Several top Trump administration officials continue to insist that preventing Iran from increasing its presence, power and control in Syria is a key U.S. goal.
“I think the efforts in Syria have been remarkable,” U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said last week. “And I can tell you, Iran is not going to be in charge, and Iran is not going to have any sort of leadership in that situation to where they could do more harm.”
State Department officials continue to point to the political process as the means for preventing Iran from exerting control over large parts of Syria in perpetuity. They argue that after the fighting stops, Assad and Iran will have to come back to the negotiating table to get the international aid spigot turned on.
“The regime and the regime’s supporters cannot declare a victory solely based on a map and colors of positions on the ground,” Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield said last week after an international meeting on Syria. “Without a political process, the international community — all of those states represented in the room today — are not going to contribute to a legitimization or authenticization or to the reconstruction of Syria.”
But if McMaster is right and the regime and Iran’s occupation of the Deir al-Zour area means ongoing violence and instability, there will be no way to get to the negotiating table, which seems to be what Assad prefers.
What can be done now? Perhaps not much. But the United States and its coalition partners could do a lot more to help the Syrians who are not yet under Assad and Iranian rule to build up their self defense and their civil society. The United States could speed up their expansion of the SDF to bolster its Arab Sunni ranks and then use those forces to take the oil rich lands near Deir al-Zour that represents real leverage in any future political process.
Then, the Trump administration could admit that it is not willing to expend the American blood and treasure necessary to prevent another large portion of Syria falling under regime and Iranian control for the foreseeable future. One of Obama’s greatest failures in Syria was not being honest with the American people about his unwillingness to do more. Trump can at least do better than his predecessor on that front.