi border. This claim is at least plausible; it reflects the way the regime has thus far distributed its available forces.

Israeli officials reject Syria’s justification for the Iranian presence, for two reasons. First, they maintain that Iran’s overall strategy requires a second front against Israel. The clerical regime is implacably opposed to the existence of Israel, but without a shared border its enemy remains out of reach. Iran’s patronage of Hezbollah, which controls southern Lebanon, does give it such a shared border, if only indirectly; Hezbollah still has a significant degree of independence. Replicating this arrangement on the Syrian border with Israel would be a natural strategic goal for Iran. Second, the Israelis consider Syrian President Bashar al-Assad an Iranian puppet and suspect that he has neither the will nor the power to resist Iran’s campaign to turn the Syrian state into a platform for what Tehran, they think, regards as an inevitable war against Israel.

Most Israeli and Western military and intelligence analysts seem to disagree. In their eyes, the Syrian regime has significant autonomy and only a weak sense of obligation to Iran. Assad, the thought goes, would not have launched a catastrophic war only to hand over control of his country to Tehran. In 2013, a Syrian official told me that the regime wanted to end the war as quickly as possible, because the sooner it ended, the sooner the Iranians could be shipped back home. Lebanon, he pointed out, had never managed to oust its Iranian proxy fighters, and it is now a shambles. (He did not add that it was Syria that gave Iran access to Lebanon, for its own ill-advised reasons.)

Mike King

The Assad regime is also keenly aware of the risk of war with Israel should Iran become entrenched near the border. Its goal at this point is to reassert control over southwestern Syria and encourage the redeployment of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, which separated Israeli and Syrian troops on the Golan Heights before the civil war broke out in 2011. Assad needs to conserve his military power to retake territory in the east, reestablish control over Syria’s oil fields, and eventually reconquer Idlib in the northwest. He would compromise his goal of reconsolidating the Syrian state under his rule if he gets entangled in a conflict with the US and Israel.

Israel, too, is in a precarious position. It has no way of knowing if and when any military actions it takes to keep Iranian forces or their proxies from digging in on the border between Syria and Israel will elicit an Iranian-instigated response on the Lebanese border. Hezbollah’s extensive arsenal of rockets, some long-range, would cause significant Israeli civilian casualties and infrastructure damage. A missile barrage would therefore give Israel little choice but to enter Lebanon by force with the purpose of disarming and destroying Hezbollah. The long range of Hezbollah rockets suggests that many of these weapons will be deployed in northern Lebanon, which would draw Israeli ground forces much farther into Lebanese territory than they had been when they invaded southern Lebanon in 1982 during the Lebanese civil war, or during the war of 2006. A deeper Israeli penetration now would push a new wave of refugees northward into areas already packed with Syrians fleeing the ongoing civil war.

To buttress its air campaign against Iranian targets in Syria, Israel has been arming and equipping seven Sunni rebel militias on the Syrian side of the border as a buffer against Iranian-supported Shia fighters. This program, which reprises Israel’s approach in southern Lebanon between 1982 and 2000, is likely to draw Hezbollah into the area in an effort to extirpate the Sunni rebels, who threaten the Syrian regime’s territorial control. Israel’s preemptive strategy might then become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For the moment, the confrontation between Israel and Iran has devolved to an uneasy impasse. Meanwhile, the US, in its effort to support Israel in that conflict, has turned its attention to other methods of diminishing Iran’s power in the region: promoting regime change in Syria—in theory, a relatively moderate Sunni successor regime in Damascus would cut off Iran’s access to Syrian territory—or, failing that, using military force to narrow the land corridors that Iran uses to move fighters from Iraq into western Syria.

The US has not yet disclosed any strategy for overthrowing Assad’s regime, perhaps because tensions are already high between Washington and Moscow, and since Trump seems reluctant to offend Russia. It is equally possible that there is no plan. But former secretary of state Rex Tillerson did explain in February, before he was fired, that the military was hoping to weaken and eventually bankrupt the Assad regime by taking vigorous measures to preserve US and Kurdish control of oil fields in central Syria. In congressional testimony, David Satterfield, the acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, has justified an open-ended US military presence in Syria partly on the basis of the need to separate the Assad regime from Iran.

At a rally in Ohio on March 29, Trump himself questioned the merits of that strategy. “We’re knocking the hell out of ISIS,” he declared. “We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon…. Let the other people take care of it now…. We got [sic] to get back to our country where we belong, where we want to be.” The National Security Council, the State Department, and the Pentagon were bewildered by what appeared to be a spontaneous, uncoordinated policy reversal. (The State Department declined to respond to my request for a clarification.) They were not the only ones. Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have been counting on the Trump administration to roll back Iranian power in the region, starting with Syria. The withdrawal of the two thousand US troops currently deployed to the eastern part of Syria would forfeit that trust.

