As ISIS retreats across Syria, the US may be heading towards a conflict with Iran, a key beneficiary of that retreat. According to reporting in the journal Foreign Policy, two top White House officials are looking to take on Iran and its allied forces in the war-torn country.
The two officials are identified as Ezra Cohen-Watnick, senior director for intelligence on Trump’s National Security Council and Derek Harvey, the council’s main advisor on the Middle East. Quoting two anonymous sources, the story states that ‘Their plans are making even traditional Iran hawks nervous, including Defense Secretary James Mattis’. At the heart of this debate is a desire to curtail Iranian influence in the region:
‘For Iran hawks in and outside the administration, the civil war in Syria represents a pivotal moment that will determine whether Iran or the United States exerts influence over Iraq and Syria. These Iran hawks fear that if Washington stands by, Tehran will emerge as the dominant player with a land corridor through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.’
In some respects, the calls for taking on Iran were going to come even if Donald Trump was not the US president. Ever since the Syrian war broke out in 2011, the US has failed to develop a coherent strategy that defines positive end goals. Instead, Obama’s stances were defined negatively: First there was the demand that Assad must go. Then there was the call for ISIS to be defeated. There was precious little vision about how Syria would be governed once the fighting ended.
Unfortunately for the US, every other major player in the conflict- Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Russia- has a clearer idea of what they want Syria and Iraq to look like after the fighting. As ISIS falls back- Raqqa and Deir El-Ezor are its last remaining urban strongholds- Iran-backed Shia militias that have been fighting the group are naturally controlling greater swathes of territory.
However, what makes the Trump administration different from Obama’s is its animus towards Iran. Trump likely paved the way for Mohammed bin Salman, who’s hawkish towards Iran, to become the new Saudi crown prince. The US president has backed the Saudi decision to blockade Qatar despite voices of restraint in his own administration and has derided the nuclear deal with Iran ever since he began his political campaign last year.
Any US-Iran conflict would be bad news for India. For years until the nuclear deal, the government struggled to balance India’s interest in friendly relations with Iran with US pressure to sanction and isolate the country. India’s diplomats will hardly be looking forward to a return to those bad old days.