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Is Washington Playing Iran’s Useful Idiot in Syria?

Apart from the lingering campaign against ISIS, the U.S. effort there is imploding while Tehran holds the cards.
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Washington has been on the offensive against the Islamic Republic of Iran for close to half a century. Largely as a result, Iran, a rounding error in the superpower sweepstakes, has gone from strength to strength, challenging American power throughout the region, most notably in Iraq and Syria.

U.S.-led regime change in Iraq created Tehran’s historic opportunity to return to Baghdad for the first time since the creation of the Ottoman caliphate in the 15th century. This unscripted but entirely predictable outcome was no mean feat, all the more so for being the opposite of what Washington intended.

The Bush administration knew that it no longer wanted Saddam in the chair, but could not think beyond this one, giant, uncharted leap into the future. Iran has a far greater and more lasting interest in the affairs of its neighbor and often bitter enemy. As a consequence, the mullahs are playing a far longer, and more successful, game.

The legacy of unintended consequences continues to define Washington’s policy towards Iraq a generation after the first Gulf War ended. And so too with Syria. In both countries, U.S. shortcomings have created a historic opportunity for Iran to enhance its influence in Arab arenas that when not actively hostile to it (Iraq) are at best lukewarm (Syria).

When asked about Syria’s relationship with Iran, Farouk Shara’a, longtime foreign minister and vice president, once explained to a mutual friend, “You don’t have to love the woman you are sleeping with.”

Syria has been in bed with Iran for decades. Saddam’s war against Iran in the ’80s, the rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and most recently the war against the Assad regime in Syria, have conspired to throw these two unlikely allies into a cold embrace.

Washington has been oblivious to this essentially ambivalent Syrian attitude towards Iran, and remains equally so to the opportunities it creates to reduce Iran’s footprint in postwar Syria. Now that the war is winding down, the value of Iran’s military contribution to Syria is declining. In parallel, Syria’s interest in reducing the power of its erstwhile Iranian and Russian friends over its destiny increases.

Damascus and Moscow welcomed Iran’s critical contribution to defeating the opposition and giving Washington and its allies a diplomatic bloody nose in the bargain. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov acknowledges that Iran’s presence in Syria—at the invitation of the regime—is legitimate and that it would be “unrealistic” to demand its ouster.

But while Iran’s wartime contribution proved critical to victory, neither Assad nor Putin was displeased to distance Iranian-backed elements from the recent battle front in the south. Neither has an interest in enabling Tehran to pursue a postwar Syrian agenda towards Lebanon and Israel. Nor is either enamored with Iran’s continuing efforts to reshape the Syrian military in its image. On these important issues, Iran stands all but alone against an invisible, de facto coalition that includes Washington and the EU alongside Israel, Moscow, and the Assad regime itself.

But instead of viewing the end of the war as an opportunity to lessen Iran’s value to the regime and to reduce its footprint in the country, Washington is continuing heedlessly with failed policies created for an environment that no longer exists. As long as the fighting continues and the regime’s efforts to reassert sovereignty over the entire country are frustrated by U.S. deployments in the northeast and southeast, Iran’s military presence in the country is secure. Likewise, Washington shows no sign of reconsidering international sanctions against the regime, which also forces Syria into the arms of Tehran.

A colorblind appraisal of the effects of U.S. policy in Iraq and now Syria would suggest that Washington is either brilliantly in cahoots with Iran to the latter’s benefit or is being outplayed by weaker but more clear-eyed players. My vote goes squarely to the latter.

Apart from the lingering campaign against ISIS, in every other respect the U.S. effort in Syria is imploding. Washington under Obama and now Trump has been forced to uneasily acknowledge the regime’s staying power. It has now been reduced to bickering over the details of Syrian constitutional reform in the postwar era, a waste of time if ever there was one. Lately, the U.S. secretary of state, from his respected perch, has personally threatened Iran’s key military strategist and architect of its advances in Iraq and Syria, Qassem Sulemani, a sure sign that the policymaking process at State is frozen.

In the field, Washington has ignominiously abandoned allies in the southern front. And in the northeast, the Kurds have embarked on the road back to Damascus, imperiling Washington’s deployment there.

Confronted with the disintegration of its diplomatic and military strategy, the Trump administration is reduced to playing spoiler, obstructing the inevitable restoration of the regime’s sovereignty over the country and continuing the punishing sanctions that have removed the battered but resilient Syrian private sector from international capital and commercial markets. This policy fails on two fronts—it creates more gratuitous misery for the Syrian people and it undermines the stated U.S. objective of reducing and removing Iranian and Hezbollah influence in the country. Indeed, continuing to pursue the current policies will leave the U.S. isolated among friends (Jordan and Israel) as well as frenemy Russia, and will postpone rather than speed the day that Iran leaves Syria.

Geoffrey Aronson is chairman and co-founder of The Mortons Group and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.