Although Israel and the Gulf Arabs are still anxious about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, they are far more preoccupied by its activities in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, and Yemen. The Saudis and Emiratis urged the US to increase its support for their calamitous intervention in Yemen, and the Saudis tried to decapitate the Lebanese government or force it to oppose Hezbollah’s influence. The Gulf Arabs only reluctantly took steps to keep Iraq afloat economically after the hugely destructive campaign against ISIS. Most of all, these nations want Iran out of Syria and the Assad regime overthrown, and so far they have relied on the Trump administration to pursue those goals. Right now, however, the president seems no more eager than his predecessor to play along.

On the other hand, the accession of John Bolton to the post of national security adviser and the nomination of CIA Director Mike Pompeo as secretary of state suggest that the Trump administration is more likely to continue its current policy than reverse it. Bolton has been a fierce critic of the Iranian regime and of US administrations that, in his view, accommodated it. Like many Americans, he sees Iran both as a strategic menace capable of dominating the Middle East and as a weak and desperate state that the US could easily overcome. These inconsistent views make it likelier that his policy prescriptions will have violent outcomes.

It is unclear how the new team will reconcile the desire to thwart Iran in Syria with the president’s urge to disengage. One indication might be Bolton’s idea for an “Arab force” composed of military units from the Gulf Cooperation Council and Egypt, which would replace the US troops now in Syria. Setting aside the possibility that Saudi Arabia and the UAE would open fire on Qatari troops rather than on the Syrian regime or ISIS, these countries do not have the capacity to sustain a military occupation of Syrian territory for long. And there can be little doubt that such a force, isolated in the Syrian desert and surrounded by hostile tribes, would soon find itself under attack by Iran and the Assad regime.

Regardless of how many US troops stay in Syria, the Trump administration’s apparent determination to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal could easily put the United States on a collision course with Iran, especially if Iran responded by resuming uranium enrichment. The US could try to impose what it has repeatedly called “crippling” sanctions on Iran, but there is little reason to think that Iran would be deterred from its nuclear program by the threat of economic penalties. The largest expansion of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure took place under a vast and intricate regime of sanctions. Between 2006, when nuclear-related UN sanctions were first put in place, and 2013, when the interim deal freezing Iran’s capability was agreed on, the number of centrifuges increased from few, if any, to nearly 20,000. During this period, the UNSC hit Iran with five sanctions resolutions, including an especially punitive one in 2010. Given that Iran was installing about 3,000 centrifuges per year while under intensive sanctions, had there not been the agreement, Iran would now have yet another 15,000 centrifuges.

If these precedents are any indication, Iran’s antagonists would be left with just one option: the physical destruction of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. For some, like Bolton and Pompeo, this is a desirable outcome. They believe that an attack on Iran, which would probably involve strikes against targets associated with the regime, such as the Republican Guards, would usher in a new era of American dominance. The Iranian people would supposedly welcome the United States as their liberator, repudiate the clerical regime’s regional ambitions, and put aside their nationalist views to accommodate Israel’s existence and seek a rapprochement with the Arab kingdoms to the west.

Here, too, some uncertainty is in order. The Trump administration’s highly confrontational stances on trade and North Korea have softened over time in favor of negotiation; steel and aluminum tariffs on allies have been rolled back; and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has been cultivating China’s newly appointed trade czar. Though Trump has repeatedly threatened to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal, it is still possible—in view of his apparent desire, at least for the moment, to avoid complications abroad—that he will simply refuse to certify Iranian compliance, which would leave it to Congress to take further steps.

This is a volatile administration. Even aside from its internal policy differences, it makes haphazard, ill-disciplined decisions that often cause confusion: following the use of chemical weapons at Douma, it simultaneously pushed at the UN for sanctions against Russia and issued a White House declaration rejecting sanctions. In the short term, the chasm that has separated the president from his national security team might narrow. The national security adviser believes he can sway the president’s judgment by catering to his instincts, which tend to be bellicose and impulsive. The US may still clash with Iran in Syria. Even if it does not, regional allies could use the president’s defection there to pressure him to follow through on his pledge to “tear up” the nuclear agreement and proceed toward regime change in Tehran. In either of those events, the region would be likelier to descend into war.

—April 24, 2018