For the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition in Iraq and Syria, the key word in November has been “stabilization.” This term increasingly encompasses operations in Syria and Iraq after Raqqa was liberated from ISIS in October and the last urban area ISIS held in Iraq was liberated in mid-November. “We are progressing into a stabilization phase,” a November 24 statement by the White House said, detailing President Donald Trump’s discussions with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
What exactly stabilization means depends a lot on the interpretation of different policymakers at the Pentagon, State Department, the White House and among the leaders of Combined Joint Task Force–Operation Inherent Resolve. What is clear is that it means that after three years of war against ISIS alongside seventy partner nations, the United States is going through a transition in the Middle East. This will include continued training of the Iraqi Security Forces, of which 124,000 have already been trained by the coalition, according to spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon. It will also include some form of partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria, which were an effective partner against Islamic State.
The lesson of the war on ISIS is that the region cannot be seen as a collection of independent states. A survey of the Middle East reveals the degree to which it is intermingled today. Turkey has forces in Syria and Qatar. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are fighting a war in Yemen and have cut relations with Qatar. Iranian-backed proxy forces, including the Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and various militias in Syria, are playing a greater role than at any time in history. In Iraq they are part of the official security forces. ISIS is still active in Syria, Iraq, Egypt and beyond. Israel has carried out more than one hundred airstrikes in Syria, according to Israeli Air Force chief Maj. Gen Amir Eshel. Additionally, the United States, Russia and Jordan have signed a ceasefire agreement for southern Syria. Therefore, as ISIS fades a series of major challenges lay on the horizon.
Here is a review of the six major challenges that the United States faces:
Israel versus Iran Tensions
On November 25, Israel’s Channel 2 reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conveyed a message to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad that Jerusalem would strike permanent Iranian bases in Lebanon. The warnings against Iranian bases have become an almost weekly occurrence in Jerusalem. In June, Netanyahu issued similar warnings after Iran fired a missile at ISIS near Deir ez-Zor. Israeli president Reuven Rivlin made similar warnings on a visit to Germany in September.
Iran has also warned Israel over any conflict with Hezbolah. Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Mohammed Ali Jafri said on November 24 that any war with Israel would lead to the Jewish state’s annihilation. In June, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said that any future war with Israel would include Shiite fighters from Iraq and Iran.
Iran and Israel have had tensions before, particularly in the lead up to the Iran deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed in 2015. Netanyahu held up a cartoon of a bomb and a read line in 2012 at his UN General Assembly Speech. Things are different now because the war in Syria has brought Iran closer to Israel’s border. On November 10 the BBC reported that Iran was building a base at El-Kiswah south of Damascus, fifty kilometers from Israeli forces on the Golan. Hezbollah has been bled while fighting in Syria, but it is thought to have 150,000 rockets, according to Israeli estimates. Its threat to bring fighters from Iraq and Syria indicate it is thinking about a war in depth, not only tussling over south Lebanon where it and Israel were bloodied in thirty-three days of battle in 2006.
For Israel the prospect of Iran carving out a corridor to the sea via Iraq and Syria is largely coming true as Iraqi and Syrian regime forces meet at their shared border near Albu-Kamal. Both Baghdad and Damascus are close to Iran. Haider al-Abadi went to Iran on October 26 after meetings in Saudi Arabia that month.
Israel has sought to put red lines in Syria, warning that Iran must keep its bases away from the Golan. To accomplish its task in Syria, it has gone through Russian president Vladimir Putin who Netanyahu has cultivated a close relationship with over the last few years. However, when Russia, Jordan and the United States agreed on a ceasefire in southern Syria in July, Israel’s concerns were mostly shunted aside. Over the next year Israel’s warnings will need to be carefully weighed because eventually an Israeli airstrike in Syria could lead to a large conflict with Hezbollah and Iran.