Trump’s Syria Withdrawal a Self-Inflicted Setback to Maximum Pressure Campaign Against Iran

Since withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, the Trump administration has pursued a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran predicated on expanding and stepping up enforcement of sanctions in order to compel the regime to return to the negotiating table for an improved deal.  Yet in order for the “maximum pressure” campaign to be truly effective, it must go beyond economic considerations, and prevent Iran from expanding its regional influence. Syria represents one of the key spheres of Iranian influence in the Middle East, serving most importantly as a key transshipment point for Iranian arms to reach the Mediterranean Sea and its proxy, Lebanese Hezbollah.

On October 6, President Trump hastily announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces from northeast Syria and signaled his intention to eventually fully end U.S. involvement in Syria. While this plan negatively impacts a range of U.S. interests, one factor that should not be overlooked is that it will strengthen Iran’s hand in Syria and facilitate further Iranian military and commercial entrenchment, presenting a self-inflicted setback to the administration’s concerted effort to pressure Tehran. Here are some of the key takeaways:

The Assad regime, backed by Russia, will move to consolidate control and fill vacuums

The U.S. military presence in northeast Syria provided a deterrent that allowed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to control a full third of Syria’s territory, home to the country’s richest oil and agricultural resources, keeping it out of the hands of the Russia-Assad-Iran alliance for seven years. For the past several years, the Assad regime’s primary territorial focus has been retaking the western Syrian corridor that runs from Damascus-Homs-Hama-Idlib-Aleppo. The U.S. withdrawal announcement left the Kurds with no choice but to drink from the poison chalice, and strike a deal with the Assad regime in order to prevent their annihilation by Turkish forces. In one fell swoop, the Trump administration has opened the door for Assad to potentially double the amount of territory under his control, reinvigorating the dormant hope for a full consolidation of all Syrian territory, and not just a “useful Syria” of the country’s major cities and economic centers.

Almost immediately, Russian and Syrian forces began acting to fill the vacuum left by retreating U.S. forces, moving in to the cities of Manbij, Kobane and Raqqa. With the U.S. ceding its leverage, Erdogan also followed suit and sought accommodation with Russia. Hours after a five-day, U.S.-brokered ceasefire between Turkey and the Kurds which cleared Kurdish fighters from a 20-mile deep safe zone along a 75-mile stretch of the Turkish-Syrian border ended, Erdogan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi. There, the two leaders brokered an agreement under which Turkey would maintain control of the aforementioned 20x75 mile safe zone, while Russia and Syrian forces would clear an additional stretch of border area of Kurdish fighters. The area would be effectively returned to Assad, with Russia and Turkey conducting joint border patrols.

The upshot of these agreements is that Russia has emerged as the dominant power broker in the previously SDF-held area of northeast Syria, and Iran’s client, Assad, stands to regain control of a huge swathe of lost territory. Assad’s reassertion of control is also a win for Iran, which will use the reconstituted territory to further militarily, commercially, and culturally entrench its influence in Syria.

The long-feared assault on Idlib will move forward

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has euphemistically declared that Idlib, whose population has doubled to 3 million people since the war broke out due to internally displaced refugees, must be “cleaned out” of opposition forces. The U.N. has warned that a regime offensive backed by Iran and Russia would result in the “worst humanitarian catastrophe” of the century as there are no longer any opposition-held areas left in Syria where those fleeing can evacuate. In September 2018, Russia and Turkey negotiated a tenuous truce to forestall a bloodbath in Idlib, but the Assad regime has referred to the deal as a “temporary one.”

In seeking Russia’s help for its safe-zone project, Erdogan has ceded leverage to prevent the forestalled Idlib offensive to go forward. Although Erdogan declared in September that he would not allow a fait accompli siege in Idlib, a Syrian assault, backed by Iranian militia forces, is now all but inevitable. On October 23, Assad visited troops at the frontline in Idlib, where he denounced Erdogan as a thief for his incursions in northeast Syria and declared that “the Idlib battle is the core to decisively end chaos and terrorism in all of Syria.” While Assad and Erdogan appear resigned to allowing Russia to act as a buffer in northeast Syria, preventing the tensions between the two sides from metastasizing into conflict, the same cannot be said for Idlib, which Assad and Iran view as a crucial objective for reconstituting “useful Syria.” As such, an Assad-Iranian offensive is far likelier to transpire in the aftermath of Erdogan’s deal with Putin at Sochi, absent a negotiated resolution.

Iran will advance its land bridge project

The withdrawal of U.S. forces from northeast Syria will solidify and expand Iran’s land-bridge project in Syria. In November 2017, Iran-led forces captured the Abu Kamal border crossing in Syria’s eastern Deir Ezzor province from ISIS. On September 30, 2019, Syria and Iraq opened a long-anticipated entry port connecting Abu Kamal to the Iraqi town of Qaim, which would enable Iran-backed militias to traverse freely between Iraq and Syria and facilitate overland weapons transfers from Iran to Lebanese Hezbollah via Iraq and Syria. The Abu Kamal crossing was perched precariously close to territory controlled by U.S.-backed SDF fighters, who had also been fighting ISIS in northeastern Syria. With the U.S. troop presence in the area, Iran’s hold on Abu Kamal was tenuous, risking bringing Iran into direct conflict with the SDF and potentially even U.S. troops. The U.S. withdrawal, however, solidifies Iran’s control over the crossing and removes a crucial impediment to the fulfillment of its land bridge project.

Given the centrality of Abu Kamal to Iran’s regional ambitions, the IRGC and affiliated proxies have established control over a stretch of seven towns linking Abu Kamal to Mayadin, due south of Deir Ezzor city. Iran has pursued a strategy of ideological expansion in the area, using cash payouts to establish patronage links and setting up a network of cultural centers and educational institutions to implant its regime’s Khomeinist ideology in the area. The U.S. withdrawal will hasten its military and ideological entrenchment in the area, and the whole province is in danger of falling under Iran’s sway.

Additionally, as Assad reasserts control over the SDF’s previously-held territory, Iran may be able to establish an alternative northern arch route for its land bridge, linking Iraqi Kurdistan to the Mediterranean via northeastern Syria utilizing the Rabia border crossing. Even if Kurdish fighters retain a presence in the area, they will have to acquiesce to the Assad regime, as the new guarantor of their survival, ensuring that Iran will be able to utilize a land bridge route through northeastern Syria.

With a presence in northeast Syria of just roughly 1000 troops, the U.S. military was able to not only decimate ISIS and destroy its physical caliphate, but also to contain Iran’s malign expansionism in Syria. By hastily withdrawing, the U.S. is ceding the ability to pursue these objectives, weakening the maximum pressure campaign in the process.

Jordan Steckler is a Research Analyst at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). Follow him on Twitter @JordanESteckler.