Iranian Diplomacy|Kaveh L. Afrasiabi: Nearly two months into the Trump presidency and it is slowly but surely becoming apparent that foreign policy continuity rather than change and discontinuity, let alone any re-orientation, has the definite upper hands in the new US administration, irrespective of candidate Trump’s blistering criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy prior to the elections. Indeed, some of the White House rhetoric might have changed, but the substantive foreign policy decisions, particularly with respect to the Middle East, have so far shown little signs of change, which in turn leads one to expect ‘more of the same’ from Washington.
Concerning Syria, where over the past two years or so the US has carved out a small military niche for itself, albeit under the guise of fighting ISIS/Da’esh terrorism, the recent Washington announcement of dispatching more US soldiers into Syria without prior consultation and or approval of the Syrian government has, as expected, raised Damascus’ ire, in light of President Bashar al-Assad’s depiction of the US move as an act of “invasion.”
Simultaneously, the Trump administration, true to its superpower habit of exerting global leadership, hastily organized an anti-ISIS summit in Washington, inviting dozens of countries minus two key stakeholders, namely, Russia and Iran. This comes after Trump’s request for a new anti-ISIS strategy from his commanders within 30 days, partly reflected in his State of Union address, where he echoed Obama’s rhetoric of banding with Muslim nations against the menace of terrorism. While the details of the new recommendations on ISIS are not publicly known, it is a safe bet that the US military planners are linking this to broader US strategy in the Middle East, which has witnessed a new infusion of Russian power and the reassertion of the “axis of resistance” including Iran, Syria, and Lebanon.
Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the US would lend its clout and military prowess in the region to the simple cause of defeating ISIS terrorism, since it views its adversaries, i.e. Russia and Iran, gaining the most from a successful anti-ISIS strategy. Rather, it is more likely that the US would prefer to use the excuse of ISIS to penetrate deeper in Syria, expanding its zone of influence by, among other things, seeking a safe haven for the Syrian refugees and, simultaneously, drawing on the support of both the Turkish government and the Kurdish centrifugal forces inside Syria. Of course, Ankara is averse toward the latter, which is why Turkey today oscillates between opposing camps, without a firm ground to stand on.
Much depends on Trump administration’s ability to lure the Turks to its side, which is not an easy task, given the gaps between the Turkish security interests and US’s objectives in Syria and the broader Middle East, focused on the double containment of Russia and Iran first and foremost. In other words, counter-terrorism comes second and, henceforth, one must not realistically expect a new level of US commitment against ISIS that would reflect a changed course compared to the past, that is, Obama administration’s ‘politics of ambivalence’ that resulted in a pretty lame approach lacking serious commitment. This was a ‘failure by design’ intended to cause trouble for the Russia-Iran-Syria axis, which spells trouble for the US’s vested interests in the Middle East. Put in other words, Syria should not be viewed in isolation from a plethora of other, regional and extra-regional, considerations, which is why the US’s new strategy toward Syria can be summarized simply as “creeping interventionism.”
A clue to the complexity of the issue at hand, this does not preclude tactical cooperation between US and Russia and Iran, but such tactical maneuvers are tied in with the US perception of growing Russia-Iran threat, leading to ambiguous and even contradictory US policies on Syria. A ‘mixed motives game of simultaneous cooperation and competition nowadays dominate the US’s thinking on Syria, which might lean more in the direction of competition and even tension with the above-mentioned axis of powers in the future, in light of the negative influence of both Israel and Saudi Arabia on the White House, trying to steer it against Iran. Over time, then, US’s creeping interventionism may translate into open clashes between the US and Syrian forces opposed to the uninvited US forces, ostensibly sent to eradicate the ISIS. Chances are that the US is even averse toward a total elimination of ISIS in Syria, given the US’s priority of checking the Russian and Iranian “power.”
Another aspect of the US strategy, vividly reflected in the Trump administration’s new order banning the citizens of several Muslim countries except for Iraq, is to drive a wedge between Iraq, which was included in the initial ban blocked by US courts, and Iran. There is clearly a direct connection between US’s strategies in Syria and Iraq, often wrapped in anti-terrorism rhetoric, which veils the underlying causes of an inherent US ambivalence toward using the “Islamic radicals” against its adversaries, including both Russia and, to a lesser extent, China.
From an Iranian standpoint, taking into consideration the US’s containment priorities mentioned above alerts us to the importance of avoiding simplistic analyses that reduce the complexities of US’s mixed motives to a straightforward anti-terrorism objective. That objective is tampered with, compromised, and even altered by the geostrategic considerations that are also pushed by the countries such as Israel, which has its own agenda. The only problem, however, is that Trump’s ‘game changer’ in Syria is difficult to achieve and rather late, given the recent impressive victories of the opposing bloc led by Russia and Iran. A more prudent US move would be to streamline its interests and focus on joining the formidable opposing bloc that today boasts of impressive gains in Syria. But the expectation of a more realistic US policy in Syria is simply a tall order, perhaps a hope against hope. To reach that point, Washington has to realize that its Manichean ‘zero-sum’ approach is to blame and a more nuanced and sophisticated multi-layered approach is absolutely called for and, sadly, hitherto missing.