International Affairs

Why Trump must act against Iran in Syria

Getty Images

Tensions between the United States and Iran are rapidly escalating.

The Treasury Department slapped sanctions on Iran this Friday for testing ballistic missiles in defiance of a United Nations resolution. Iran responded on Saturday by launching additional long-range missiles. Each side engaged in a war of words, with President Trump placing Iran “on notice” and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif retorting that Iran “will never use our weapons … except in self-defense.”

But Zarif told a lie; Iran has already used its weapons for aggressive action, leaving tens of thousands of Syrians dead and millions displaced.

While the Pentagon has deployed naval warships off the Yemeni coast in response to attacks by Iran-backed Houthi forces, Trump can really bring Iran to heel — or see his efforts to do so fail — in Syria. And Congress can help.

{mosads}Syria is the place that Secretary of Defense James Mattis once himself identified as a prime site to weaken Iran, saying in 2012, “It’ll be the biggest strategic setback for Iran in 20 years when Assad falls.” Syria is the country that many Iranian leaders themselves view as their Achilles’ heel — as an official close to Iran’s Supreme Leader said in 2013, “if we lose Syria, we will not be able to preserve [the Iranian capital] Tehran.” 


Finally, Syria is the tortured land that has triggered the worst global refugee crisis since World War II, and Iran has been integrally involved. If Donald Trump truly wishes to stop the flow of refugees to the U.S. and Europe, he would be best served by addressing Iranian actions inside Syria.

I have studied this matter extensively for the past six months. Based on my research, I believe that the Syrian refugee crisis will endure — regardless of visa bans or diplomatic agreements — as long as the Iranian presence in Syria does.

Many displaced Syrians fall into a category that I call “permanently displaced,” meaning that their displacement was deliberate, strategic and intended to be permanent. These individuals are victims of sectarian cleansing. Even if a peace deal were reached, they would be unable to go home if the Assad regime and Iran controlled their areas. 

In the town of Qusair, for example, Iranian weapons were used not in self-defense (as Zarif falsely claims) but to bombard civilians for weeks, until the situation grew so dire that the vast majority were forced to flee. Qusair residents traversed a gauntlet of sniper fire so terrifying they called it the “path of death“; it remains largely a ghost town today. But Hezbollah, Iran’s main proxy, has set up a military base in the area with tunnels into Lebanon. 

Similarly, the town of Madaya made international news last January, when graphic images of children starving to death reached the Western media. It was less often noted that those starving children had been forced into Madaya in an Iranian-backed sectarian cleansing operation. From where? Neighboring Zabadani, where Hezbollah is constructing yet another military base.

In Daraya, a suburb of Damascus, Iran-backed foreign militants sent their own families to move in after local residents fled due to years of siege and the threat of extermination; in the East Ghouta region, Iranian buyers flocked to purchase neighborhoods deserted after Assad forces conquered them by force; and in Aleppo City, some 100,000 civilians were forcibly “evacuated” after a bloody onslaught by an Iraqi militia whose propaganda refers to Aleppo as a “Shiite city” — and whose leader has vowed to overthrow the Iraqi government if Iran’s supreme leader requested it.

Syrians displaced in these and other military campaigns were displaced for a purpose: to expand Iran’s regional power first through forced sectarian cleansing and then by implanting foreign fighters loyal to the Iranian supreme leader.

I estimate that roughly 3 million Syrians have been displaced in this way. That number is far lower than the 11 million Syrians who have been internally displaced or made refugees in the conflict. At the same time, the number is far higher than the roughly 1 million Syrians who sparked the refugee crisis in Europe two years ago.

With or without a visa ban, more refugee crises await unless Iran’s sectarian cleansing projects are reversed. If Iran is allowed to keep expanding its strength in Syria through forced displacements, the first Iranian ground corridor to the Mediterranean since the “Islamic Revolution” of 1979 may soon appear. 

President Trump and Congress should work together to address this threat. Congress can help by passing bills related to human rights in Syria, especially the “Preventing Destabilization of Iraq and Syria Act,” the “Iran Non-nuclear Sanctions Act,” and the “Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act.” Even Barack Obama said, in his speech introducing the nuclear deal, that “if we are serious about confronting Iran’s destabilizing activities…we need to check the behavior that we are concerned about directly” rather than blocking the deal. The aforementioned sanctions bills do exactly that.

Trump has an even more vital role to play. He can order the Treasury Department to draw up new sanctions on Iran-backed militias in Syria, and ask the State Department to designate these militias as foreign terror organizations based on their clear ties to Hezbollah and various Iran-backed Iraqi terror groups. In the diplomatic arena, Trump can also press for the U.N. Security Council to designate  Hezbollah a terror organization, and for the European Union to designate Hezbollah’s political wing. 

Trump should also consider more direct measures against these militias such as targeted strikes, the creation of safe zones, and increased support to anti-ISIS coalitions such as the Turkish-backed “Euphrates Shield” forces that could block Iran’s potential corridor to the Mediterranean.

President Trump has made stopping refugee flows and containing Iran two foremost priorities early in his administration. Acting to reverse Iran’s sectarian cleansing inside Syria will best achieve both of these goals.


Shlomo Bolts is the policy and advocacy officer at Syrian American Council and the co-founder of Jews for Human Rights in Syria.

The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Barack Obama Donald Trump Iran Syria

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video