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The United States has taken the fight to ISIS and other jihadists who have wrought chaos in Syria and Iraq since 2013. In the nine months since Donald Trump took the oath of office, U.S. forces have done a fine job of rolling back ISIS in Iraq. Now the focus is Syria, where for four years civil war has raged between the autocratic, Iranian- and Russian backed Assad regime and a multiplicity of actors, almost all of whom are some species of jihadi.
Unlike Barack Obama, whose policy in Syria was some ill-defined brand of regime change, Trump has taken the more sensible approach of supporting our Kurdish and Sunni Arab partners, who have the most to lose if the jihadists prevail.
But America’s challenges do not end with the destruction of ISIS or the end of Syria’s civil war. America’s woes in the Middle East are of a larger, geopolitical nature.
At the heart of the geopolitical struggle is this: since the Iraq War in 2003 destroyed the precarious balance of power in the region, the predominantly Shiite Muslim Iran believes it can become the regional hegemon. Iran is using the large Shiite diaspora that extends from Afghanistan to the Levant (known as the Shiite Crescent) as a means of expanding its influence in the wider region.
So far, Iran’s plan is working brilliantly.
The Syrian civil war gave the Iranians the perfect opening to bolster their presence in the Levant. Even as they (along with the Russians) took up arms against ISIS and other jihadist networks, the Iranians’ true goal was to control the ancient caravan routes that cut through Syria, linking Iraq with Lebanon. Controlling these ancient strategic highways would allow for Iran to have direct access to their Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon. The Iranians would also gain influence in the Mediterranean, as well as have a greater ability to threaten their mortal rival, Israel.
At the same time, Iran’s nuclear arsenal could curb America’s engagement in the region, thereby isolating Iran’s long-time rivals in the Sunni Arab states. This would then allow for the Russians to step in as friends of the new regional hegemon, and gain unprecedented influence in the resource-rich Mideast. In other words, controlling these ancient caravan routes would solidify the rising Iranian empire and expand Russian power at America’s expense. Each one of Iran’s geopolitical objectives is at loggerheads with U.S. strategic goals.
This takes us to the fight shaping up over the eastern Syrian province known as Deir ez-Zor. Right now, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a militia of Kurdish and Arab fighters, battling Russian-backed Iranian and Syrian government forces for control over this geostrategically vital region.
The cynics insist that America’s race against the Russo-Iranian alliance for control over Deir ez-Zor is “about oil.” Not so. Yes, Deir ez-Zor has a great deal of oil in the sands beneath it, but the U.S. objective is geopolitical: we want to stop Iran from expanding its control over the Shia Crescent. Denying Iran control over the ancient caravan routes is vital to keeping Iran contained and preventing Iranian hegemony in the region.
Trump’s antipathy to Iran’s nuclear weapons program is only one part of a larger containment strategy.
While the Russians, the Iranians, and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad are apoplectic over the U.S. push for control in Deir ez-Zor, the fact is without preventing the growth of Iranian influence—partly by denying Iran physical links with its allies in Syria and Lebanon—the Trump goal of containing Iran will ultimately fail. Failure to contain Iran will result in destruction of the American geostrategic position in the Mideast. This would not only threaten Israel, but it would also undermine our efforts to defeat jihadist terror networks, and it could lead to a potential nuclear conflict between Iran and the Saudi Arabian-led Sunni coalition of states that would develop nuclear arms under such dire geopolitical conditions. So, yes, this is what an “America First” foreign policy looks like.
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