Countering Iranian Expansion in Syria

Consistent with the Trump Administration’s stated intention of pushing back against Iran’s increasingly malign behavior throughout the Middle East, American policymakers urgently need to rebuild credibility and positions of strength by contesting Iran’s rising influence across the region. Most urgently, the United States must impose real obstacles to Tehran’s pursuit of total victory by the Assad regime in Syria. Time is of the essence, as Iranian-backed forces recently have retaken nearly all the country, save lands liberated from Islamic State (IS) by the U.S.-led coalition. These, and any further, strategic gains threaten to entrench Tehran as the arbiter of postwar Syria and consolidate its control of a “land bridge” connecting Iran directly to Lebanon and Hezbollah.

This requires a coherent U.S. strategy and forces presence that looks beyond the impending downfall of ISIS to deny Iran’s destabilizing objectives in Syria and restore leverage against Tehran that was damaged by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear program. Despite recent battlefield successes, Iran has overextended itself in Syria. In reconquering the country for Assad, it has become dependent on Russian airpower to achieve even tactical gains. Tehran also contrasts its support for Assad with apparent U.S. abandonment of its regional allies in recent years, in the process staking itself to Assad remaining in power and reconquering all remaining Syrian territory.

To avoid this outcome, which would upend regional politics and pose unacceptable threats to key U.S. allies like Israel and Jordan, the United States must adopt a clear declaratory policy emphasizing America will maintain a military presence in Syria to provide security for reconstruction and prevent both the re-emergence of ISIS and Assad recapturing the entire country. The United States and its must also make clear it vigorously will defend itself and its allies on the ground if attacked.

The United States should also continue developing its Syrian surrogates’ capabilities and assist them in holding strategic territory liberated from ISIS, and work with regional allies against Iranian weapons proliferation in Syria, including ballistic missiles and other strategic capabilities.

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Task Force Co-Chairmen

Amb. Eric Edelman
Former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey.

Gen Charles “Chuck” Wald, USAF (ret.)
Former Deputy Commander of U.S. European Command.

Task Force Members

VADM John M. Bird, USN (ret.)
Former Commander, U.S. Seventh Fleet; former Director, U.S. Navy Staff

Gen James T. Conway, USMC (ret.)
Former Commandant of the Marine Corps; former Director of Operations (J-3) on the Joint Chiefs of Staff

Lt Gen Henry Obering, USAF (ret.)
Former Director of U.S. Missile Defense Agency

Maj Gen Lawrence Stutzriem, USAF (ret.)
Former Director, Plans, Policy and Strategy at North American Aerospace Defense Command

Dr. Ray Takeyh
Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations

Roger Zakheim
Former General Counsel and Deputy Staff Director of U.S. House Armed Services Committee