Footage of Syrian children choking to death has become the epitome of civil war brutalities in Syria. The latest reported chemical attack on Saturday evening, in the rebel-held town of Douma, came just days after President Donald Trump said the U.S. mission in Syria would end “very soon.”
This was no coincidence. A lack of coherent strategy toward Syria is strengthening our adversaries and weakening our allies, risking an outright strategic collapse in a region long deemed vital to U.S. interests.
President TrumpDonald TrumpTexas announces election audit in four counties after Trump demand Schumer sets Monday showdown on debt ceiling-government funding bill Pennsylvania AG sues to block GOP subpoenas in election probe MORE understands the consequences of disengagement. A few months ago, he warned that “a hasty withdrawal (from Afghanistan) would create a vacuum that terrorists — including ISIS and al Qaeda — would instantly fill.” The same holds true in Syria. America’s enemies are waiting at the gates, ready to fill our place.
Whatever the debate over the JCPOA — the nuclear agreement signed between Iran, six world powers and the European Union in 2015 — a robust consensus in Congress is needed that Iran’s military role in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere must be countered.
The Islamic republic’s growing presence in Syria is deeply troublesome to Israel, our strongest ally in the Middle East, which sees Iran as an existential threat to the Jewish State. Our key Arab allies — Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf states and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia — are equally troubled with Tehran’s hegemonic expansionism, which is destabilizing the entire region from the ruins of Syria to the Yemeni desert.
Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and their Iranian counterpart, President Hassan Rouhani, in Ankara to plot the future of Syria. This scenario should send chills down our spines.
There’s no doubt that without a solid military stronghold in Syria, America’s ability to counter the Terrible Trio’s sinister ambitions would be put at severe risk. It would be a catastrophic blow to our allies and a major strategic victory for our enemies — without a single shot being fired.
Iran has a cutthroat strategy in Syria with the sole purpose to turn the country into a permanent client state to serve its malign interests. In addition to the billions of dollars that Tehran poured into the survival of the Assad regime, Iran has also dispatched thousands of Iranian and Hezbollah fighters to assist Syrian forces in consolidating power across the country.
Israel and America’s Arab allies have consistently warned that Iran is building a land bridge from Iran to the Mediterranean Sea that threatens not only Israel but the entire Middle East. It’s an ambitious plan. But a U.S. pull-out from Syria makes the likelihood of it happening so much more real.
The consequences of a U.S. decision to disengage in the region must not be underestimated. Such a move could easily result in greater devastation than the choice to take action. When the Syrian regime continues to use chemical weapons against civilians with impunity, protected by Russia and Iran, that line has long been crossed.
The catastrophic consequences would not just undermine American interests in Syria. They would also make the position of some 5,000 troops in neighboring Iraq untenable. Powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militia forces — bankrolled and equipped by Tehran — have their eyes on the upcoming Iraqi election and are predicted to win a significant block of seats. They have made it clear that their top goal is to expel America from the region.
It’s a grim outlook and no easy options are left on the table. At this point, it’s about mitigating damage. Above all, America and its allies — the EU, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Arab states — need to drill home to Russia that a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria is unacceptable.
I believe there might be a window of opportunity here. The Trump administration is not alone in wanting out of Syria. Putin increasingly is facing backlash at home for a war in a far-off place that has cost poverty-stricken Russia billions of dollars — Russian airstrikes in Syria cost Moscow some $4 million a day.
The United States needs to develop leverage to get Russia to tell the Iranians to leave Syria, and the best way to achieve that is to make clear to Moscow that we won’t leave before the Iranians are out of the picture. Anything short of that is not up for debate.
Of course, America should not face these daunting challenges alone. The Trump administration should call upon our allies to increase their financial contributions — and to contribute more operationally. The enemies we face are not just America’s enemies. They are enemies of the free world.
Joshua S. Block is CEO and President of The Israel Project. He is a former Clinton administration official and spokesman at the State Department’s USAID. He got his start on Capitol Hill in the office of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and was a spokesman for the Clinton/Gore and Gore/Lieberman presidential campaigns. Follow him on Twitter @JoshBlockDC.