5 Reasons America Should Not Fight Iran, Russia and Assad in Syria

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad visits a Russian air base at Hmeymim, in western Syria in this handout picture posted on SANA on June 27, 2017, Syria.

Pursuing an ambitious mission against all three adversaries in Syria is dangerous, imprudent and unnecessary.

Iran is run by a repressive regime. It abuses human rights, has expansionist aims and sponsors terrorist acts throughout the Middle East. But trying to roll back Iran’s influence in Syria looks a lot easier in theory than in practice. Those pushing to eject Iran from southeastern Syria and stymie its efforts to control border crossings between Iraq and Syria—with the intention of creating a land bridge to the Mediterranean—have yet to demonstrate how any of this would contribute to the defeat of ISIS. Nor have they been forthright about the forces it would take to achieve these goals and sustain control over the region. One White House official recently referred to the creation of a Rat Patrol modelled after the 1960s TV show depicting a bunch of tough U.S. soldiers riding around in jeeps and harassing German soldiers in the North African desert. The administration is also planning to send a seven-member team to provide humanitarian assistance to areas in southeastern Syria that have been liberated from Islamic State control. All of this amounts to tactical gimmicks bound to fail, not a strategy. The administration’s Syria policies are untethered to any broader set of goals for combating ISIS and other jihadi groups—a goal that Iran shares more urgently, given the recent terror attack in Tehran. Moreover, ramping up a more aggressive and escalatory policy against Iran might jeopardize the nuclear accord. That agreement is far from perfect, but it will significantly slow down Iran’s march toward a nuclear-weapons capability for the next ten to fifteen years. Indeed, with the North Korean nuclear file very much open, the last thing the United States needs is another outlier state pushing to join the nuclear club.

The United States Can’t Sideline Russia

Fears that the United States and Russia will slide into a full-scale war over Syria are overblown because both fully appreciate the potentially catastrophic consequences. But continued escalation of military incidents involving U.S. and Russian forces in Syria will make it all but impossible for the two countries to work out any kind of modus vivendi for stabilizing the country after Raqqa falls to U.S. and coalition forces. Russia confronts Washington with several inconvenient truths: first, it’s in a much stronger military and diplomatic position than the United States. Second, because Putin has the upper hand it is hard to imagine that he (or the Assad regime) will be amenable to imposing any meaningful restrictions on Assad’s freedom of action. Nor is Putin likely to accept any kind of international presence in Syria for peacekeeping, stabilization and reconstruction that undermines their control. Third, Moscow will be critical to establishing the political and economic arrangements that will be required for stabilization and reconstruction. In short, any kind of post-conflict cooperation with Moscow in Syria will not be possible if the United States tries to put the squeeze on Russia. Those who argue that pressure on Moscow is the only way to change Putin’s calculations ignore the president’s seeming unwillingness to tangle with him, the unwillingness of the United States to apply serious pressure and Putin’s willingness to push back if necessary.

U.S. Interests in Syria Aren’t as Vital as Those of Its Adversaries