Tony Badran

As in Iraq, so in Syria

Obama’s priority in Syria is an accommodation with Iran

The ambassadors of Iraq, Majid al-Sheikh (R), and Syria, Adnan Mahmud, in Iran hold a joint press conference in the Iranian capital Tehran on June 24, 2014 on the "global threat of terrorism" (AFP Photo/Atta Kenare)

President Obama has made clear that the purpose of his limited intervention in Iraq is to shore up the central government in Baghdad such that all Iraqis will combat the Islamic State (IS). As the president explained last week, he believes “the only lasting solution is for Iraqis to come together and form an inclusive government… one that can unify the country’s fight against ISIL.”


What’s most striking about Obama’s rhetoric and objectives in Iraq is their seamless concurrence with Iran’s. Indeed, the framework within which we should understand current US policy in Iraq is the US president’s continued pursuit of a region-wide accommodation with Iran and his preference for partnering with Iranian-backed “state institutions” in various countries across the region. With this in mind, Obama’s approach in Iraq also carries implications for his Syria policy.


Well before former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s replacement, Haider al-Abadi, was even named, Obama had already praised Iran’s position in Iraq in an interview with The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman. “I think what the Iranians have done,” said the president, “is to finally realize that a maximalist position by the Shias inside of Iraq is, over the long term, going to fail.” Subsequent media reports suggested possible behind-the-scenes coordination between Washington and Tehran, whether directly or through intermediaries, that led to Abadi’s nomination as Iraq’s next prime minister. In fact, as NOW contributor Hussain Abdul-Hussain reported, Abadi’s nomination came at the behest of Iranian Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani.


Obama’s comfort in partnering with Iran is predicated on his idea, laid out in a New Yorker profile of the president in January, of working “with functioning states to prevent extremists from emerging.” As such, Obama’s policy proceeds from the acknowledgment of Iran as the principal stakeholder in Iraq. The policy then seeks to bolster the pro-Iranian order in Iraq by reintroducing a measure of Sunni participation in it – but most importantly, by keeping the Kurds tethered to it. 


On this last point, the US and Iran are in perfect alignment. Hence, as unnamed US officials told The Wall Street Journal last week, American military support to the Kurds “is a trickle, and any expanded program will be done in coordination with Baghdad.” President Obama emphasized this conditionality on Monday: “Iraqi and Kurdish forces are capable of working together and taking the fight to ISIL. If they continue to do so, they will have the strong support of the United States of America.” Put differently, US support for the Kurds – and potentially to Sunnis who take up arms against the IS – is predicated on their continued backing of the political order in Baghdad, where Iran is the kingmaker. In effect, this also means that Iran would exercise decisive influence on what and how much support goes to the Kurds and, potentially, to anti-IS Sunnis.


We can draw some conclusions from Obama’s template in Iraq regarding his Syria policy. In many respects, Obama’s recent statements reinforce the ideas that have formed the basis of his approach to Syria over the last three years. 


As in Iraq, Obama’s priority in Syria is an accommodation with Iran, and his preference is to work with Iran-backed “state institutions.” The White House’s desire to see a national unity government in Syria, which would then combat the IS and other jihadist groups, formed the basis of the now-moribund Geneva Conference for Syria. And as in Iraq, the administration’s impulse was to try and bring the Iranians to the Syrian table as principal stakeholders. It could be that the White House is entertaining the notion that it could get Tehran to pull the plug on Bashar al-Assad personally, as it did with Maliki, while choosing an alternative and preserving the Iranian-backed regime structures in Syria. If this is indeed the thinking, then it is based on a fantasy that misunderstands the nature of the regime in Syria. In any case, such an approach is premised on the continuity of Iranian primacy in Syria.


What’s more likely is that while the administration remains rhetorically wedded to the position that Assad has no place in any future political settlement, functionally, the logic of its policy leads back to Assad as the only viable partner. This is all the more clear in Obama’s persistent dismissal of the Syrian opposition as inadequate partners – “There’s not as much capacity as you would hope,” he told Friedman. The rebels, according to the president, consist of mere “farmers and dentists” whose prospects of defeating Iran’s assets in Syria was always “a fantasy.” Backing this horse, Obama explained, was “never in the cards.”


Instead, the Iraqi template is the way forward for Obama. From this point of view, Iran cannot – indeed, should not – be defeated in Syria, and it has proven rational and responsible in Iraq. Other (one assumes, Sunni) countries, Obama told Friedman, should learn from Iran’s example in Iraq and, presumably, apply it in Syria. Following the Iraqi blueprint, this would imply Syrian Sunnis be grafted onto the Iranian-backed edifice. That is to say, Obama’s solution in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon is accommodation with Iran.


Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.

The "fantasy" is thinking Tehran will help with regime change in Syria. (AFP Photo/Atta Kenare)

It could be that the White House is entertaining the notion that it could get Tehran to pull the plug on Bashar al-Assad personally, as it did with Maliki, while choosing an alternative and preserving the Iranian-backed regime structures in Syria."

  • allang

    When will Tony Badran understand that the reason Qassem Soleimani operates with impunity in Iraq. It's because Shiite power-brokers within Iraq allow that support to materialize. Is the Obama administration suppose to re-program all Shiite allegiance in Iraq. Is that even a remote possibility of happening. Where is it written, only the US is responsible for the stability of Iraq. By now, Mr. Badran must be aware that Iraq... like Syria, is imploding because Shiite - Sunni sectarianism is at a tipping point. The bloodlust & open warfare is beyond US military control. Obama is not some intellectual novice to place Americans in between this sectarian blood-feud again. If Tehran wants to fight & die in Syria, they are welcome to it. In the same Tom Friedman article Mr. Badran quoted, Obama said Iraqis themselves... all of them - Kurds, Sunni & Shia must form an inclusive government and then use their unified Iraqi military to defeat ISIS. Americans will not die for a democratic Iraq any longer. Get use to it, this is never gonna happen again...

    August 24, 2014