Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation
There are two basic approaches for understanding the implications of the U.S. withdrawal from Syria for Israel. The first appears to play down its significance. According to this view, the American presence in Syria has been over 100 kilometers from the Israeli border, far off in eastern Syria. And it only involves 2,200 troops. In any case, the U.S. went into Syria in order to defeat ISIS, and with the collapse of its so-called territorial caliphate in eastern Syria, it is argued that this mission has been for the most part accomplished.
But there is a second view that is more troubling for Israel. It sees that withdrawal in a larger regional context of the strategic struggle over postwar Syria between Israel and Iran. Iran is not standing still with the defeat of the ISIS caliphate, but rather it seeks to fill the vacuum that has been created. Moreover, Iran has the strongest territorial interests in Syria. It is still recalled that when most of the Arab world backed Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War, Syria stood out as Iran’s major regional ally. The Iranians are not going to let Syria go. During the 1970s already, significant Shiite clerics began to regard the Alawite sect, from which Syria’s Assad clan emerged, as true Muslims, while for many Sunnis the Alawites were heretics. The Iranian leadership came to call Syria as a whole the 35th province of Iran. In short, Iran wasn’t going away, but would likely be emboldened by the U.S. pullout and beef up its presence in Syria.
The most tangible expression of the Iranian interest in Syria has been its plan to complete a land corridor from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea. The land corridor would allow Tehran to re-supply Hizbullah in Lebanon and Syria without being dependent on potentially vulnerable air transport of weapons and manpower across the Middle East. For example, after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Washington closed off Iraqi airspace to the Iranians. In recent years, the Iraqi Kurds have rejected Iranian requests to transit their territory on the ground. These incidents have made securing the Iranian corridor across the Middle East a matter of urgency for Tehran, in order to support its ambitions to project its power across the region.
These ambitions are in fact considerable. Iran has been using Shiite militias in Syria that it has recruited from Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Yemen. These forces remain under Iranian command. Israel’s outgoing chief of staff, Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot disclosed that Iran’s ultimate goal is to establish a force of 100,000 fighters on Syrian soil. What would be the purpose of such a huge Iranian-backed army in Syria? Jordan would undoubtedly be concerned about this development. For Israel, there is no question but that this force could be deployed against Israel on the Golan Heights. It then becomes understandable why Israel is so adamant about opposing the Iranian military buildup in Syria and thwarting Iran’s land corridor, as well.
Tehran also appeared to be cognizant of the fact that the U.S. presence in Syria was another potential constraint for the planned Iranian corridor. First in 2017, the Iranians appeared to have altered the route of their land corridor, moving it some 225 kilometers to the south in order to get it out of the way from the American military buildup in Syria that began to take shape in 2014. The Iranians believed that the U.S. presence in Syria was directed against them.
Second, while most of the U.S. force in Syria has been in the country’s northeast, there is a small but strategically significant force at a Syrian outpost called Al-Tanf near the Iraqi border, the base sitting astride Iran’s route for its resupply corridor. It is one of three border crossings between Syria and Iraq. To protect its forces, the U.S. established a 55-kilometer deconfliction zone around the base. At a minimum, the U.S. force in Syria constituted a trip wire that could trigger an American military response if it was attacked by Iranian-backed militias.
Now, President Trump has clarified that he has no intention of pulling back U.S. forces in Iraq that number some 5,200 troops. He added that Iraq could be used as a base for the U.S. if it was decided “to do something in Syria.” Besides monitoring any potential resurgence of ISIS, the U.S. presence in Iraq could be used “to watch over Iran,” in the President’s words. Trump then stressed “We’ll be watching.”
Finally, it is useful to recall that the U.S. has contended with the dilemma of what to do with its forces after victory in the past. After the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, the U.S. could have pulled out all its troops from the European continent. But the Truman administration realized that the Red Army was not demobilizing and, though the American presence was originally deployed to roll back the Germans, a premature withdrawal would only assure Soviet domination of Europe. America then established NATO and defended the security of the West along with its allies. A similar initiative is now needed in order to guarantee that Iran’s dreams of regional hegemony will never be realized.