Tony Badran/White House reviewing its Syria policy/Proven failure


White House reviewing its Syria policy/Proven failure
Tony Badran
Published: 14/11/2014/Now Lebanon
One can think of several reasons why the White House has made public, yet again, that it is “reviewing” its Syria policy.
As we enter the critical stage of the P5+1’s nuclear negotiations with Iran, we learn more and more about how much the deal means to President Barack Obama. In the White House’s vision, a nuclear deal with Iran means removing the worst impediment to a new relationship with the Islamic Republic. A deal clears the way for the president to finish what he has already started: integrating Iran into the regional order. Thus, Obama reportedly wrote in a secret letter to Iran’s supreme leader that the deal constitutes the first step toward broader security cooperation against the “shared enemy” of the Islamic State (ISIS).

But partnering with Iran against Sunni groups will not stabilize the region. On the contrary, it will inflame it in familiar ways that we have already seen over the last three years — and in new ways that we have yet to witness.
The underlying premise for working with the Islamic Republic, as Obama has made clear, is that Iran is a “large, powerful,” and “strategic” state that rationally pursues its interests. These capabilities set Iran apart from the traditional allies of the US, like Saudi Arabia, which in the view of the White House have not been able to do much to stem the threat of extremists. As Michael Doran explained, “Iran, in the administration’s view, should thus be seen as a force multiplier for the United States.”
While all this might sound logical as a political theory, in reality it’s already proven to be false.

Three months into the US-led campaign against ISIS, Washington’s boots on the ground in Iraq have been Iran’s assets, along with the Kurdish Peshmerga, which has also been working closely with Tehran. While these forces have managed to take back some points along the fault lines of their areas and the Sunni provinces, ISIS still maintains an iron grip on those provinces. The chances are nil that Iranian-backed units, whether they are irregulars or Iraqi government forces, will reclaim those areas. The fact that the administration is backing a plan to have Iraqi Sunnis fight ISIS is a tacit admission that Iran cannot resolve the ISIS problem. Obama is caught in a contradiction of his own making. His rapprochement with Iran, and his acquiescence to Iranian hegemony in Baghdad ensures the Sunnis of Iraq, to say nothing of the traditional Sunni regional allies of the US, will never give his anti-ISIS campaign sincere support.

Little wonder, then, that the effort to recruit Sunni tribes has come to naught. A tribal sheikh in Iraq summarized the issue well: “The Sunni community has two options… Fight against ISIS and allow Iran and its militias to rule us, or do the opposite.” Clearly, the tribes aren’t impressed by Obama’s insistence that he has put together a supposedly “inclusive government” in Baghdad. What’s more, the stream of photos of Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem  Soleimani on the ground with his militias (a member of which now runs the Interior Ministry) speak of an entirely different reality that deeply distresses the Sunnis.

The Syrian campaign against ISIS further underscores the failure of the president’s vision. On Wednesday, administration officials told CNN they now realize that “to genuinely defeat ISIL, we need not only a defeat in Iraq but a defeat in Syria.” As in Iraq, Syria’s Sunnis will not sign on to an agenda that disregards their interests and leaves Iran’s assets in place.
One can think of several reasons why the White House has made public, yet again, that it is “reviewing” its Syria policy. One reason noted in the CNN report is pressure from regional coalition allies, who see that their interests and priorities continue to be ignored. The White House is also likely taking heat from the Pentagon brass, who want to see a credible strategy.

The source of friction is not only the White House’s reported micromanagement but also its desire to keep the US from another entanglement in the region. But the Pentagon is now saying the anti-ISIS campaign might require combat troops on the ground in Iraq. The administration last week agreed to deploy an additional 1,500 military personnel there, in a “non-combat” role. This increased military involvement flies in the face of the driving principle behind Obama’s overall Middle East policy, which is to reduce the American footprint in the region. That vision is predicated on extracting the US while leaving in place a revamped regional structure, with Iran as a security pillar. But the US is now into the fourth month of daily aerial sorties against ISIS in support of Iranian assets on the ground, and the returns have been quite meager.

Of course, the Iranians are more than happy to watch American jets strike the Sunni areas ISIS controls, while the US shares intelligence with Tehran and repeatedly reassures it that its assets are safe. Recognizing that Obama’s vision and desire for a deal has boxed him in, the Iranians have made the US hostage to their preferences. Their calculation has been reinforced by top American officials, like General John Allen, telegraphing how careful they are not to upset the Iranians in Syria or Iraq. “Iran is very attentive in terms of what we are doing and saying in terms of Syria,” Allen said in an interview last month. “We recognize that Iran is a key influence in Iraq, in Syria and in the region. As we continue to move forward we are going to continue to listen very carefully to the things they [Iran] have to say.”

These are the failures we’ve seen so far. There also have been glimpses of the consequences of Obama’s pro-Iran tilt that we’ve yet to see. One example is Hezbollah’s attack against Israel last month. The attack came on the heels of an Iranian threat that Israel’s security would be at risk should the US decide to make a push against Assad. In other words, the Iranians are leveraging the US against their regional adversaries — Washington’s traditional, if now slighted, allies. And as the US seeks to protect the fragile arrangement with the Iranians, it loses all commonality with its old allies. This Iranian policy of blackmail has the potential of playing out in nasty, violent ways moving forward. Making the Iranians an interlocutor on regional security gives Tehran dangerous leeway, which it’s sure to exploit, and puts US allies in an impossible situation they are sure to reject. For instance, Israel cannot tolerate seeing Iran, whose rockets are deployed in Gaza and Lebanon, legitimized as an interlocutor on Israeli or Eastern Mediterranean security.

And we’ve seen what Sunni rejection of Iran’s domination looks like.
Those cheerleading the White House’s Iran policy seem not to understand the nature of the American role historically in the Persian Gulf. They imagine that the US is merely choosing the Iranians over the Saudis as their chief interlocutor. But the US didn’t subcontract regional security to its local allies. Rather, it underwrote regional security directly by managing its allies. Bringing in the Iranians to anchor a new framework, while the US withdraws, is a recipe for failure — the shape of which we’ve experienced up close in the past few years.

There’s no positive precedent for integrating a revolutionary, expansionist power into an alliance system. This strategy is predicated on a US retreat and eagerness to appease Iran. The result, which we see plainly, is an emboldened, unreconstructed Iran that presses its advantage, while the region both fractures and resists — in ways we have come to know, but also in others that are sure to be uglier still.
**Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.