Syria’s position as the strategic battleground of the Middle East was cemented this week when President Donald Trump ramped up the rhetoric around the conflict. Stating its belief that Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad was planning a chemical weapons attack, the White House pledged to defend the Syrian people and warned Assad, Moscow and Tehran of the ramifications of any such attack.
Trump’s comments show that the US is ready to fight for Syria; his reaction to a previous chemical attack in Idlib – when he ordered US missiles to target a Syrian airbase at Shayrat in April – demonstrated his commitment to that fight. Trump knows that, if the US were to lose all influence in Syria, then an arc of instability along the road from Tehran to Beirut, via Damascus and Baghdad, would have telling consequences for the future foreign policies of the US and its allies in the region.
For Iran, Trump’s re-iteration of his willingness to fight for influence in Syria increases the urgency of the fight against IS. In recent months, Iran has mobilised a phalanx of proxies – including Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi militias – to fight alongside troops from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to launch an assault on IS along multiple fronts.
While Tehran’s comments on the fight emphasise its work in the fight against terrorism, joining with the international community to combat IS, this is only part of the reality. Iran’s primary concern is not the destruction of the extremist group but the provision of support to the inhumane Assad regime, propping up a dictator who has murdered thousands of his own people.
Destroying IS is not even the Iranians’ secondary aim; instead, establishing a road connection between Tehran and Damascus, across a route populated by pliant Shia groups, would have great long-term benefits to the Ayatollahs’ regime. Iran could supply its proxies across the region much more easily using a land bridge, which would consequently make the monitoring of such support immeasurably more difficult.
The problem for Trump is that, as the campaign against IS achieves significant gains, he can do very little to stop this land being handed back to Assad, an action synonymous with placing it under Iranian control. The US and its allies, including the Kurds, have made attempts at holding onto small areas of strategic importance; in June, the US Air Force shot down a Syrian fighter jet deemed to have encroached on their territory. Ground clashes have also sparked tension between US- and Iran-backed fighters tackling IS. There is little evidence to suggest, however, that the US has a long term strategy for holding down these areas.
The tragic war in Syria has been blighted by inhumane behaviour by Assad and his Iranian backers. Unfortunately for most Syrians, the current regime appears well placed to survive the war and emerge stronger following the fall of IS, tied closer to the radical Iranian clerics that have supported him throughout.