American Interest

All Roads Lead to Syria

Ravenel B. Curry III Distinguished Fellow in Strategy and Statesmanship

The United States got down on its knees last week to kiss the frog on the lips and sign the nuclear deal with Iran; the frog, however, does not show much sign of turning into a prince. It is early days, but the Iranian nuclear deal seems not to have changed very much on the ground. Instead of a handsome prince professing undying love, we have the same old ayatollah croaking dismally that U.S. policies were diametrically opposed to those of Iran, in a speech punctuated by chants of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.” The top Revolutionary Guards commander came out in opposition to the heavily caveated provisions which grant access to Iran's secret military sites, saying that the deal crossed “red lines." “We will never accept it.”

This doesn't seem to be what our diplomats expected. “I don't know how to interpret it at this point in time, except to take it at face value, that that's his policy,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in an interview on Al-Arabiya. “But I do know that often comments are made publicly and things can evolve that are different. If it is the policy, it's very disturbing, it's very troubling.” The Princification Process still has a ways to run.

Assuming that the Iran deal is here to stay, and that one or both houses of Congress don't get the two-thirds majorities needed to override a presidential veto, the question now is what next. What does the deal with Iran really mean? Did we take the nuclear issue off the table, sort of, in order to clear the decks for a tougher regional strategy to counter Iran's rush for hegemony across the Middle East? Or is the nuclear deal just the first act in a longer drama of retreat, retrenchment, and accommodation as the U.S. hands the keys of the Persian Gulf to our new Shi'a friends?

This is the debate now raging in the foreign policy establishment and the halls of Congress. The appeasers, sorry, the accommodationists argue that if we are too tough on Iran now, they will walk away from the nuclear deal, and the United States will be face to face with the stark choice that the Obama Administration has worked so hard to avoid: accept an Iranian bomb, or bomb Iran. The frog won't turn into a prince if the kiss isn't sincere.

The Iran Lobby argues that our real problem is Sunni terror and jihadism, and that we need to work with Iran and Assad to crush ISIS and its ilk. If that makes the Sunnis unhappy, so what? The Wahabis of Saudi Arabia aren't our friends, and the ragbag of jihadi movements sprouting up across the Sunni world can only be controlled with the help of a strong regional partner like Iran. The Russians would be ready to back this play; they, too, would like to see the U.S. make a regional deal with the Shi'a to help protect Russia's friends and allies in Syria—and to get cooperation from Assad, Hizballah, and Iran when it comes to crushing the Sunni jihadis eager to infiltrate the Russian Caucasus. Russia Today and the Friends of Vladimir would see this policy as a rare example of American statesmanship.

On the other hand, both our Sunni allies (ex-allies? princes in the process of turning back into frogs?) and Israel would have an easier time accepting the Iran deal if we accompanied it by a more wholehearted and determined opposition to Iran's regional ambitions. There might even be some Congressional Republicans whose opposition to the deal would mellow, and it would be much easier for Democrats like Chuck Schumer to uphold the President if they can point to strong anti-Iran policy on the ground.

The Administration has to its credit recognized this, and embarked on a serious charm offensive to persuade the Sunnis that they can live with and should accept the deal. U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter visited Riyadh this week, where, according to Reuters, he is discussing cooperation with Saudi Arabia in areas like missile defense and cyber and maritime security, although no new arms deals are expected." The Saudi King has "reportedly —but not publicly—told Carter he'll support the deal, but at each stage of negotiations so far, conciliatory words have been overshadowed by clear messaging of dissatisfaction; this is one reason that our diplomats should not be, and to their credit appear not to be, overly jubilant about Salman's comments. The talk in Washington is that mega-shipments of mega-weapons will be on their way to the Gulf.

We need to keep the Sunnis on board. If countries like Saudi Arabia conclude that the United States not only doesn't have their back but is promoting the emergence of Iran as the strongest regional power, they are likely to react in ways that the White House won't like. One possibility, unlikely but not to be ruled out if the Saudis feel desperate, would be to cooperate tacitly with Israel in military action against Iranian nuclear and perhaps other targets. The Saudis might move forward on a nuclear program of their own; the Turks and others might follow suit, and President Obama would go down in history as the man who nuclearized the whole Middle East. Or the Sunni powers might just turn a blind eye to funding for ISIS and other groups as the radicalization of the Sunni world intensifies the sectarian war. And the Saudis are likely to deepen their already close ties with Pakistan's radical Islamist security networks, and make sure that everybody close to Pakistan's nuclear weapons program is well disposed to the Kingdom and its needs.

For most Sunnis, the acid test of American intentions is the one place on earth that President Obama wants nothing to do with: the zone of fanaticism, anarchy, and atrocity formerly known as the nation of Syria. Right now, when the Saudis and other Sunni rulers look at maps in their situation rooms, they see a Shi'a crescent from the Mediterranean to Afghanistan, with outposts in Yemen. Four capital cities that the Sunnis think of as their own—Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sana'a—are now under Shi'a rule.

If the administration wants to keep relations strong with Sunni allies, Syria is the place where the rubber meets the road. If the Americans tacitly ally with Assad—attacking ISIS and al-Qaeda's allies among the Syrian rebels while leaving Assad's troops untouched—the Sunni elite, as well as the Sunni street, will conclude that America hasn't just kissed the frog; they will believe we are going to bed with it. If on the other hand, the United States makes clear by word and deed that it considers Iran and its pro-Assad allies on the ground as much our enemies as ISIS, then our current alliances are likely to hold.

The administration desperately wants to avoid a total breach with the Sunni Arabs while minimizing any commitments it makes about Syria—or Iraq. President Obama seems to have concluded that he has no choice but to at least present an appearance of resolute action against ISIS in particular, but he is no more eager to embark on new Middle East wars than he was when he made his name campaigning against the Iraq War. He wants a nuclear deal with Iran, he wants to preserve America's current network of Middle East alliances, and he wants to do as little as possible about the Syrian war. Those are all sensible things to want, but it may not be possible to have all three at the same time. More probably, the President can pick any two. He could have stayed out of Syria and kept our Sunni alliances if he hadn't negotiated the Iran deal, he could have negotiated the Iran deal and kept our Sunni alliances strong if he had gone into Syria against both ISIS and Assad—or he can watch our Sunni alliances splinter as he implements the nuclear deal and continues to avoid engaging too deeply in Syria.

These are not nice choices, but they seem to be the only alternatives the President currently sees. It will be interesting to see what comes next.

The nuclear deal, whose full ramifications are only slowly coming into view, appears to be replete with mechanisms by which Iran could walk away from it without incurring the price of a snap-back of international sanctions or an interruption of the money rolling in. That makes an aggressive, anti-Assad, anti-IRGC policy a risky bet. But unless Washington confronts Iran's regional ambitions on the ground, the nuclear deal could do more to destabilize the Middle East than it will to calm things down.

And so the Administration has come not, as it may have thought, to a happy ending in the Middle East in the arms of a handsome prince. In order to save the agreement that President Obama hopes will be his historical legacy, his administration may yet have to play hardball with a frog.