Syria: The hidden power of Iran

Joost Hiltermann writes: Despite his largely symbolic strike on a Syrian airfield in response to the April 4 nerve gas attack by the Assad regime, President Donald Trump has given no serious indication that he wants to make a broader intervention in Syria. As a candidate, and even as a president, Trump has pledged to leave the region to sort out its own troubles, apart from a stepped-up effort to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS). He may quickly learn, though, that one-off military actions driven by domestic politics have a way of turning into something far more substantial.

Already, tensions with Syria’s close ally, Russia, have been escalating, with little sign that the US administration can bring about a change toward Damascus. Bashar al-Assad long ago learned he can operate with impunity. But even larger questions surround another Assad ally, Iran, which, though less conspicuous, has had a crucial part in the changing course of the war and in the overall balance of power in the region. While the Trump administration regards Iran as enemy, it has yet to articulate a clear policy toward it—or even to take account of its growing influence in Iraq and Syria.

If the Syrian leader ignores the warning conveyed by the Tomahawk missile strike, what will be Trump’s next move? Will he be able to resist the temptation to deepen US involvement in Syria to counter a resurgent Iran? How might this affect the battle against the Islamic State—a battle that has already created an intricate power struggle between the many parties hoping to enjoy the spoils?

Consider the array of forces now in play: in Syria, the war on ISIS has been led by Syrian Kurds affiliated with the PKK, the militant Kurdish party in Turkey, which has been in conflict with the Turkish state for the past 33 years—another US ally. In Iraq, there are the peshmerga, the fighters of a rival Kurdish party, who are competing both with the PKK and with Iraqi Shia militias for control over former ISIS territory. There is Turkey, an avowed enemy of Assad that is currently at war with the PKK and its Syrian affiliates, and has moved troops into both northern Syria and northern Iraq in order to thwart the PKK. There is Russia, which, in intervening on behalf of Assad, has created a major shift in the conflict.

And finally, there is Iran, which has made various alliances with Assad, Shia militias, and Kurdish groups in an effort to expand its control of Iraq and, together with Hezbollah, re-establish a dominant position in the Levant. Moreover, Iran has also benefited from another tactical, if unofficial, alliance—with the United States itself, in their efforts to defeat ISIS in neighboring Iraq.

Given all this, the US strike does nothing so much as complicate an already explosive situation. The loudest cheerleader of Trump’s action last week was Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has been especially concerned as Iran and its ally Hezbollah benefit from their tactical military alliance with Russia to prop up the Syrian regime. But whatever advantages some may see in the recent US stand against Assad, it makes it even less likely that a stable postwar order can be achieved.

As my own trip to northern Iraq and northern Syria last month revealed, even as the international coalition makes major gains against the Islamic State, the region’s crises are multiplying. Worse, they are also, increasingly, intersecting, sucking in outside powers with a centripetal force that has proved impossible to withstand. [Continue reading…]

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