Pushing Back Against Iran in Syria, Tehran's Vietnam

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

As I explained in the last essay, Syria is the ideal place for the United States to take on Iran. However, since 2011, Americans have debated the wisdom of playing a more active role there.

As the Israeli airstrikes last weekend should remind us, the situation in Syria remains uncertain and complex, and that means that any American policy toward Syria is likely to run certain risks and incur certain costs that should be addressed as openly and objectively as possible.

Nothing about confronting Iran is easy. Nothing about Syria is easy. Not surprisingly, nothing about confronting Iran in Syria will be easy either. For that reason, I think it critical to lay out my thinking on this aspect of a Pushback strategy toward Iran in greater detail.

The Syrian civil war has changed dramatically over the past three years. In the early fall of 2015, ISIS held most of eastern Syria and anti-Assad opposition forces were inexorably wresting control of western Syria from the Assad regime, even threatening the regime's Alawi powerbase in Latakia province.

Then, everything began to change. The good news was that, under its new commander, LTG Sean MacFarland, the US-led Coalition began implementing a new strategy to defeat ISIS which would ultimately result in the demise of its pseudo-state in Iraq and Syria.

The bad news was that Iran concluded that it could not allow its Syrian ally, the Assad regime, to fall. Iran chose to double down, deploying about 7,000 of its own troops, calling on Hezbollah to reinforce its contingent in Syria to almost 5,000, and dispatching roughly 10,000 of its allied Shi'a militiamen from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Iran largely took control of the Syrian military and intelligence apparatus to try to make it run more efficiently.

The Iranians also convinced the Russians to intervene to save Assad. President Putin contributed Russian warplanes and artillery to support the ground forces that Iran had mustered. Together, this Iranian-led coalition halted and then began to push back the opposition forces in western Syria.

To make matters worse, the United States ceded the field in the west. After the August 2014 ISIS attack on the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil, the Obama administration had announced it would adopt a robust strategy to build a viable Syrian opposition army, one that could crush ISIS, defeat the Assad regime, and secure the country as part of a new political settlement.

But it abandoned its own policy almost immediately — training only 54 Syrian oppositionists in the first year, not the 5,400 it had announced, let alone the 7,000 potential candidates the Pentagon initially identified.

The result of all of this foreign intervention has been a major shift in the military balance. ISIS has been vanquished and while it still has terrorist cells and even some pockets of control, it no longer has a significant conventional military force in Syria.

On the other hand, the Iranian-led coalition has gone from victory to victory. They have reversed most of the opposition's prior gains in the west, and are now marching eastward. Indeed they seem intent on taking advantage of the confusion of the Trump administration to retake the parts of eastern Syria still held by the US-backed (and heavily Kurdish) Syrian Democratic Forces while Washington sorts out whether it is still willing to back the SDF now that ISIS has been defeated.

Iran's victory has become its vulnerability

These changes on the battlefield have also meant important changes in the kinds of political settlements that remain plausible for Syria. There was a time when it was possible to imagine American policies toward Syria that might lead to peace, power-sharing, and reconstruction in a reasonable time frame, say 3–5 years.

Today, because of the change in the military balance, those better options are all gone. But that does not mean that there are no courses of action left to enable the United States to secure its interests in diminishing Iranian influence and creating the circumstances for a better Syria in the more distant future.

Iranian soldiers march at a parade marking the country's Army Day, on April 18, 2017, in Tehran. ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty

The interesting paradox about Syria is that Iran's victories there, the gradually snowballing success of the Iran/Assad/Hezbollah/Russia coalition, have created a new kind of vulnerability for Tehran. Iran has invested a tremendous amount of blood and treasure in Syria. Most estimates suggest that the Iranians have probably had at least 2,000 of their own troops killed so far, including a number of high-ranking generals, and thousands more Hezbollahis, Iraqis, and Afghans.

It is hard to know how much Iran's Syrian commitment is costing it, but one (biased, but not unreliable) source has estimated it at $15–20 billion per year. That seems reasonable given the wide range of extensive support Iran is providing, and amounts to almost 20 percent of Tehran's skyrocketing defense budget.

Even with oil prices rising modestly, Iran's rickety economy can't keep bearing these expenditures indefinitely. In particular, all of these costs are increasingly unpopular among Iranians and were an important element fueling the widespread protests against the regime in December 2017–January 2018.

