With a hurried announcement to withdraw troops from Syria, President Donald Trump appears to have dropped his stated plan to curb Iran’s regional influence and to be poised instead to use sanctions to try to bring Iran back to the negotiating table, according to critics of both his aggressive approach to Iran and his decision to leave northern Syria.
Announced against the urging of his national security advisers and shortly before the holidays and government shutdown, Trump’s decision to pull troops from northern Syria suggests to some that his campaign against Iran will now focus less on military pressure to curb Iranian influence in places such as Syria and Yemen and more on sanctions meant to push Iran to make a new deal with Trump on nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
The hasty military decision was quickly met with condemnation from Iran hawks on both sides of the political aisle in Congress.
“An American withdrawal at this time would be a big win for ISIS, Iran, Bashar al Assad of Syria, and Russia,” Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina and traditional Trump ally, said in a statement. “It will also be seen by Iran and other bad actors as a sign of American weakness in the efforts to contain Iranian expansion.”
Graham also joined Republican Sens. Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio, as well as Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, among others, in a letter to the president that insisted, “Any sign of weakness perceived by Iran or Russia will only result in their increased presence in the region and a decrease in the trust of our partners and allies.”
“We are concerned by the consequences of choosing to outsource our strategic interests in Syria to Russia and Iran, which inevitably threatens the security of our partners in Israel, Iraq, and Jordan,” Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.
Israel, for its part, has vowed to continue to defend itself; Trump appeared to downplay whatever threat a US withdrawal might present to Israel by saying that the United States gives Israel billions to defend itself every year and pointing out that he moved the US embassy to Jerusalem.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, a Republican from Alaska and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, put out a four-paragraph statement in which “Iran” is mentioned six times. “I fear that this decision will increase Iran’s arc of influence, from Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, which will enhance its ability to threaten our national security interests, and those of our allies, including Israel,” the statement said.
The impact of the president’s Syria withdrawal is compounded by efforts in Congress to make it more difficult for the US to work against Iran with its number one partner, Saudi Arabia, so long as Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince whom the CIA deems ultimately responsible for the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, is in power. Those efforts are likely to hinder the US from cooperating with Saudi Arabia in Yemen, another region where Iran is thought to be pressing to expand its influence.
Earlier this month, the Senate voted to pull US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and Democrats in the House have vowed to do the same when they become the majority in that body next month.
With both Syria and Yemen effectively removed from the military equation to counter Iranian influence, some wonder if Trump isn’t conceding that the vow to limit Iran’s influence is not something the US can accomplish.
“I think it’s a recognition of reality. We are not gonna push Iran out of Syria. It’s not gonna happen,” said Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, a think tank in Washington, DC. “Iran and the Assad family have had a relationship for 40 years … Iran is in the regime, Iran is not going anywhere. We’re the interlopers, much more than Iran is.”
Trump, she said, has realized that “on some level.” But “I don’t know about people like John Bolton or Mike Pompeo,” she added, referring to Trump’s national security adviser and his secretary of state.
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment. It has said it will only respond to issues regarding human life and property during the government shutdown.
“I think there were two lines of thinking inside the administration about Iran,” said Randa Slim, director of the Conflict Resolution and Track II Dialogues Program at the Washington, DC–based Middle East Institute. There was, she said, the Bolton view, in which Iran is an evil actor and US policy should move the country in the direction of regime change.
And then there is the view of Trump himself, “who sees Iran through total transaction and nonideological terms. [He was] against the deal struck by Obama, but is very much open to a new deal that he can negotiate unilaterally with the Iranians.” Sanctions, she said, are his perceived tool to force those negotiations.
But adhering strictly to that second line would be a shift in the administration’s policy toward Iran. The first of several pillars of Iran policy presented in Trump’s speech on Iran in October of last year was pushback against Iran in the region. The other three pillars — sanctioning Iran, addressing missile proliferation, and denying Iran a path to a nuclear weapon — all appear to still be standing. But the Trump administration’s ability to work with US allies “to counter the regime’s destabilizing activity and support for terrorist proxies in the region” seems increasingly stunted.
Behnam Ben Taleblu, a research fellow focused on Iran at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish Washington research center, said the Trump decision to leave Syria “undercuts the administration’s own conceptual argument” on how to counter Iran by removing an effort to apply military pressure. That potentially leaves only sanctions as a way to apply pressure — a framing, he said, that could be seen as narrow as the Obama administration’s focus on curbing only Iranian nuclear activities — a position Trump has repeatedly criticized in his attacks on the Iranian nuclear deal.
Taleblu saw one “silver lining” toward the decision to withdraw from Syria. “Maybe the Iran pushback strategy will finally be operationalized in Iraq,” he said, noting that the administration needs to figure out a way to support Iraq’s central government while undercutting Iranian influence there — no small task, given that the Iraqi government is filled with Iranian sympathizers. It is notable that on his visit to US troops in Iraq on Wednesday, Trump did not meet with a single Iraqi official. On Thursday, members from both blocs of Iraq's parliament said they would demand that US troops leave the country.
And while the Trump administration’s stated policy toward Iran “is perhaps the most hawkish we have ever seen toward the Islamic Republic,” there is little evidence that Iran is cowed by current sanctions. Iran increased funding for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in its budget for next year — a sign Iran is not backing down from support for the military group the US government has sanctioned for supporting terrorism.
The Trump administration, in other words, is left with an Iran that’s refusing, at least so far, to bow to sanctions pressure; a Congress threatening to limit cooperation with anti-Iran ally Saudi Arabia; an Iraqi government friendly to Iranian influence; and 2,000 fewer Americans in Syria.
“What’s left of this administration's policy toward Iran? It’s sanctions and propaganda,” said Slavin. “That’s it. And good luck to them.”