- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Trump administration has dramatically hardened its policy toward Iran, but has yet to articulate or implement a policy to counter Tehran’s proxy activity in Syria — effectively leaving Israel to take on Hezbollah and other Iranian military assets in the war-torn nation, according to a new analytical report.

The analysis by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a hawkish Washington think tank, calls on the administration still to “clarify how Syria fits into its strategy to counter Iran” and to endorse Israeli “red lines” aimed at denying Tehran a military presence in Syria and halting the transfer of advanced weapons to Iran-backed proxies there.

The absence of a clear U.S. policy has given Iran-allied Russia outsized sway inside Syria, argues the report from FDD, an increasingly influential policy shop in U.S. national security circles and a longtime critic of Iran.

“The current U.S. mission in Syria remains focused entirely on the Islamic State,” according to an advanced copy of the report shared with The Washington Times. The document argues that the Trump administration’s posture toward the situation is “a source of frustration” not only for Israel, but also for neighboring Jordan, where more than a half-million Syrian refugees are currently housed.

Both Amman and Jerusalem “would like nothing more than to see the U.S. counterbalance Russia,” states the report, which laments that “American policy in Syria remains in flux” and that “it is entirely unclear whether the United States is committed to limiting Iran’s designs on Syria.”

The sobering assessment comes amid tensions that have spiraled between Israel and Iran since February, when anti-aircraft fire from inside Syria shot down an Israeli F-16 fighter jet after Jerusalem had claimed to have downed an Iranian armed stealth drone that had flown into Israel’s airspace from Syrian territory.

While Israeli forces had previously engaged in a three-year run of sporadic bombing of Hezbollah positions in Syria, the tempo of the strikes increased dramatically after the February incident amid wariness in Jerusalem that Hezbollah — emboldened by its success in upholding Syrian President Bashar Assad — may be poised to attack or pressure Israel not only from the militant group’s southern Lebanon stronghold but also from inside Syria.

The Trump administration has taken a hard line on Iran, pulling out of the 2015 nuclear deal, reimposing tough economic sanctions and declaring that Washington is now bent to “crush” Iran-backed proxy operations, including those of Hezbollah, around the world.

However, some see limits to the administration’s appetite for an Iran-focused military campaign in Syria that would be led and financed by Washington. The New York Times reported in May that Mr. Trump had sent two private letters to Arab allies in the Mideast complaining that the U.S. has already spent too much money in the region and urging them to pick up more of the burden as part of a coalition to counter Iran’s influence.

The new FDD report, authored by Tony Badran and Jonathan Schanzer, two analysts at the policy shop, along with Matthew R.J. Brodsky of the Security Studies Group think tank, contends that the Trump administration “has been decidedly ambivalent about its involvement in Syria, whether through military intervention or even diplomacy.”

“President Trump,” the the analysts note, “has expressed his wish to see U.S. troops in Syria withdraw after the mission to defeat the Islamic State is completed.”

The report, titled “Controlled Chaos: The Escalation of Conflict between Israel and Iran in War-Torn Syria,” goes on to argue that Russian influence is critical to the Syrian endgame. “Without an assertive U.S. role,” the document states, “Israel may yet face the choice of intervening against Russian-backed operations on its border, or seeing a Russian-imposed reality, complete with an Iranian military presence, take shape” on the Golan Heights.

“Israel’s principal leverage remains its military power, and its threat to complicate, if not sabotage, Russia’s Syrian enterprise,” the report states. “By publicly signaling that Israel has U.S. backing to operate at will in Syria, Washington could use this leverage in talks with Russia to work towards an acceptable arrangement in Syria.”

It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will follow such an approach.

Analysts from across the ideological spectrum have expressed skepticism. “Putin has played Trump like a fiddle on Syria,” according to former Clinton administration chief of staff John Podesta of the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

Mr. Podesta and Brian Katulis, a fellow at the left-leaning think tank, made the assertion in an analysis published last week by Foreign Policy, arguing that the administration “has done almost nothing in response” to Moscow’s flagrant recent violations of a cease-fire for southern Syria that Mr. Trump personally signed with Russia last November.

The new FDD report, meanwhile, acknowledges that “the relationship between the United States and Russia is complicated.”

“Washington continues to slap new sanctions on Russia for cyber activity and its aggression in the Ukraine,” the report states. “What this means for possible understandings in Syria, where their respective interests are also at odds, is completely unclear.”

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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