Yet Iran doesn't have a good option to leave. The Assad regime is fatally weak and entirely dependent on Iranian and, to a lesser extent, Russian support. Many analysts have focused on Iran's interest in creating a land bridge from Iran via Iraq and Syria all the way to Lebanon as Iran's rationale for backing Assad. That is probably part of Tehran's interest in Syria, but it pales beside its defensive concerns.

For Iran, "losing" its Syrian confederate — its only true state ally in the Middle East — would be an enormous blow to its prestige, and thus its ability to attract new allies. Of greater importance, Iran still fears that the defeat of the Assad regime could only come at the hands of vicious Sunni chauvinists who would seek to carry the war into Lebanon, to crush Hezbollah and regain that lost Syrian province amputated by the French.

Thus, if the war in Syria burns on, Iran is likely to remain committed, and if the war escalates, Tehran is more likely to double-down again than it is to fold.

Moreover, the victory of the Iran/Assad/Hezbollah/Russia coalition is still far from complete. There are still large numbers of Syrian oppositionists fighting it in the field, and the oppositionists still hold important swathes of the country. Indeed, according to media reporting, 10,000 Syrian opposition fighters are aiding the Turkish assault on Kurdish forces at Afrin. There are still a lot of Syrians who hate the Assad regime (and Iran) and would be more than willing to take up arms to fight it.

In other words, Iran is paying a very high price in Syria, it can't leave, but it is not likely to be able to snuff out the fighting and so reduce its costs soon. That creates a situation where the United States could instead raise Iran's costs by supporting its enemies.

A Syrian Mujahideen strategy

In effect, the Iranians have gotten themselves into the same sort of situation that the United States got itself into in Vietnam in the 1960s and the Soviets got themselves into in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Iranians are caught in a war that is more costly than they want to bear, but is too important for them to want to leave.

If Syria were entirely isolated from the outside world, the Iranian-led coalition might be able to crush the Syrian opposition and restore the regime's control of the country in a few more years of hard, bloody fighting. But the more external support the opposition receives, the more time, blood, and treasure such a victory will require.

Given this set of circumstances, it strikes me that the right American response is to make sure that they aren't left alone to complete the pacification of Syria anytime soon — that their foes are armed, trained, and supplied to allow them to persevere and to keep bleeding the Iranians and their allies.

This is precisely the strategy the United States pursued with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s and the Soviets (and Chinese) pursued with the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese in the 1960s and '70s. (I could easily add UNITA, the Nicaraguan Contras, Hezbollah, the Kurds, the Algerian FNLA, and a host of others as examples of insurgencies and militias backed by one power to weaken or tie down another.)

Doing so would serve multiple goals. It would force the Iranians to waste resources defending Syria, resources that would then not be available for them to use elsewhere. It would probably further strain the Iranian economy and the regime's grip on power, which might make Tehran more willing to compromise on other issues, like Yemen, Iraq, or a follow-on agreement to the JCPOA.

Eventually, it might convince the Iranians (and Russians) that the only way to protect their interests is to jettison Assad and agree to a new, federalized Syrian political system. That is essentially what happened to the Russians in Bosnia, the Cubans in Nicaragua, and the Egyptians in Yemen in the 1960s.

There is no reason the same strategy could not work in Syria today. All it requires is that the United States provide "covert" assistance to a wide variety of Syrian opposition groups. It would mean weapons, training, money, and other supplies, probably provided from clandestine bases in Jordan and Turkey.

The costs of this kind of support tend to be minimal, especially compared to the costs of bucking up an unpopular government against such opposition. That's why the US ultimately gave up on Vietnam and the Soviets eventually gave up on Afghanistan.

It's worth noting that the far more ambitious train and equip program the Obama administration briefly adopted was expected to cost $500 million compared to the tens of billions of dollars Iran spends on Syria every year. Moreover, the skills and weapons needed to wage guerrilla warfare like the Muj or the Viet Cong are minimal and the CIA is well-equipped to pass them on. (In truth, it did so in Syria for years under Obama, only at a reduced level of effort than this strategy would entail.)

If our only goal is to cause harm to Iran and its allies in Syria, that's not hard or expensive.

This approach also has a number of important geostrategic advantages. First, it is what our regional allies from Saudi Arabia to Turkey, the Emirates to Jordan, have all been wanting us to do for years. In fact, most of them have been trying to do it on their own and have been frustrated by the lack of interest shown — and often obstacles created — by the United States.

