The unfolding situation in Iraq has reportedly reignited the debate inside the Obama administration about its Syria policy. “Syria and Iraq are largely a single problem,” a senior defense official told The Wall Street Journal. “If we really get into this, you will have to look in to Syria to solve some of these problems.”
Supporters of the Syrian opposition have also been making the same argument, that the best way to deal with the threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is to back the Syrian opposition. Leaving aside the question of defining US support to the rebels on the exclusive basis of fighting ISIS – not defeating the regime – President Obama's approach to counterterrorism in the Levant is not predicated on partnering with the Syrian opposition. Rather, from Beirut to Baghdad, the White House has made clear that its preference is to back Iranian-dominated "state institutions."
A good indicator of Obama's inclination in dealing with Sunni jihadist groups can be found in his interview with CBS News last week. Obama said that ISIS had exploited a vacuum in Syria to amass resources. But when asked whether the vacuum would have existed had the US backed a moderate rebel force in Syria, Obama dismissed as “a fantasy” the proposition that “farmers, dentists and folks who have never fought before,” as he described Syria's rebels, “were in a position to suddenly overturn not only Assad but also ruthless, highly-trained jihadists if we just sent a few arms.”
To be sure, the president was interested primarily in fending off the charge that his policy in Syria was partially responsible for the turn of events in Iraq. ISIS would have risen regardless of any arms the US might have sent to the rebels, because they would not have made any difference to a Syrian opposition that was simply not ready to take on one, let alone two formidable enemies. Indeed, the administration has consistently blamed its lack of support on the opposition's divisions. Obama echoed this line of exasperation, which his White House has exercised for three years now, pointing out that “we have spent a lot of time trying to work with a moderate opposition in Syria.” Alas, the clear implication was, it has come to naught because they're not a serious force.
But beyond defending past policy decisions, Obama's comments serve to justify current ones. Obama cautioned that the US is not going to send troops “occupying various countries wherever these organizations pop up.” Instead, he offered “to partner and train local law enforcement and military” in the respective countries. Hence, the Obama administration has partnered with the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and has sent advisers to work with the Iraqi Armed Forces, and is also helping both with intelligence sharing.
The catch, of course, is that both institutions are dominated by Iranian assets, which have deeply penetrated their ranks. In Lebanon, the synergy between the LAF and Hezbollah is rather explicit. Similarly, the Iraqi Army and Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq are deployed jointly. In fact, reports from Iraq indicate that this joint effort is being coordinated by the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani.
In other words, the White House is fully aware that it is effectively partnering with pro-Iranian instruments under the guise of what it describes as “state institutions.” In fact, the administration’s first impulse after the Iraqi security forces were routed out of Mosul was to reach out to Iran and even float the possibility of open military cooperation with it in Iraq.
Washington’s inclination is instructive when considering Syria. The longstanding White House position has been to call for preserving Syrian “state institutions” – meaning, the regime’s army and security services. That is because, as US officials have repeatedly made clear, they do not wish to see an outright rebel victory, as that would lead to a jihadist takeover. In fact, some voices, likely reflecting certain White House preferences, have even counseled pushing the rebels to partner with Assad to fight radical groups. In any case, the White House has insisted on a negotiated settlement with the regime, and that is because it does not see the opposition as a viable partner, even if only to take on jihadist groups, the administration’s only priority in Syria.
Obama’s description of the opposition, therefore, is not haphazard. Indeed, prior to the CBS News interview, Obama had used the same description of the rebels several times before, including in an interview with Bloomberg last March. At best, building up the opposition – to combat jihadists, not to defeat Assad – is a long-term proposal. Even the White House announcement on Thursday that it would seek $500 million to train and equip vetted rebels remains within that long-term framework. Its objective likewise is to help those select rebels “defend themselves” against (not defeat) the regime (for “there is no military solution”), while they “push back” against extremists like ISIS.
In stark contrast, Obama appears very comfortable with the idea of cooperating with Iran, which he regards as a strategic and powerful country, as he told Bloomberg in March. What’s more, his regional policy has boxed in the US and its allies, with the result that working with Iranian assets is the only game in town. The other outcome has been to make the US position virtually indistinguishable from Iran’s. Take, for instance, how Secretary of State John Kerry echoed Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian verbatim in calling on Iraq’s Kurds to join the Baghdad government in combatting ISIS.
In other words, not only has the Obama administration defined Iranian-controlled “state institutions” as its only viable partners in the Levant: it is also effectively pushing regional actors to line up behind these institutions.
But Lebanon aside, the administration is not finding it easy to get buy-in from regional players. Kurdish President Masoud Barzani has resisted Washington’s call, as he sees that “the fight against terrorism has been a pretext” for a sectarian war against Sunnis, which he refuses to be part of. For their part, Sunni Arab leaders are likewise unlikely to get behind a strategy of fighting Sunni radicals exclusively, under an umbrella of “state institutions” ultimately beholden to Qassem Soleimani.
Tony Badran is a research fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.