The much discussed “Shiite Crescent” or an Iranian land corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean may be a reality. To make matters even more complicated, U.S. policy or the lack thereof may have contributed to Iran’s regional hegemony.
After President Trump assumed office, he indicated a primary policy of defeating ISIS. Uniting U.S. Special Forces with Iraqi troops and Qud Revolutionary soldiers, the caliphate was destroyed including the stronghold in Raqqa and its last foothold in Syria’s Dair Ezzor province. The problem in the aftermath of these battles is that a plan for the future has not been forthcoming. In fact, the Iranian role in the defeat of ISIS elevated its stature and influence.
If the U.S. is serious about countering Iranian aggression, steps must be taken across this regional battle space. Should the Trump administration do nothing, the Iranian Revolutionary Forces will assert political and economic dominance over the entire northern tier of the Middle East.
The last remaining obstacle to the realization of Iranian goals is a coalition of Syrian Kurds and Arabs known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Kept apart at present by a U.S. Russian confliction channel, both sides are securing critical territory. The question that remains about Mr. Trump’s Syria policy is whether it was designed to defeat the Islamic state or whether it is informed by the larger strategic view of Iran’s regional dominance.
If the latter, Mr. Trump must decide how and when he will deploy American troops as a counterweight to the Iranian surge. United States air power and Special Forces remain at the center of a capable combat force. Using these assets effectively Washington can assure SDF partners that it will remain in Syria even after Islamic State is defeated.
Finally, the U.S. and allies in Europe and the Gulf hold tens of billions of dollars in international assistance that Syria will need to recover from the civil war. The U.S. also contends Bashar Assad must go and the basic rights of minorities, especially the Kurds, must be guaranteed. In order for these aims to be achieved the Iranian and Shia proxies in Syria must be displaced.
Surely this will not be easy since it involves new risks and costs. But doing nothing is costly as well. Mr. Trump should articulate a strategy that boldly announces the U.S. opposition to the Shia Crescent with a ground game that consciously works to block Iranian hegemony in Iraq and Syria. To do less is to invite a war between Israel and Hezbollah — a proxy of Iran — and to cede vast control of strategic positions to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
When Mr. Trump laid out his plans for the Middle East in his Riyadh speech he made specific reference to a defense condominium of Sunni nations that would oppose the imperial ambitions of Iran. This counterweight was to be led by a U.S. bringing together the military and financial assets of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others. The president’s get tough approach, which was seen in contrast to the acquiesce of Obama foreign policy, was widely heralded in the Middle East.
However, if the president does not design a plan to combat Iran, his comments will have been reduced to nothing but empty talk and bluster — paper tiger discussion which Arab leaders have heard before. When it comes to the “hard man” commanding Iranian and Hezbollah forces, empty talk is a dangerous place for the U.S. to be.
• Herbert London is president of the London Center for Policy Research.