In particular, it is probably the best way to start bringing Turkey back around. If we want them to stop flirting with the Iranians and Russians, let alone attacking the Syrian Kurds, the only way to do so is to demonstrate that we are going to actively pursue a policy designed to remove Assad and preserve a united Syria. Bleeding the Russians and Iranians to force them to agree to a new power-sharing agreement for Syria is the best option that the United States currently has to do that, and is a much better option for Turkey to join than anything it could try unilaterally.

The flies in the ointment

As I noted above, Syria is a mess and there is no strategy for Syria that does not entail significant costs and risks. There are three big ones inherent in this course of action.

Who are we empowering?

The biggest problem with the analogies of the Afghan Mujahideen and the Vietnamese communists is what those groups became after they won. They were awful, creating havoc in their neighborhoods and headaches for their former superpower backers. The biggest danger with this strategy is the same: It will mean arming, training, and empowering large numbers of Syrian oppositionists, and there are some pretty nasty folks in that bunch.

The Obama administration wanted only to arm and train angels, which is why they ended up with a stillborn litter of 54 men who were rounded up the moment they crossed the border. For this strategy to work, the US and its allies would have to be willing to arm and train all but the absolute worst Syrian opposition figures. That is the only way to put the kind of pressure on the Iranians, Russians, Hezbollahis, and Assad Regime that would make them flee or compromise.

This kind of approach tends to make people squeamish. It should. But that doesn't mean that there are no answers to this conundrum. There are.

First, Americans endlessly make the mistake of assuming that identities are fixed — or worse, that once someone takes on an extremist mantle he can never give it up. That once you go Jihadist, you never go back. This belief flies in the face of every bit of evidence we have.

Yes, there are some hardcore extremists who never give up their ideology under any circumstances, just as there are some absolute purists who will never adopt an ideology under any circumstances. However, from Lebanon to Bosnia to Iraq, what we have seen time and again, is that the vast majority of people caught up in civil wars often feel pulled to join extremist groups because they are powerful and so offer fighters and their families protection, glory, and the chance to live the good life. But their decisions are based on their situations, and when their situations change, so too will their allegiances and beliefs.

Huge numbers of people join groups like al Qaeda and ISIS, fight in their wars, and then change their minds. They give up the Jihad, they go home, and they return to ordinary lives. The vast majority of foreign fighters who have returned to Europe from fighting with Salafi Jihadist groups have returned to normal lives and gave up violence entirely.

Likewise, tens of thousands of Iraqis who once fought for al Qaeda in Iraq and other terrorist groups — many of whom probably professed to be ardent Salafists at the time and may even have believed it themselves — gave it up during the Awakening. Today, the vast majority of these former Salafi terrorists are just ordinary Iraqis.

Extremist militias have certain advantages in civil wars that allow them to attract recruits and overawe other groups. They are often well-funded by countries that share their ideology (like Iran or Saudi Arabia). Their extreme dedication to the cause boosts morale and unit cohesion in battle. And the appeal of their ideology, especially when couched in religious terms, often garners more recruits.

As a result, in the civil wars of the Middle East, Salafi Jihadist groups often become major, even dominant militias and insurgent groups, attracting large numbers of fighters. Many of these men come to these groups having been not very religious before, but then must become ardent Salafists when they join.

Again, many of them probably are quite earnest in their zeal when they are fighting with these groups. But if they are given reasons to switch their allegiance, many will, and when they do, they typically shed their Salafism.

Thus, even though groups like Ahrar ash-Sham and the al Qaeda offshoot, Hay'at Tahrir al Sham, dominate the Syrian opposition today, we should not assume that they always will or that it is impossible to strengthen other extant Syrian opposition groups, or even to encourage the creation of new ones. Many of the men now fighting with or under these groups started out fighting for other groups and, again as the experiences of Iraq, Algeria, and Egypt have all demonstrated, it is possible to convince them to leave Salafi groups — even to fight for different groups — if you create the right incentives to do so.

In the case of Syria, that will mean starting a much larger, much better resourced American program to arm and train Syrian oppositionists and committing the full support of the United States to the effort to see it through.

Moreover, it may well be possible for the United States to work with and support some Salafi groups. All of them despise Assad and the Iranians, but not all of them share al Qaeda's desire to kill Americans, including some of the most important of these groups like Ahrar ash-Sham.

Ultimately, the more that the United States is involved with the Syrian opposition, the better we will be able to help more moderate elements prevail over more extreme ones. Again, Afghanistan furnishes a useful example. There the United States managed a fractious coalition of opposition groups ranging from moderates led by men like Burhanuddin Rabbani to extreme Salafists led by others like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

As long as the US was part of the equation, we ensured that the more moderate elements played a leading role. Only when we walked away from Afghanistan after the Soviets retreated did the extremists (ultimately, the Taliban) triumph.

