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Early last week, Iraqi officials announced that an airstrike had killed a commander in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as he entered Syria from Iraq on November 29 with a consignment of weapons. The news came just days after another high-ranking IRGC officer, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, whom intelligence agencies have long viewed as the mastermind behind Iran’s previous covert nuclear weapons program, was assassinated near Tehran. Although Israel has, characteristically, remained silent, its intelligence organization is widely suspected of both killings.
Iranian officials were quick to blame Fakhrizadeh’s death on Israel and to promise retaliation. But they have refused to acknowledge that an attack on IRGC forces near the Iraqi-Syrian border —let alone one that killed a senior commander—even took place. A day after Fakhrizadeh’s funeral procession was broadcast on state television, a spokesperson for Iran’s Foreign Ministry derided reports of an IRGC general’s killing in Syria as “media propaganda.”
Iran has good reason to avoid drawing attention to its activities in Syria. The regime has long downplayed its role in that conflict. In recent days, American analysts have largely focused on whether Iran’s promised revenge for Fakhrizadeh’s killing could derail U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s hopes of reviving the Iran nuclear deal. But Tehran’s engagement with Damascus remains a danger to regional stability. Tensions between Iran and Israel over Syria are escalating rapidly and may force the Biden administration to act there soon after taking office.
For several years, Israel has made a habit of periodically striking Iranian positions in Syria. In recent months, Israel has targeted high-level Iranian assets with hits that have heightened tensions between Iran and the United States. News media have reported that U.S. President Donald Trump gave his hawkish secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, carte blanche to punish Iran, so long as the attacks don’t “start World War III.” The White House has not confirmed these reports, but they appear to feed the Iranian government’s anxiety that the United States will continue to greenlight Israeli actions or even take matters into its own hands, targeting Iranian assets.
U.S. leverage in Syria is limited, but it includes airpower, a presence in the country’s northeast region, and control over those areas’ oil fields.
Biden has indicated that countering Iran’s presence and influence in Syria will be a priority for his administration. Tehran contributes to regional instability by propping up a regime in Damascus that brutally represses its people and by funneling weapons and supplies to its nonstate allies and partners in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. The Trump administration correctly identified the problem but pursued an all-or-nothing policy that vastly overestimated Washington’s leverage over Tehran. This approach has only entrenched and expanded the Islamic Republic’s influence in Syria. To turn the tide in the other direction, Biden’s foreign policy team will need to work with partners in the region and in Europe and recognize that Iran will almost certainly maintain a degree of influence in Syria. U.S. leverage in Syria is limited, but it includes airpower, a presence in the country’s northeast region, and control over those areas’ oil fields. U.S. leverage also includes the prospect of sanctions relief, which both Iran and Syria desperately need.
Since its 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran’s relations with its Arab neighbors have been rocky at best. During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, virtually all Arab states in the region sided with Saddam Hussein. Syria was a notable exception, supporting Iran. Throughout the two decades that followed, Hafez al-Assad and his son and successor, Bashar, remained among the Islamic Republic’s only loyal friends in the region.
With few allies in the region, Iran sees a friendly government in Syria as vital to its survival and power.
When unrest started to brew in Syria in 2011, Iran lent the Assad regime a hand in crushing it. What Tehran may have initially intended as a quick campaign soon became a full-blown military intervention that included, at its height, members of Iran’s IRGC as well as conventional military forces. Iran would also gradually mobilize its nonstate allies and partners to support Assad. The real number of Iranian and Iranian-backed forces still operating in Syria is difficult to estimate from publicly available information. Many Iranian forces have left the country as Assad has cemented his grip, but a number of commanders and operatives have stayed on to secure Iran’s interests and oversee continued operations.
Tehran sees Syria as a critical piece of its “axis of resistance” and an important route for the transfer of arms and other supplies to Lebanese Hezbollah. A post-Assad government might not favor Iran’s influence and might even be more Sunni in composition, therefore aligning with Iran’s regional rivals, such as Saudi Arabia. With few allies in the region, Iran sees a friendly government in Syria as vital to its survival and power.
For the past four years, the Trump administration has pursued an incoherent policy in Syria that has damaged U.S. credibility and played into Iran’s hands. The United States several times announced withdrawals and drawdowns, waffling on its commitments to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), its partner in countering the Islamic State, or ISIS. These and other decisions in Syria belied Trump’s tough rhetoric and suggested that countering Iran there was not really a priority for the president.
The incoming Biden administration will need to accept that its options for countering Iranian influence in Syria are limited, but it can still take some immediate steps. For instance, the SDF currently faces a cease-and-desist order from Washington on talking to the Syrian regime. The new administration should remove this roadblock and allow for greater SDF engagement, with Russia as an intermediary. If there is one regional player that is vehemently opposed to Iranian influence in Syria, it is the SDF: Iranian-backed militias have relentlessly harassed the SDF along the Euphrates River and populations in the cities of Deir ez-Zor and Qamishli. The SDF, particularly if it negotiates alongside Russia, could help remove Iranian-linked militias from areas that the United States and others are working to stabilize.
Current U.S. policy is to refuse to normalize relations with the brutal Assad regime. But many Arab countries are already seeking to reinstate diplomatic ties with Syria—with or without American input. Most recently, Oman reestablished its ambassador in Damascus, and earlier this year, the United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy. The United States could attempt to influence these discussions by engaging Gulf countries and thus signaling it will tolerate their backchannels to the Syrian regime.
The United States has long maintained a diplomatic channel with Russia regarding Syria. While recognizing Russia’s limited influence and will to engage Iran, the United States should continue to work with Russia where interests align. Both Moscow and Tehran seek to declare Assad’s victory and capitalize on it; the United States should leverage the growing gap between Russia and Iran. The United States can press Russia to help remove Iranian forces and their affiliated militias from areas along the Euphrates River valley and from areas within striking distance of Israel. In exchange, it can offer to cede to Moscow areas that are not important to the United States but that Russia deems critical to its objectives of reestablishing the Assad regime’s control over all of Syria, such as the U.S. base in al-Tanf.
The United States should also work with Ankara and Moscow to box out Tehran. One possibility is to establish trilateral discussions regarding terrorist cells in Idlib, the last remaining stronghold of the Syrian opposition and apparently home to some members of ISIS and al Qaeda, among other violent extremist groups. The task will not be simple. U.S.-Turkish relations are in disrepair, Moscow and Ankara fundamentally disagree on which groups should be labeled as terrorists, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has shown himself willing to provoke conflict from eastern Europe to North Africa. Nonetheless, Washington can reinforce a U.S. position in Syria’s northeast while working to root out terrorist cells and reinserting itself as a critical player in future Syrian diplomatic efforts.
The United States should continue to work closely with Israel to ensure both that Israel has the freedom to eradicate threats near its border with Syria and that it holds a stake in any negotiations regarding Iran and its affiliates. The United States may be able to use the talks it has separately with Israel and with Russia as a springboard to a trilateral negotiation, in which the United States and Israel can hold Russia accountable for any promises it makes. The trilateral discussions may also prove useful for sharing intelligence on Iranian weapons movements and potential threats to Israel.
The Biden administration will inherit a complicated file on the Middle East, not least because of the tensions between Iran and Israel, including over Syria. The current U.S. policy to address Iran’s role in Syria overestimates the United States’ influence and its ability to roll back that of Iran. A new U.S. administration must accept that for the time being, Iran will neither fully leave Syria nor completely lose its influence there. But a realistic, incremental U.S. policy in Syria will help the United States lower tensions and mitigate its losses.
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