President Trump made three big moves on Syria and Iran this week. They crisscross and contradict one another, but the administration’s game plan in the Middle East just got a lot clearer.
In Syria, it has been evident since Russian-backed government forces retook Aleppo late last year that the end of the six-year war is finally in sight—and the Assad regime is unlikely to lose it. Iraq is another turning point, where Iranian-backed militias played a major role in the recent defeat of ISIS in Mosul.
What we’re watching now is a scramble for influence as these two intertwined conflicts enter final phases.
The Trump administration has just upped its hand in a competition pitting Washington’s interests against Moscow’s and Tehran’s. Trump’s apparent strategy: Force Iran back from its frontline positions in Iraq and Syria while securing a favorable place at the table when negotiations begin for a political settlement in Syria.
Here’s what the administration just rolled out:
• Just before midnight Monday, the State Department again certified that Iran is in compliance with the 2015 nuclear accord. It is obliged by law to do so every 90 days, and this is the second-time Secretary of State Tillerson tipped his hand in favor of the agreement. But the decision didn’t come without a big fight. President Trump, insisting he still wants to renege on the deal Barack Obama struck in 2015, stood against all of his advisers until hours before the deadline for Tillerson’s announcement.
• Less than 12 hours later, the Treasury, State, and Justice Departments announced new sanctions against Iran for its continuing missile program and its support for Syrian President Bashar al–Assad. These measures single out 18 individuals, companies, and government organizations, including the Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s equivalent of special operations forces.
“The United States remains deeply concerned about Iran’s malign activities across the Middle East, which undermine regional stability, security, and prosperity,” the administration said in announcing the new sanction.
This is the third set of sanctions Washington has imposed since signing the 2015 accord—the second since Trump took office. And Trump is more explicit about his goals now. As he told other heads of state at the Group of 20 Summit in Hamburg earlier this month, he wants to send Iran back into the global isolation it suffered prior to signing the nuclear agreement.
• On Wednesday Trump announced that he’s shutting down the C.I.A.’s four-year operation to train, finance, and arm Syrian rebels fighting to depose the Assad government. While the Pentagon will continue a similar program, pulling out the C.I.A. will support the partial ceasefire Trump and President Putin agreed on at the G–20.
These are bold moves. But they carry risks.
The biggest concerns Iran. Recertifying the Iran’s compliance with the terms of the nuclear accord was a good move. But this looks like the last time Trump will let his advisers sway him.
The president has long criticized the Obama–Kerry negotiations with Iran because the resulting agreement focused narrowly on the nuclear program. It is a one-issue agreement, but let’s not forget: There wouldn’t be one had the negotiations included everything that Trump’s after now—missile development, Iran’s role in Iraq and Syria, the Revolutionary Guards drone technology program, and other such matters.
Trump’s intention is now clear: Countering Iran’s position in the region is a top priority. But it doesn’t follow that scuttling the nuclear accord furthers this end. No matter Trump’s contempt for the Obama pact, there’s simply no advantage and immense risk in freeing Iran of its obligations under the deal. Tillerson took the better position when he announced he was recertifying Iran’s compliance: It’s abiding by the pact, he said, but the U.S. still views Iran as a threat throughout the region.
Trump’s taking another risk by imposing more sanctions. This time they’ve brought Tehran close to the boiling point. Some officials, including Mohammad Javid Zarif, the moderate foreign minister, are now threatening retaliation. Zarif said this week Iran isn’t too far from pulling out of the agreement on its own.
There’s nothing good to take home from this, either. What gains there may be from more sanctions—and none is apparent—would be purely symbolic.
The Europeans are another risk. At the G–20 he urged other leaders to block all business transactions with Iran. That can be taken as a suggestion to break the terms of the nuclear agreement, and it hasn’t landed well. Push this too far, and Trump will (further) alienate Germany, France, and Britain, which all signed the nuclear deal and still support it.
The administration has nearly completed an interagency review of Iran policy, with a stress on finding new ways to constrain the Islamic Republic. Trump is better off unveiling a comprehensive Iran strategy that actually hangs together. He’s not there yet.
Pulling the plug on the CIA program in Syria was the smartest of Trump’s moves in the Middle East this week. It was a wasteful program and delivered few results. This gives the ceasefire Trump and Putin negotiated — apparently in a few minutes’ conversation — a better chance of holding. It could be a template for the safe zones Washington and Moscow have agreed are a step toward a solution in Syria.
The U.S. has shifted its tactical plans anyway. It’s now rushing to build temporary bases in southern Syria. This is partly in response to Russian and Iranian build-ups on Syrian soil and partly to increase U.S. leverage in post-conflict settlement talks.
Trump set himself two challenges this week. First, he has effectively acknowledged that deposing Assad is no longer the U.S. priority. While Washington has been all over the place on this point for years, Trump now must state a clear position and sell it in Washington.
Second, Trump has put tactical cooperation with Russia back on the table. He should keep it there, but he must define his policy’s boundaries clearly and sharply if he’s going to succeed on Syria.
Is the Trump administration up to the task? That’s not yet clear.