In war, you frequently have no choice but to work with people who you might otherwise consider less-than-savory. In World War II, we provided massive assistance to Stalinist Russia. In the Korean War, we came to the defense of Syngman Rhee's dictatorship. The list goes on. Often that is the price of winning the war.

What matters to winning the peace is to remain engaged and continue to use all forms of assistance to ensure the creation of a stable political system led by moderates. That is the lesson of Afghanistan : not that it was a mistake to have armed the Muj to help them oust the Soviets, but that we did not remain engaged to prevent Afghanistan from being taken over by the worst elements of Afghan society.

It is the lesson that the United States (sort of) learned during the Surge in Iraq. Rather than flee the civil war we had created, we remained engaged, shut down the violence, and created a new political process. That political process has had its problems — many of them a result of further American negligence — but it is infinitely better than Syria today.

What do we do with the Kurds?

The Turkish assault on the town of Afrin highlights the difficult situation of Syria's Kurds. As Fred Hof has lamented in a poignant essay, the fate of the Kurds was inherent in the foolishness of Obama's Syria policy.

By making the Syrian Kurds the centerpiece of its counter-ISIS strategy while refusing to do what was necessary to defeat the Assad regime and replace it with a more pluralist, federalized Syrian political system, the United States put the Kurds in an impossible position. They now control much of eastern Syria, including some Arab lands once held by ISIS.

But now the Turks and the Iran/Assad/Hezbollah/Russia coalition are all coming to get them and the United States is dithering over whether to protect them. An independent Kurdish state in eastern Syria isn't necessary to defeat ISIS, and it's anathema to the Turks and Assad, but it is de facto what we have created. For their part, the Kurds don't want to give up their newfound freedom, but they can't defeat their enemies on their own.

There is no easy answer to this problem either. As I noted above, the US needs to convince the Turks to stop attacking the Kurds, and the only way to do that is to convince them that Syrian Kurdistan will not become independent. The only way to get the Kurds to agree to that is if they have a high degree of autonomy in a new Syrian political system, which once again requires beating the Assad regime and its allies, the Iranians first among them, to create the circumstances for a new power-sharing agreement and then political system for all of Syria.

About the best we are going to do is to back the Kurds diplomatically against the Turks and militarily against Assad and the Iranians, convince the Turks that we will not allow the Kurds to declare independence, redirect the Turks to go after Assad and the Iranians as part of a new American-backed opposition campaign, and convince Ankara that there is no point in dallying with the Iranians and Russians since their days of influence in Syria are numbered.

How will the Iranians react?

Finally, as I noted in yesterday's essay, we should not assume the Iranians will take this lying down. The problem for them is that, if properly resourced and executed, this strategy will be very hard for them to deal with in Syria .

They will feel compelled to commit more resources to defend the Assad regime (and ultimately, Hezbollah) until they realize they are being bled white and then need to find a face-saving way out of their predicament, again like the US in Vietnam and the Soviets in Afghanistan. There just aren't a lot of strategic options for Iran there.

Instead, what we should assume they will do is escalate horizontally by trying to create problems for us elsewhere. They may launch terrorist or cyber-attacks against Americans or our allies. They may try to hurt us or our allies somewhere else in the region by encouraging Palestinian groups to attack Israel or the Houthis to fire more missiles at Saudi Arabia.

They might have their Iraqi allies start targeting American military personnel in Iraq (although that carries risks for Iran that I will address in tomorrow's essay on Iraq). They may try to stir popular unrest against the governments of important American allies. They might find ways to strike at us that we haven't even thought of yet. It's all possible.

Yet every one of these possible Iranian responses is an inherent risk in any strategy of pushing back on Iran. If we allow them to deter us from pursuing what is in our interest, then we are done. Iran will have won and we had best find ways to live with a Middle East increasingly dominated by Tehran. Confronting Iran means running these risks and absorbing a certain number of costs.

Yet in the case of Syria, if this strategy is pursued with determination as it was by the United States in Afghanistan and the Soviets in Vietnam, it is likely to cause far more damage to Iran than their counterattacks will cause to us.

A look ahead

So that is a short-version of my thinking about Syria and the role it should play in a strategy of pushing back on Iran. Tomorrow, I am going to shift eastward and discuss Iraq and the role it should play in such a strategy.

Find Part 1 and Part 2 of this series here and here.

Kenneth M. Pollack is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.