The United States has reached a critical moment in its policy approach to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq at the same time as President Donald Trump is overhauling his foreign policy team. This moment requires careful reflection on U.S. interests in the Middle East and the threats they face, as well as a reassessment of the strategic options for advancing them. The president’s decision on the future of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has dominated the discussion in Washington. But recent events also reinforce the need for a U.S. strategy for the broader challenge Iran poses. Regardless of how the White House chooses to address Iran’s nuclear program, the need to respond to Iran’s regional influence will remain as compelling as ever.
The most crucial and most immediate choices will involve U.S. policy in Syria. In the coming months, Washington will likely be forced to determine (a) how to respond to the potential for direct conflict between Israel and Iran; (b) whether U.S. forces currently in northeastern Syria should withdraw; (c) what kind of role the United States intends to play in diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the conflict; and, potentially, (d) whether to launch additional strikes in response to further provocations from the Assad regime. These decisions, in turn, will shape the future of the Middle East well beyond Syria.
Today, the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate lies in ruins and its fighters have mostly scattered. Still, other jihadist organizations remain present on the battlefield, and continuing military pressure is needed to keep the Islamic State, or ISIS, from reconstituting. Meanwhile, Iran and its allies have benefited from ISIS’s decline: Not only have they seized more territory, but they have evinced a more aggressive posture, launching probing attacks against U.S. and Israeli positions.
Iran’s regional strength during the Islamic Republic era has never been greater. In recent years, Iran has increased its already considerable influence in Beirut, Lebanon; Damascus, Syria; Baghdad, Iraq; and Sana’a, Yemen. Iran’s commitment to spreading its influence by means of local proxies, predominantly within Shiite communities, has contributed to sectarian radicalization and has deepened regional conflicts. As states in the region have unraveled, Iran has worked to expand its influence by exacerbating their unraveling. U.S. allies and partners fear that they will be Iran’s next targets.
In short, however the president chooses to address the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program, it will be just one part of a broader challenge. Iran poses a significant threat to Middle Eastern order and directly threatens U.S. allies across the region. Returning some measure of stability to the increasingly fractured Middle East—a vital and enduring U.S. national security interest—requires confronting the spread of Iran’s influence. Beyond the debate over renewing the JCPOA, the administration has given indications of its desire to tackle Iranian influence more broadly. But in its words and actions, the White House has also given mixed signals as to how it would go about doing so. In a speech at Stanford University earlier this year, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson argued that the United States must remain militarily and diplomatically engaged in Syria in order to ensure the lasting defeat of ISIS and as a check on Iranian expansion in the region. Similarly, Tillerson’s successor, Mike Pompeo, has previously argued that the United States must “raise the cost” of Iranian adventurism. Most recently, before launching strikes against Syria, President Trump himself declared Iran “responsible for backing Animal Assad” and warned there would be a “big price to pay.”
Yet so far, the policies that the administration has laid out for Syria diverge from these goals. A limited series of airstrikes launched in mid-April targeted the Assad regime’s chemical-weapons facilities while avoiding Iranian targets. At the same time, the president has declared his desire to withdraw American troops from northeastern Syria following the defeat of ISIS, indicating a six-month timetable for doing so.
There are a range of possible approaches to the Iranian challenge. But to be effective, Washington has to coordinate its ambitions with its actions, in Syria, Iraq, and across the Middle East. This paper presents three options for leveraging U.S. engagement in Syria and Iraq in order to stabilize the region in the face of Iranian aggression. Inspired by President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1953 “Project Solarium” exercise, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Task Force on Managing Disorder in the Middle East evaluates each option in light of rival interpretations of Iran’s capabilities and vulnerabilities. Ultimately, it leaves policymakers to choose among these options based on their answers to two questions: (1) How dire is the current Iranian threat? and (2) How aggressive are Iran’s goals? However policymakers view these questions, it is critical that they choose and implement one or a combination of the below strategies if they intend to check Iran’s power.
The task force believes that Iran’s regional behavior is destabilizing, a threat to both U.S. interests and allies. The task force further believes that the United States must play a key role in responding to this threat and that doing so will require a far more comprehensive policy than Washington, which is understandably focused on reining in Iran’s nuclear program and defeating ISIS, has so far pursued. The three policy options offer varying approaches to this problem—each with their own pros and cons; task force members have different views on which would be most effective—but all converge on the need for U.S. leadership and long-term engagement in the region. To protect U.S. interests, Washington must now pick a course and pursue it systematically.
The most aggressive option, rollback would keep regime/Iranian forces away from the borders of Turkey, Israel, and Jordan—all U.S. allies. This would involve renewed pressure on Iran’s presence in Syria by U.S.-supported proxies and direct U.S. military action where necessary. Rollback would also involve a concerted push to check Iranian military power in Iraq through support of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Iraqi Sunnis, and anti-Iranian Shiite actors. Finally, it would involve highlighting the regime’s domestic vulnerabilities in order to undermine its capacity for regional power projection and show solidarity with Iranians seeking democratic change.
Containment would involve defending U.S. gains in eastern Syria and using that foothold to provide a credible deterrent and clear redlines against Iran using Syria as a base to launch attacks against U.S. allies. In Iraq, containment would entail continued political support for the Abadi government in order to encourage its independence from Tehran as well as attempts to gain control of Shiite militias and a robust effort to reconcile Baghdad and Erbil.
Modus vivendi would be a form of tense coexistence based on translating U.S. leverage into a diplomatic outcome that de-escalates the conflict among Syria, Iran, and Russia, on the one hand, and Syrian Sunnis rebels and Kurds on the other. The United States would build on this foundation to support a regional modus vivendi that would involve an uneasy balance of power between Iran and the Sunni Arab states. Ultimately, this approach would be predicated on the idea that, with the right mix of pressure and incentives, Iran would accept a more limited but recognized role in the region that is not fundamentally threatening to the interests of the United States and its allies.
The task force is refraining from recommending one policy approach over another, however certain elements are common to all of these approaches. The most important of these is continued U.S. engagement in eastern Syria and political engagement in Iraq in the aftermath of ISIS’s defeat. Eastern Syria and western Iraq, both Sunni-dominated, have no apparent heir to power in ISIS’s wake. Were the United States to pull up stakes and leave, it seems likely that one of two unwelcome outcomes would result: Pro-Iranian forces would take charge or jihadi forces would.
To forestall such an outcome, the United States will have to maintain its military presence in Syria until there is an acceptable political settlement, and it will have to support the Iraqi government in Baghdad to stem the tide of Iranian influence. The most pivotal region in which United States policy toward Iran will play out is the Syria-Iraq nexus. A comprehensive policy for sustained and effective engagement in both countries is now necessary to stabilize the region in the face of Iranian disruption.