The United States is gradually being drawn into the war in Syria. That war began as a conflict in which we had no national security interest. That changed because two of our principal adversaries, Russia and Iran, took over that war, making the conflict much larger than just a civil war against the terrorist regime of Bashar Assad.
Syria still isn’t worth — in Bismarckian terms — the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier, far less an American soldier, sailor, airman or Marine. Three have died there, so far. One was the victim of an improvised explosive device, one was killed in a truck accident, and one reportedly died of natural causes. There will be more.
One American, a journalist named Austin Tice, is reportedly being held hostage by the Syrian government.
Things have been heating up in Syria lately. Two Sundays ago, a Navy F/A-18 shot down a Syrian Su-22 after it had dropped a bomb close to the Kurdish forces allied with us in striking at ISIS. After that, Russia announced that it would have its anti-aircraft missile batteries target any U.S. aircraft that strayed west of the Euphrates River.
Shortly after that, the Russians fired several Kaliber cruise missiles at ISIS targets to demonstrate that their naval forces in the area are as powerful as ours, though they obviously aren’t. And after that, a Russian fighter flew recklessly close (reportedly within five feet) to a Navy P-8 Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft over the Baltic near Kaliningrad. After that, a USAF F-15 intercepted (safely) a Russian aircraft carrying Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, also flying near Kaliningrad.
Wars have a way of spreading quickly but the flybys are, like the Russian cruise missile strike, of no real consequence other than to heighten tensions between the two nations.
Lost amid the underwhelming coverage of these incidents is the very real problem of what Iran is doing and what it’s accomplishing. A new Persian Empire is being born and we are not trying to stop it.
Ever since former president Obama pulled our troops out of Iraq, Iran has turned that nation into a Shiite satrap. It is “governed” by a Shiite-friendly regime and truly ruled by Iran through its Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Shiite militia forces more-or-less controlled by the IRGC. The IRGC is under direct command of the Tehran ayatollahs.
Iran and Russia both want hegemony over the entire Middle East. Russia’s permanent air and naval bases in Syria give them a grasp of Syria that can be extended almost at will. Iran, having grasped Iraq, now wants a clear path to the Mediterranean. That path is being created through Syria to Beirut, Lebanon where the Iranian Hizb’allah terrorist force has established itself as a ruling political party as well as a terrorist network with global aspirations. (I use Hizb’allah — as the terrorist network uses it, literally “the party of god” — instead of the bowdlerized “Hezbollah” commonly used by U.S. and European media.)
No one should doubt Hizb’allah’s ambitions. Two Hizb’allah terrorists, one an American citizen, were arrested by the FBI on June 8. They were reportedly trained by Hizb’allah and sent to the U.S. and Panama to conduct reconnaissance for future terrorist attacks against U.S. and Israeli targets. How many more of them are in the United States is unknown.
Meanwhile, back in Syria, about 900 U.S. troops, backed by U.S. Navy carrier aircraft, are trying to surround and annihilate ISIS fighters, as Defense Secretary James Mattis described their mission several weeks ago. Kurdish forces make up the main ground force. One of our flyers’ jobs is to protect the Kurds against Turkish air and ground forces, though there haven’t been any direct confrontations yet.
Turkey, supposedly a NATO ally, signed a treaty with Russia and Iran in May to help protect the Assad regime. The Turks’ primary interest is to prevent the success of Kurdish forces, which the Turks believe aim to establish a Kurdish state in northern Iraq and southern Turkey.
Iran is making more of its gains in Syria and Iraq than Russia is making of its established bases in Syria. In retaliation for an ISIS attack in Tehran — more importantly demonstrating Iran’s growing dominance — Iranian ballistic missiles were fired at ISIS targets on or about June 18. ISIS, a Sunni group, and Shiite Iran are acting out the Sunni-Shiite war that has continued uninterrupted for almost fourteen hundred years. Iran is turning the Syrian part of that very old war to its strategic advantage.
The Economist reports this week that on June 9, Iranian-backed militia reached the Syrian border with Iraq. Assad’s army forces are pushing to link up with them in the area now held by ISIS. That linkup, when it’s achieved, will provide the Iranians with a secure ground path across Syria to reach Lebanon, which will allowing an easy supply of arms to Hizb’allah in Lebanon.
Hizb’allah in Lebanon is a principal threat to Israel. It already has tens of thousands of missiles in place, probably able to reach anywhere in Israel. A secure supply route between Iran and Lebanon will make it much easier for Iran to supply more missiles and other weapons, making an attack on Israel this year far more likely.
America’s national security interests in destroying ISIS are debatable, but the ground link between Iran and Lebanon is not. We have a clear national security interest in preventing — or destroying — that linkup. At this point, neither the President nor Mr. Mattis, the new “decider” — has indicated any goal or strategy of preventing the flow of arms from Iran to Hizb’allah in Lebanon.
If, as it appears, we will take no action against the flow of Iranian weapons to Hizb’allah, we will have granted Iran a strategic advantage neither we, nor Israel, can afford. Israel will have to devote more intelligence assets to spotting weapon shipments and military force to interdicting them. When the Israelis do interdict, they will both risk Iran’s direct involvement and retaliation, and will precipitate another war with Hizb’allah, which they obviously want to avoid.
If we had a larger strategy to counter Iran and Russian hegemonic ambitions in Syria — which we clearly don’t — we and our putative Arab allies would prevent Iran from establishing a link with Lebanon through Syria.
But we don’t have such a strategy. Neither the president nor Mr. Mattis have described any goal there other than to destroy ISIS. We can, and probably will, destroy ISIS in Syria. Which means it, and its “caliph,” will pop up somewhere else.
Our short-sightedness has led us to fail in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is leading us to fail in Syria.
History, Churchill said, would be kind to him because he would write it himself. The history of the Middle Eastern wars of the 20th and 21st centuries won’t be kind to America, because Iran and Russia are writing it instead.