Withdrawing From Syria Leaves a Vacuum That Iran Will Fill

Shiite Militias Are in the Region to Stay

Pro-Iran militias on the Iraqi-Syrian border, November 2018.  Alaa Al-Marjani/REUTERS

One of President Trump’s final foreign policy decisions of 2018 was also among his most controversial: the withdrawal of the remaining 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria. The order was an astonishing reversal of U.S. policy, and it raised concerns among Washington national security professionals that the Kurds—who have served as U.S. allies in the fight against the Islamic State, or ISIS—will suffer losses while the Assad regime, Russia, and Turkey gain. This weekend, the president’s national security advisor, John Bolton, seemingly reversed course again, announcing that U.S. forces would remain in Syria until ISIS was defeated and the Turks provided guarantees that they wouldn’t strike the Kurds.

The actor who perhaps benefits above all others from the administration’s back and forth on Syria is Iran. An American withdrawal would provide the Iranians with the operational space to expand their growing network of Shiite foreign fighters, who can be mobilized and moved throughout the Middle East. The recent announcements send Tehran the message that Washington will no longer be an obstacle in the way of these designs. Indeed, according to Bolton, the administration’s preconditions for withdrawal have to do with the Kurds and ISIS: the national security advisor made no mention of the presence or expansion of Shiite militias trained and equipped by Iran.


In the early days of the Islamic Republic, which marks its 40th anniversary in February, Iran’s clerical leaders often spoke about exporting their revolution beyond national borders. Although spreading revolutionary ideals is no longer among Iran’s core objectives, the Islamic Republic has nonetheless spent decades cultivating ties with groups—particularly Shiites—in countries it considers important to its security. These connections link Tehran to constituencies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen, among other places.

Starting with its cultivation of Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran has reaped immense benefits from waging proxy warfare and leveraging third-party combatants, including terrorists and militias. Working with non-state clients allows Tehran to

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