Seizing the Moment to Remove Iran from Syria
With the recent withdrawal of the United States from the Iran nuclear accord (JCPOA), we are witnessing a critical strategic shift in America’s Iran policy.
The Obama administration subordinated its entire Iran strategy, and much beyond it, to securing the JCPOA. Administration officials turned a blind eye to Iran’s ballistic missile development, the country’s role in the mass slaughter in Syria, and Tehran’s violent regional expansionism.
Now the Trump administration has reversed the fatal miscalculation that America’s Iran policy should be defined — and defined only — by the Islamic republic’s nuclear ambitions. The White House sees Iran’s race to the bomb as just one element of the regime’s malign behavior, requiring a broader US strategy to curb Iran’s illicit nuclear, as well as non-nuclear, activities.
This fundamental realignment of American policy happens at a time when the future of Syria is being sealed and provides Washington with useful leverage in its dealings with Russia.
Over the past week, we have heard talks of a possible agreement between Russia and Israel that would have Israel consent to Syrian regime forces taking positions in southwestern Syria. In return, Russia would guarantee the removal of Iranian and Hezbollah forces from the region near the Golan Heights.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week that only Syrian troops should be stationed in the rebel-held Daraa province, a region adjacent to the Israeli border. “Of course, the withdrawal of all non-Syrian forces must be carried out on a mutual basis; this should be a two-way street,” Lavrov stated. “The result of this work which should continue and is continuing should be a situation when representatives of the Syrian Arab Republic’s army stand at Syria’s border with Israel.”
Iran, however, has rejected any such demands. “No one can force Iran to do anything,” an Iranian spokesperson said.
The debate about Iran’s destabilizing role in Syria is long overdue, and now that it’s taking place it’s critical for America to make one thing abundantly clear: Iran’s withdrawal from southwestern Syria must be the beginning of the complete dismantling of Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria.
Iran’s foothold in Syria is the epicenter of the mullah regime’s aggressive empire — which stretches from the Gaza Strip to Lebanon and Iraq, all the way to Yemen — and its presence there must be ended.
Major players around the negotiation table have reached a consensus (not just Israel, America, and Sunni Arab states, but also Russia) that a permanent Iranian presence in Syria presents significant risks to all parties.
Russia is concerned that hostilities between Israel and Iran could spiral into war and thus undermine the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The Kremlin reportedly decided to work on a settlement with Israel following a heavy Israeli bombardment of Iranian military targets in Syria on May 10 that followed the Iranian launch of 32 rockets at Israeli targets on the Golan Heights.
The current standoff in Syria presents a rare chance to rid the world of the Iranian menace in the country to the benefit of international peace and security. And this opportunity is best taken by understanding Russia’s needs. The Kremlin’s interests in Syria are not synonymous with those of Iran. Russia wants access to Syria’s Mediterranean ports in Tartus and Lataki, and to remain a major arms supplier to the Assad regime.
Russia, above all else, wants Assad’s regime stabilized, and that means that every Iranian base undermines Russia’s goal, because it risks an escalation or, even worse, war with Israel. Washington should leverage the fact that Israel, Russia, and the Sunni Arab states share the same agenda in order to pursue its own interests in reducing Iranian influence in the Middle East.
Getting Iran booted out of Syria is essential for Israel’s security. At the same time, it would significantly strengthen regional stability. The Islamic republic’s exit from Syria would cut off Tehran’s direct access to its terror proxies Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and shatter its vision of a “Shiite Full Moon” — a corridor stretching from Iran via Iraq and Syria to Lebanon — all the way to the Mediterranean Sea.
If America and its allies do not seize this opportunity at such a critical time and Iran’s influence in Syria remains intact, we may have squandered our best chance to avoid another violent conflict in an already war-torn region. We simply don’t have the luxury of ignoring it.
Joshua S. Block is CEO and President of The Israel Project. He is a former Clinton administration official and spokesman at the State Department’s USAID. He got his start on Capitol Hill in the office of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and was a spokesman for the Clinton/Gore and Gore/Lieberman presidential campaigns. Follow him on Twitter @JoshBlockDC.