In this way, the analysis reflected the widespread understanding that the situation in Syria is escalating where Iran and the US are concerned. Different treatments of this subject present different conclusions regarding who is most to blame for the escalation and what course of action would be most advisable for the US in the face of it. The American Conservative piece, authored by Mideast analyst Sharmine Narwani, emphasized the fact that the US-protected rebel position at al-Tanf blocks one of three highway routes linking Syria to Iraq. This fact has been repeatedly raised in other media, but Narwani is fairly unequivocal about the implications. She suggests that this and other factors indicate that the recent US buildup in Syria is “all about Iran.”
Other commentaries have endorsed this conclusion but put greater emphasis on the notion that Iran is deliberately maneuvering the US into a confrontation, perhaps in hopes of getting it mired in a long-term war of attrition between US-backed rebels and Iran-sponsored militant groups that have proliferated across both Syria and Iraq during the more than six-year war. Writing in the Huffington Post, former US Ambassador Marc Ginsberg refers to this as the “Syrian quicksand” and explicitly states that Iran is formulating a strategy “centered on securing the Euphrates river valley by punishing the Americans out of Syria through bloody terrorist attacks not readily traceable to Iran.”
Ginsberg traces the likely course of that strategy in substantial detail, suggesting that Tehran is absolutely committed to forcing the US out of al-Tanf and ultimately securing the ISIL-besieged area of Deir el-Zour, another link between Syria and Iraq. Ginsberg also argues that the Iranian leadership is committed to carrying out this strategy without risking direct confrontation between its forces and those of the US. This represents the short-term practical benefit of avoiding direct Iranian commitments beyond the substantial Revolutionary Guard forces that have already established a foothold there. But it also serves the well-recognized long-term goal of Iran extending its influence across the region through a growing number of increasingly closely linked proxy forces.
In her article, Narwani strongly implies that Tehran has made recent, highly significant strides toward this larger goal, outmaneuvering the US and its local proxies in the area around al-Tanf to link up Syrian militants with Iraqi counterparts and factions of the Iraqi military, thereby increasing Iran’s chances of pushing into the last remaining ISIL positions and creating a permanent supply corridor between Damascus and Baghdad, and ultimately to Tehran as well.
Narwani paints a fairly bleak picture of the remaining prospects for the US, and she concludes her article by pointedly recommending that the US give up its positions in Syria and allow the Syrian state to complete the fight against ISIL. The article correctly notes that that fight is the essential stated goal of the US presence in the region. But unlike some articles, it does not address the question of whether that is still the correct strategic goal for the United States. For other analysts, the problem with Narwani’s conclusion is that giving up ground to the Syrian state is arguably the same as giving up that same ground to Iran – something that is widely viewed as a serious threat to American interests.
In fact, on Thursday, the National Review published an article criticizing the stated US objectives in Syria and alleging that Iran poses a greater long-term strategic threat than ISIL. According to the author, Matthew Brodsky, the emerging conflict “will likely shape the balance of power in the region.” And although the White House has not publicly acknowledged that it shares this view, it has made a clear shift toward confronting Iran in other areas and building strategic consensus among the Islamic Republic’s other traditional adversaries, led by Saudi Arabia.
Nevertheless, Brodsky points out, most high-ranking American officials have insisted that the mission in Syria is limited to fighting ISIL. On the other hand, the Trump administration has made numerous comments highlighting the dangerous role that Iran plays throughout the region and expressing an American commitment to confronting that threat. Brodsky concludes that this “could very well mean more is in the works than meets the eye or that can be said publicly.”
In his Huffington Post article, Ginsberg clearly echoes Brodsky’s call for reorienting American strategy to match new realities. But Ginsberg also rejects the notion of more direct American military involvement. Far from sharing Narwani’s pessimism about the future viability of existing positions, he believes that al-Tanf can be substantially shored-up against Iran-backed advances and can be used as a staging ground for a further buildup of moderate rebel forces that are opposed to both the Assad regime and Iran’s continued presence in their country.
What’s more, Ginsberg suggests generalizing this strategy to much of the region and pushing back against Iranian influence in multiple countries, as well as using opposition groups like the National Council of Resistance of Iran to weaken and ultimately unseat the Iranian regime at home. The Huffington Post article was published just days before the NCRI was scheduled to hold its annual gathering in Paris of Iranian expatriates and worldwide supporters of the Iranian Resistance.
Ginsberg praised the Trump administration’s expansion of alliances among state actors that are opposed to Iran’s region-wide influence. But he also urged for this unity to be extended to opposition groups on the understanding that Iran’s destructive influence will only come to a meaningful end once there is a change of government in Tehran itself. This strategy of international unity was strongly emphasized in NCRI communications promoting the Paris gathering. But the resistance movement has also emphasized the available means of loosening Iran’s grip on foreign territories, including by following through on President Trump’s plan to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization.
This isolation of Iran’s hardline paramilitary could be one way of slowing of halting the proliferation of proxy groups like the Fatemiyoun, which was profiled in the New York Times on Friday. That article noted that many of the Afghan mercenaries fighting on Iran’s behalf in Syria have been misled about the nature of their own mission. Nevertheless, while the IRGC exploits Shiite religious sentiment, this and many other proxy groups are being used as tools in a central Iranian preoccupation with what Syria scholar Joshua Landis described as “the consolidation of [an] Iranian security arc, stretching from Lebanon to Iran.”
Meanwhile, Iranian officials persist in efforts to justify or distract from this mission by emphasizing the same stated goals as the US. CNN reported on Thursday that Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani had spoken out about the Trump administration’s partially reinstated travel ban for six Muslim majority countries and had used the opportunity to once again describe Iran as the leading force against terrorism. “Had we not assisted them, Baghdad would have been occupied by ISIS. It is with the help of Iran that Daesh, ISIS, is on its last breath in Iraq (and Syria),” Larijani said.
These statements stand in contrast to Iran’s widely recognized status as the leading state sponsor of terrorism. It’s longstanding sponsorship of the Lebanese paramilitary Hezbollah has more recently been joined by direct recruiting and financing for dozens of Syrian and Iraqi militant groups, as well as the Houthi rebels who have taken control of roughly half of Yemen. In the context of these multiple conflicts, it is clear that neither Iranian nor American escalations in the region can be attributed solely to concerns about ISIL.