By Edward Carney
On Wednesday morning, US President Donald Trump posted a tweet in which he lent credence to rumors of a planned withdrawal of American troops from Syria, where a civil war is still dragging on among the dictator Bashar al-Assad, small and fractured rebel groups, and the remnants of the Islamic State militant group, or ISIL. Trump’s tweet declared that this latter group had been “defeated” and that this objective was the “only reason for being there under the Trump Presidency.”
But a number of reports on Wednesday indicated that this statement represented a departure from the perspectives expressed by Trump’s leading national security officials. As ISIL’s hold on territory was gradually dislodged – a task that is by all accounts not yet complete – the administration shifted its attention toward containing Iranian influence over Syria and Iraq.
In September, National Security Advisor John Bolton said of the American presence in Syria, “We’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, and that includes Iranian proxies and militias.” To a greater or lesser extent, this sentiment has been echoed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and President Trump himself.
Accordingly, Slate reported on Wednesday that Trump’s early morning semi-announcement “blindsided everyone.” An article in Politico agreed that the tweet and surrounding speculation about withdrawal represented a break from the entirety of Trump’s foreign policy team and a “betrayal” of Iran hawks within the political establishment of the US and its Middle Eastern allies.
This faction’s anxiety over the apparently new direction for US policy was expressed in an editorial published by the Conservative Review, which declared that “Iran will be the big winner of US Syria withdrawal.” More specifically, the article voiced concerns over the prospect for Iran completing its “land and air bridge” connecting Tehran to Beirut. This has long been identified as a major priority of Iran’s regional strategy, and part of the clerical regime’s pursuit of hegemonic influence over the Muslim world as a whole.
President Trump has variously signaled his personal interest in preventing this influence and creating a buffer between the Islamic Republic and the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. But on Wednesday, the Guardian proclaimed that an evacuation of the US base at Tanf near the border with Iraq would “signal a decision that maintaining that buffer was no longer a national security priority,” thereby opening the way for Iranian forces and their local proxies to link up with Damascus and areas farther to the west.
Politico underscored the role that militant proxies might play in this. Its reporting noted that such groups, with Hezbollah chief among them, have been given “more room to maneuver, build bases and keep weapons” as a result of Iran’s presence. It stands to reason that if this presence is left relatively unchecked in absence of competition from US forces, all of these effects could be amplified.
The impact on Hezbollah specifically could be very alarming for US national security interests and US allies, as per a report published on Wednesday by France 24. That report emphasized that the threat posed by Hezbollah is now greater than ever, thanks to rising levels of financial and logistical support from Tehran, along with combat experience acquired by the Shiite militant group in Syria. France 24 warns of the danger of another war between Hezbollah and Israel, following the former’s dramatic growth in the years since the previous war in 2006.
In terms of combat experience, that growth could further accelerate if Hezbollah – a terrorist group according to the US State Department – encounters little future resistance from Western adversaries as Iran continues to pursue hegemonic goals in Syria, Iraq, and other parts of the region. And if the US withdrawal from Syria happens to represent a more general shift away from confronting Iran’s regional buildup, it could provide Hezbollah with greater freedom to develop its missile arsenals as well.
According to France 24, the Lebanese terrorist proxy has already expanded its missile stockpiles from 13,000 in 2006 to 120,000 in 2018. It is unclear to what extent this buildup is attributable to Tehran’s activities, but it coincides with large-scale ballistic missile development and testing by the Islamic Republic.
Furthermore, advancement in missile technology by various terrorist groups including Hezbollah and Hamas has been widely attributed to Iranian influence. This has been given significant attention by the Trump administration, which hosted exhibitions of recovered military components both last year and this year, to demonstrate the extent of Iranian smuggling to regional proxies, especially the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
In light of those exhibitions, it seems comparatively unlikely that the Trump administration will change course on the topic of missiles in the same way that it has apparently changed course regarding the long-term presence of US troops as a bulwark against Iran. But then again, an editorial published by Newsweek on Wednesday expressed concern that the White House and Western policymakers as a whole have been insufficiently attentive to the Iranian missile threat, which was strongly underscored by a recent, provocative test of a nuclear-capable weapon.
After arguing that this test demonstrates the ineffectiveness of newly imposed economic sanctions at constraining Iran’s missile activities, the article’s author, General Charles Ward, argues that “the United States needs to take more impactful action to protect its own interests and assets in the region, shield its allies from Iranian missiles, and send a strong signal to Tehran that it will not tolerate further missile testing.”
Many critics of the Islamic Republic, including many of those who have worked closely with President Trump over the past two years, would no doubt echo this sentiment and would add that “impactful action” should include a renewed commitment to preventing Iran from expanding the influence of its paramilitary and its proxies into Syria and across the region.