The American Approach in Syria and Iran: Soft and Dangerous

In his pursuit of foreign policy deals with Syria and Iran, President Obama has taken a soft approach. As a result, Syria and Iran have taken advantage with aggressive opportunism.

Once Bashar al-Assad started firing on unarmed protesters in the spring of 2011, the Obama administration felt a foreign policy win slipping through its fingers. U.S. officials had spent months engaging the Syrian leader in indirect talks with Israel over a deal in which Syria would begin disengagement with Iran in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. The prospects of the deal, which would ostensibly split up the Iran/Syria/Hezbollah triumvirate, were apparently so attractive for the United States that American representatives quietly continued engagement with Assad well into his brutal crackdowns of 2011, with the belief that they could retain his usefulness. Secretary of State Clinton, even after the uprising began, continued to call Assad a “reformer.”

Once Assad’s crimes became too great to ignore, Obama and Clinton began to make statements against his brutality. That did not mean the end of engagement, however. Then-Senator John Kerry’s staff and other officials maintained contact with the Syrian government to try and convince Assad to stop the killing and listen to the demands of his people. Given his role as the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and his personal relationship with the Assads, Kerry was Obama’s best hope for moderating the Syrian leader’s domestic response and for salvaging the coveted deal with Israel.

In the first few months of the uprising, Kerry’s approach led Assad to the conclusion that the United States viewed his government as indispensable. Regardless of public condemnations from Obama and Clinton, Assad felt that he still had a special place with the administration. Though the Israel deal fell through, Assad’s feeling of a “special status” with the United States was reinforced through various episodes, including Obama’s backing off of his red line over chemical weapons, the soft U.S. approach in the Geneva peace conferences, and the recent limited air campaign against ISIS, which ruled out Assad regime targets and has hurt the opposition forces backed by the United States. Indeed, the United States continues to exhibit a willingness to work—or at least coexist—with Assad, despite its claims to the contrary.

The United States took the same soft approach to Iran in an attempt to secure a nuclear deal. Reports about multiple letters sent from Obama to Ayatollah Khamenei, plans to establish a trade office in Tehran, and the repeated extension of nuclear talks despite the absence of any real breakthrough sends a message to the Iranian government that it too is viewed as indispensable.

America’s friendly overtures come at a time when Iran is a driving force behind instability in the region, stoking sectarianism in its pursuit of dominance throughout the Middle East. Since the Iraq war of 2003, Iran has doubled down on its support of Shi‘i factions to establish influence in fragile states such as Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. As the war in Syria increases in severity and the anti-ISIS conflict rages, Iran’s sectarian spear has never been sharper. In Iraq today, the United States’ anti-ISIS coalition operates alongside Iranian-supported Shi‘i militias who have repeatedly carried out massacres against Sunni civilians. In Syria, Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed Shi‘i groups provide the backbone for Assad’s severely weakened military. 

While consistently declaring that Assad can play no role in Syria’s transition, the White House continues to overlook Iran’s complicity in Assad’s crimes against humanity. Several Syrian activists have reported to us suggestions from the U.S. government that Iran could serve as the primary security guarantor in Syria post-Assad.[1] If the United States relies on Iran as a key partner in Syria and Iraq, it will create decades of pan-regional sectarian conflict. Iran has a track record of manipulating sectarian politics; propping up undemocratic single-identity governance; and assisting governments and non-state groups as they commit atrocities. This package offered by Tehran is a recipe for extended conflict in any Arab state. Particularly in the case of ISIS, Shi‘i solutions to a Sunni problem will only breed more recruits and foster local sympathy for ISIS.

Obama has chosen to turn a blind eye to Iranian malfeasance throughout the region in a gamble that the United States will be able to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran. U.S.-led sanctions have been linked only to the nuclear program, not to Iranian regional interventionism. As a result, Iran has felt free to foster instability and sectarianism across the Middle East, which has led to civil war in Syria and Iraq and hundreds of thousands of deaths. Obama’s frustration about inconvenient Middle East dynamics makes the nuclear deal an even more enticing goal for his national security staff. After a number of prominent foreign policy failures—the Russian annexation of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine, the collapse of post-American Iraq, the rise of ISIS, and the raging civil war in Syria—the president seems desperate to clinch a nuclear deal with Iran as a bright point in an otherwise dim foreign policy legacy. Yet this has only served to embolden Iran and intensify its destabilizing and sectarian intervention in the Arab world, at great human cost.




[1] Conversations with Syrian activists and officials at the U.S. National Security Council and U.S. State Department.