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April 24, 2018 8:57 am

The US Must Force Iran and Syria to Blink First

avatar by Eyal Zisser / Israel Hayom / JNS.org

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A Syrian soldier loyal to President Bashar al Assad is seen outside eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria on February 28, 2018. Photo: To match Special Report RUSSIA-FLIGHTS/ REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki/File Photo.

JNS.orgDonald Trump’s decisiveness might be bearing fruit against North Korea following threats by its dictator Kim Jong Un to launch a missile strike against the continental US. Although the North Koreans apparently blinked first, removing the threat that Kim poses to the safety and peace of the Far East is still far away.

It’s a shame that Washington did not adopt this same decisive stand to either Syria or Iran, which are far weaker rivals than North Korea.

Unfortunately, the Americans were unsuccessful in convincing Syrian President Bashar Assad and the rulers of Iran to take them seriously. Instead, Damascus and Tehran are listening to Trump’s promise that the United States will leave Syria. They find it difficult to believe that there is any real substance behind American officials’ seemingly empty declarations that Assad’s blood-soaked regime has lost its legitimacy or that Washington is determined to stop Iran from becoming a regional power and threatening US allies in the Middle East.

As opposed to the North Korean crisis, where the American administration has clear-cut goals, not to mention a policy and a plan of action, Trump’s apparent goal in the Syrian crisis is to withdraw from the country as quickly as possible. The Americans first came to Syria to fight Islamic State, but since the success of their operations against it, they apparently do not see any reason to stay in Syria or continue their involvement.

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The Russians and Iranians are filling the void left by the Americans, both economically and militarily. In the meantime, they are successfully transforming Assad’s slaughterhouse into a sanctuary safe from any attack.

Now the Russians are threatening to sell Assad the S-300 surface-to-air missile defense system, among the most advanced in the world. Assad does not need such weapons to keep on massacring his people. Such systems will not stop a potential American missile barrage. The only one threatened by these missiles is Israel. In the past, Israel declared that it would not let Syria arm itself with such weapons, but that was before the Russians arrived.

In my view, the Russians are not an enemy of Israel or the United States. Despite the rivalry between Washington and Moscow, understandings can be reached that will respect the interests of and the balance of power between the two superpowers. Washington needs a clear-cut policy and a plan of action for such understandings to be reached. It must decide what to do with the Kurds that it aided in the fight against Islamic State, the rebel groups in areas like southern Syria that vested their hopes in America and are now being annihilated by Assad thanks to Russian and Iranian support, and finally, how to curb the continuing Iranian presence on Syrian soil.

This May, Trump is expected to reopen the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear deal that the Barack Obama administration negotiated with Tehran. It is important not to repeat Obama’s mistake of limiting discussions with Iran to the nuclear question. Instead, Trump must discuss subversive Iranian activity throughout the Middle East, from Syria to Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq, and Yemen. In general, Trump must remember that tolerating Iran in these places makes it more difficult to contain the Iranian threat.

Iran, for its part, chose to open a new hostile front with Israel. Last weekend, Tehran threatened once again to throw Israel into the sea. However, these threats remain empty, not only because of the fatal blow Iran will be forced to take if it attempts to attack Israel. Tehran is boasting about its anti-Israel bona fides to raise low morale and turn the attention away from severe economic problems at home; as well as, primarily, to deter the United States and Israel from any attempts to counter the Iranian presence in Syria.

The Iranian challenge demands a root canal, not a topical solution like Obama’s JCPOA. The case of North Korea shows that such an approach can work. On the other hand, blinking first makes the Americans appear weak.

Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.

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