October 22, 2018 — New York
This piece originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post.
Syria and Iran are entwined tighter than an intricately woven Persian carpet. Unless Syrian President Bashar Assad has a change of heart and decides to expel Iranian forces, his most treasured foreign guests are staying.
Russian officials, most notably Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, have repeatedly affirmed the reality of an enduring Iranian presence, essentially undermining President Trump’s assertion, following his summit meeting with President Putin, that the US and Russia are aligned on the goal of getting Iran out of Syria.
Any hope of unraveling this alliance, this partnership in terrorism, is fanciful. Long before March 2011, when a brutal Assad regime crackdown on schoolchildren sparked the war in Syria, the Iranian-Syrian bond was already tight. In January 2006, for example, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made an official two-day visit to Damascus where he was feted by Assad, the first head of state to visit Tehran to personally congratulate Ahmadinejad after his election the previous year.
Assad’s late father, Hafez, had been among the first heads of state to praise the 1979 Iranian revolution that brought the Islamist regime to power. The secular Assad family, part of the Alawite minority, found a kindred spirit in the theocratic rulers of the largest Shia country: they shared a deep-seated animosity towards Israel, the United States and Sunni Muslims in the region.
Iran, its terrorist protégé Hezbollah, and Russia have ably assisted and supported Bashar Assad’s merciless campaign of murderous destruction that after seven and a half years has left more than 500,000 Syrians dead, at least six million displaced inside Syria, and another five million living as refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and other countries. This debauchery has included, according to a new BBC study, “at least 106 chemical attacks” since September 2013, when Assad signed the International Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and agreed to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile.
Iran, which will mark the 40th anniversary of its revolution and the return of Ayatollah Khomeini in early 2019, has patiently pursued a long-term strategy of extending its influence and intervention in the region. Establishing Hezbollah in 1983 has been one of Iran’s most successful investments. Syria has long been a key conduit for delivering Iranian weapons and supplies to Hezbollah.
Iran has also actively sought to reach Israel by other means. In January 2002, Iran sent a heavily arms-laden ship, the Karine A, to Gaza. Israel’s capture of the Karine A and display of its cargo so enraged President Bush that he suspended US interactions with Yasser Arafat on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, Iran has supported it, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups operating in the coastal territory against Israel.
In 2010, Ahmadinejad visited Hezbollah strongholds in Beirut and southern Lebanon, where he threateningly peered through binoculars across the border into Israel. His presence indicated defiant support for Hezbollah, which only four years earlier had sparked a major war with Israel that was most painful for Lebanon. Yet Hezbollah, with Iranian assistance, recovered, and went on to serve Tehran’s interests in Lebanon, and to carry out terrorist attacks against Jewish and Israeli targets around the world.
With the war in Syria came the opportunity to not just threaten Israel long distance or via terrorist proxies, but to insert Iranian forces inside one of Israel’s neighbors. Thousands of Iranian Revolutionary Guards are on the ground and have built bases around the country. By the time Russia intervened with its own troops in 2015, the Iranians were well-established in Syria.
Most recently, Iran’s defense minister visited Syria and signed a security agreement that reinforces the bilateral strategic partnership. Iran will be spending even more in Syria than its current investment of $6 billion annually, as it helps Assad rebuild his military.
The presence of Iranian and Russian forces in Syria have assured Assad’s longevity. Even the Trump administration has openly recognized that Assad will remain in power.
But the US is on the sidelines of this war. American troops in Syria, dispatched to combat ISIS, are not welcomed by Assad, and the US is not a party to the negotiations aimed at resolving the conflict.
Moreover, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has emphasized that “if Syria does not ensure the total withdrawal of Iranian-backed troops, it will not receive one single dollar from the United States for reconstruction.”
For US interests, as well as for Israel’s, Washington needs to find a way to become more directly engaged. Prime Minister Netanyahu will continue to find ways to deal with Russian President Putin, having met with him already nine times. But by supporting Assad unconditionally, Russia is also aiding Iranian plans.
Following the downing of a Russian military plane by Syrian forces that were using Russian missiles, Moscow responded by supplying more advanced missiles that may hamper Israeli attacks on Iranian forces and sites in Syria.
Curtailing Iran’s expansionism should be a regional and international priority, but the main impediment to confronting Iran in Syria is their host.
“I want to feel safe in my country. That’s my goal,” Assad told The Wall Street Journal in a rare Western interview in January 2011. Iran gives Assad comfort, and that’s enormously dangerous for Israel, for other Arab countries in the region, and for the US, all of which recognize the genuine dangers Iran poses to regional and international peace and security.
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.