When the revolt in Syria began in 2011, many policy analysts and former officials argued that the downfall of the Assad regime would be a major setback to Iran. I was one of them, and the claim was not complicated: Syria was Iran’s only Arab ally, provided its only ports on the Mediterranean, was a land bridge to Hezbollah in Lebanon that allowed Iran an easy means of arming Hezbollah, and via Hezbollah gave Iran a border with Israel. The fall of Assad would deny Iran all these assets and all these possibilities.
That last notion—that Iran would have a border with Israel—was of course partly a rhetorical point. In 2011, there were no Hezbollah forces fighting in Syria, nor of course were there any Iranian troops there. And it was hard to imagine that this would ever happen, or that the United States would actually permit it. An Iranian Revolutionary Guard expeditionary force, fighting first in Iraq and then in Syria? Iranian troops nearing Israel’s border in the Golan? And even harder to imagine was all this being done without American resistance—and apparently with American agreement.
But that’s where we are today, in 2015.
When the Assad regime seemed incapable of holding on to power alone or even with Hezbollah’s help, Iran has sent its own forces to fight in Syria—and to command. On the military side, Israeli analysts report that the Iranians are running things in Syria, and coordinating the activities of Iranian, Hezbollah, and Syrian forces—and of the Shi’a “volunteers” also fighting there, men from Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Bashar al-Assad is no longer the ruler of Syria, but instead Iran’s front man. And those forces that Iran directs are in control of southern Syria, in areas bordering on Jordan and Israel.
For decades after the 1967 war Israel’s border with Syria was quiet, because Hafez al-Assad kept it so. Across the Lebanese border sat an increasingly powerful Hezbollah, but since the 2006 Lebanon war Hezbollah has kept that border quiet as well. For one thing, Iran wanted to keep Hezbollah’s powder dry. Hezbollah’s role was to serve as Iran’s deterrent against an Israeli attack on Iranian nukes--and Iran’s second-strike capability in case an attack came.
But those days are gone, because Iran is directly present east of the Israeli-Syrian border. And any notion that the United States would somehow deter, object to, or prevent such an expansion of Iran’s regional role is also gone. In fact, President Obama appears to take a benign view of Iran’s actions in Iraq and Syria: if the United States and Iran are not collaborating, we are at least acting along parallel lines. To the extent that Iranian troops fight the Islamic State in Iraq, some of the pressure on Obama to do more there (more U.S. bombing, more American advisers on the ground) is alleviated. To the extent that Iranian troops are fighting the Islamic State and other Sunni jihadi groups in Syria, Obama apparently believes, he need not come up with a workable Syria policy that aims at getting Assad out and defeating jihadis there. A front page story in the New York Times on March 5 summed it up: “Mr. Obama is becoming increasingly dependent on Iranian fighters as he tries to contain the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria without committing American ground troops.”
Stand back—as far back from the Middle East as 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue—and it all makes sense. We do less, someone else does more. Meanwhile we conclude a nuclear agreement with Iran, easing regional tensions and pointing the way to a future rapprochement. If the Middle East won’t exactly be a zone of peace, the need for immediate American intervention will seem to disappear.
There is a certain logic to all of this, but only if you ignore totally the underlying regional power shift—away from the United States and our allies and to Iran. This policy will leave Iran dominant in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, and now it seems Yemen as well: the “Shia Crescent” of which King Abdullah of Jordan warned a decade ago. This policy abandons the role the United States has played in the Middle East since the Second World War, and hands it to the Islamic Republic of Iran.