By F.H. Buckley
New York Post, April 15, 2018 - The successful allied air strike on chemical-weapons facilities in Syria has given President Trump a victory — but not a mission. The victory against Bashar al-Assad is a well-deserved response to his use of weapons of mass destruction against his own people, as Germany and the Saudis recognize, in addition to Britain and France.
What’s missing is a clear idea of our role in the broader conflict, and why we still have 5,000 troops in Syria. Our intervention in the Syrian civil war began with President Barack Obama’s ill-fated decision to assist the Syrian rebels in their efforts to topple Assad. That was a fiasco, but the mission was subsequently extended to the fight against the Islamic insurgency, which itself arose because of Obama’s decision to remove our forces precipitously from Iraq.
The fight against ISIS is nearly won and no longer provides an excuse for a strong US military presence in the region. The Trump administration has also signaled that it has given up on regime change in Syria. Assad is a thug, but it’s not our business to try to change that.
So what are our interests in the region? Just one. To oppose Iran.
Tehran has a made a puppet state out of Syria, more like Iran’s 32nd province than an independent state. In Iraq, the pro-Shiite government has agreed to the construction of a Tehran-Baghdad highway that would ferry the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps across the Middle East, and especially to Lebanon, whose government has partnered with Hezbollah.
Iran is what the Soviet Union was before the fall of Communism — an expansionist, ideological enemy. It seeks to be the dominant regional player in the Middle East and its tentacles have spread to Latin America. In Yemen, its Houthi proxies launch missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, while in Lebanon its Hezbollah allies seek the destruction of Israel.
We’ve begun to reverse Obama’s calamitous policies in the region, beginning with our refusal to certify the Iran nuclear deal. We’ve also strengthened our ties with Arab states that are willing to live with Israel. That thaw is an unremarked triumph of Trump’s foreign policy.
So what’s next? Let’s begin by recognizing that Iran is fighting above its weight. Its plans for the Middle East require the complicity of Iraq, and it’s less than clear that Baghdad wants to be dominated by Tehran.
While the Iraqi national government is dominated by Shiites who’ve in the past shown themselves friendly to Iran, we’re starting to see increasing resentment of overbearing Iranians, even in Shiite parts of Iraq.
There are parliamentary elections set for next month, and the voters don’t seem ready to embrace the Iranian mullahs and their Revolutionary Guards.
Second, Russia has been sending signals that its alliance with Iran is less than iron-clad. It’s a tactical alliance, they say, not a strategic one. As a matter of tactics, Russia is strongly protesting Friday’s missile strike and has sent some of its air force to Iranian bases.
But we gave the Russians a heads-up about the attack, and we’re going to have to live with the idea that Obama’s blundering has given Russia what it’s always wanted: a permanent base on the Mediterranean.
As a matter of strategy, then, it’s time for Russia to negotiate with America — and vice versa.
Finally, the Iranian regime is hugely unpopular at home, as evidenced by the street protests of 2009 and 2017-18. Ordinary Iranians have seen the country’s wealth spent on foreign wars by a regime indifferent to the welfare of its citizens. Half the country lives below the poverty line, and a quarter of the population lives in shacks and hovels.
And what has the regime done to make things better? It’s legalized the selling and buying of organs and a desperately poor population resorts to selling their kidneys to make money.
The Iranian regime is propped up by its sale of oil and other commodities on international markets, as permitted by the nuke deal. But that doesn’t bind us unless Trump waives compliance with US sanctions laws. The next waiver is due on May 12, and Trump should just say no.
The treaty was premised on the idea that it would “positively contribute to regional and international peace and security.” By funding Iran’s imperialism, it’s had just the opposite effect.
F.H. Buckley is a foundation professor at Scalia Law School and author of the forthcoming book “The Republican Workers Party: How the Trump Victory Drove Everyone Crazy, and Why it Was Just What We Needed.”