While Washington was fixated this week by former FBI director James Comey’s testimony, on the other side of the planet, a major story was playing out that could have profound consequences for the United States.
Three times in the last month, the U.S. military has come into direct conflict with the combined forces of the Assad regime, Iran-supported Shiite militias, Hezbollah, and possibly even Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. The clashes have reportedly resulted in the deaths of a small number of pro-regime forces, and are much more strategically important than the much-ballyhooed U.S. air strike on the al-Shayrat airfield back in April in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.
Yet, even as Washington potentially stumbles into war, there has been little public explanation from the highest levels of government, scant media coverage, and virtually no congressional oversight. This is no way to handle what could potentially mutate into a vastly expanded American military intervention in the Middle East.
The incidents have all occurred in the al-Tanf area of southeastern Syria, where some 150 U.S. troops are training opposition forces intended to fight the Islamic State. The first incident occurred in mid-May, when a convoy of regime forces consisting primarily of Shiite militias and other Iranian proxies headed towards al-Tanf and was struck by U.S. planes. This week, there have been two additional incidents—another Iran-backed ground incursion that was hit by U.S. forces from the air, and what appeared to be an Iranian-made drone that reportedly fired at U.S. forces before being destroyed.
A deeper understanding of why this is happening requires grappling with the broader strategic picture. ISIS still holds most of southeastern Syria, but as its control collapses, two fragile coalitions are racing to retake its territory to better position themselves for post-war negotiations in Iraq and Syria. The first is a U.S.-supported coalition that includes Kurdish fighters, Iraqi Security Forces, and various local Sunni-Arab tribes in Syria and Iraq. The second includes Assad regime forces, Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria, Russian jets, and Hezbollah fighters.
There are, of course, legitimate reasons for the United States to contest this territory. The area is strategically important for Iran. If its proxies take and hold it, they could clear a corridor to Shia-controlled areas of Iraq, potentially creating a so-called “land bridge” stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean. This is alarming for America’s Sunni-Arab partners; Israel and Iranian IRGC commanders have also spoken publicly about the benefits of the bridge.
But these concerns may be overblown. Moving large amounts of weaponry across a 1,000-mile stretch of difficult territory in Iraq and Syria isn’t exactly an ideal logistics plan. Plus, Iran already has the ability to fly supplies into Damascus, and, from there, move them to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
This region is also the opportune place to push back on Iran’s destabilizing actions throughout the Middle East, and reassure regional partners anxious about its growing influence. The United States has long operated in this airspace, establishing an informal de-confliction zone in a wide swath of eastern Syria in the aftermath of the Russian intervention in the fall of 2015, and a more formal zone immediately around al-Tanf, which could potentially be expanded. Thus far, however, the Iran-supported incursions have not drawn on Russian air support—the Russians may be fine sitting this fight out. Eastern Syria is less strategically important to them than the west, which is much more essential to Assad’s survival, and where their Tartus naval base is located.
So it would seem that the United States and its coalition already have the upper hand. The coalition could potentially deter Iranian incursions and send a clear message that it will be American partners who will ultimately retake this territory from ISIS without a significant escalation in its airstrikes or further troop commitments.
Then again: It’s also true that, for years, the United States has been trying, with little success, to build out a force capable of retaking this territory from ISIS. So it may not be worth risking a full-on confrontation with Iran if the United States does not have a viable alternative to displace ISIS fighters. And it may also not be worth risking a major escalation with Iran and possibly Russia over a sparsely populated patch of sand in eastern Syria.
These are all, of course, serious policy questions that demand serious deliberation. But it’s not clear that’s happening. Instead, the Trump administration appears to be blindly stumbling into this conflict with no public discussion of the consequences. All three military engagements have resulted from decisions made by U.S. commanders in-theater to protect the 150 U.S. troops when the Assad-regime and Iran-backed forces got too close. U.S. forces on the ground need to have the authority necessary to defend themselves. But at this point the lack of a clear policy is a major problem.
The Trump administration’s first decision must be whether or not to actively contest this territory with the Assad regime and its allies—most notably Iran. That means asking whether the local partner forces the United States is supporting are ultimately capable of ridding the territory of ISIS and holding it. Policymakers need to evaluate the risks of pursuing this path and determine how much risk they are willing to accept. That’ll help devise a strategy to leverage America’s involvement to obtain commitments from its regional allies who would like to see it do this. The State Department should determine what kind of leverage this intervention might provide over Russia, Iran, and Assad, and how it can play into a broader U.S. strategy for ending the Syrian civil war.
These are key policy questions that cannot be answered by a commander on the ground. They’re questions for the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, the national security advisor, and, ultimately, the president. And if the administration takes an active decision to fight Iran and Assad in southeastern Syria, it must consult with Congress and level with the American public.
But is any of that happening? The administration and Congress are consumed by a governance crisis of the president’s own making. In the meantime, these incidents in southeastern Syria continue and one of them may inadvertently escalate and get America into another hot war in the Middle East with no serious debate and no serious plan.
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