The ISIS-Iran Revolving Door by William Mehlman


Benjamin Netanyahu’s late August trip to Sochi, his fourth Russian sojourn over the past 16 months, had nothing to do with the amenities at Vladimir Putin’s Black Sea summer retreat.  Accompanied by Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, newly appointed National Security Council director Meir ben Shabbat and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, doubling as his personal translator, the prime minister provided Putin with what Times of Israel correspondent Raoul Wootlift described as “sensitive, credible and very disturbing intelligence” on Iran’s continued military presence in Syria.

The three hour-plus meeting, in brief, is reported to have gone something like this:

Israel has its “red lines” in the matter of Iran’s role in Syria, the reddest of them being its unqualified objection to Iran’s occupation of strategic positions abandoned by a defeated ISIS to create a “land bridge” linking Tehran, via Iraq and Syria, to its missile-armored Hezbollan subsidiary in Lebanon.  It is a link that could put the Ayatollah’s troops on Israel’s northeastern Golan border.  The Israeli delegation is said to have made it “clear” it will take whatever measures may be necessary to prevent that link from being forged, failing Moscow’s unwillingness or inability to rein in its Iranian partner.

In a column entitled “What Israel Hoped to Gain,” Jerusalem Post diplomatic correspondent Herb Keinon defines Netanyahu’s “hope” as “knowledge of what Israel will do impacting on Russia’s decisions regarding its post-war arrangements with Syria.” He points to the “millions of dollars and enormous political capital” Moscow has expended on keeping Bashar Assad in power.  If Israel is drawn into a war with Syria that investment could go up in smoke.“ [Netanyahu] wants the Russian leader to ask himself one question,” Keinon avers. “Is Iran worth the risk to his massive investment?” The answer, as he notes, rests on Putin’s evaluation of the credibility of Israel’s threat, but it has certainly given Putin pause for contemplation.

The same, regrettably, cannot be said of a U.S. defense/diplomatic team presented with duplicate evidence by Mossad a week earlier in Washington of Syria’s move to ”Lebanize” Syria.  The Israelis came to Washington looking for an American commitment to halt that process.  They didn’t get it.  While Russia may not be indifferent to Israel’s concerns, in the view of Jonathan Spyer, director of the Rubin Center ID Herzlia, “the U.S. does not seem to wish to be a player in this arena.”

In fact, the only country immediately capable of interdicting Iran’s Shia “corridor of power” from Tehran to Beirut has braked that effort in favor of a policy of “deconfliction” with Iran’s Syrian puppet.  It speaks to what experts see as a strategic disconnect between the State Department and the White House.  It was most startlingly displayed in the course of a Q and A between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Chris Wallace of Fox News in which Tillerson conceded that he and President Trump might be said to be on somewhat separate wave lengths regarding policy in the Middle East.  The potential conflict was encapsulated in an email exchange between the anti-ISIS coalition partners in Syria and Col. Joseph Scrocca, director of CJTF-OIR, the U.S. arm of that coalition.  “The coalition,” Scrocca wrote, “has no fight with the Syrian regime or its allies [Iran and Russia] in the counter Daesh [ISIS] fight.  The coalition will not support any operations that are not against Daesh.” That’s as clear as it gets.  The U.S. has no strategy for stopping Iran and Iranian backed militias from filling the voids in Syria created by the departure of ISIS.

Jonathan Schanzer, Senior Vice President for Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, argues that the Trump Administration is “aware of the Iranian threat in Syria, but is seeking a policy consistent with its values.” That translates, in his words, to embedding only a “light footprint” on the ground, while “crafting an overarching Iran policy” open to the contribution of “others” and avoiding the conduct of an expensive war.  It all sounds suspiciously like a replay of the “leading from behind” Obama strategy that resulted in Moscow’s accession of a starring role in the future of a Middle East once the exclusive province of the United States.

America’s faint appetite for involvement with the Iranians in Syria is understandable.  Having donated millions in resources and pools of Hezbollah proxy Shia blood to the survival of Bashar Assad; having blown on missile factories in northeast Syria and installations snaking down to the Eurphrates their half billion dollar American gift for a nuclear recess that’s left their military activities free of inspection, the Ayatollahs aren’t about to pick up and go home just because ISIS has been sent packing.  It’s payback time and they intend to cash in their chips not just via proxies, as is the case in Lebanon and Gaza, but with Iranian forces on the ground, in the air and at sea.  The object: amplification of their threat to destroy Israel via a powerful third front on its northeast border.  Dissuading them of that notion is going to be expensive.

How much skin the U.S. is prepared to invest in that process is still uncertain.  We’ll get a better fix on the subject this month when President Trump is presented with his third 90-day opportunity to decertify America’s further participation in a 2015 JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan Agreement) cobbled together by the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) that endowed Iran with a cornucopia of financial, military and geopolitical benefits in exchange for minimal, largely unverifiable and reversible restraints on its nuclear weapons program.  Under State Department pleading that it wasn’t diplomatically ready for a course change, Trump reluctantly recertified JCPOA in April and July.

This was another one of those “agreements” fan-danced around the Senate approval process by Barack Obama that Trump promised to ax at his first opportunity.  As seen by Eric Mandel, director of the Middle East Political and Information Network, a third failure to decertify would “flash a green light for an Iranian march to the Syrian-Iraq border, a final nail in the coffin of any further attempt to stop an Iranian land corridor to the Mediterranean.”

That despite mounting evidence of violation, this deal with the world’s foremost exporter of terror is coming onto its third Trump administration encore speaks volumes about what has been going on in the State Department.  Trump’s determination to sever America’s commitment to the deal was reinforced by German intelligence reports of “illicit Iranian nuclear and missile weapons procurement attempts” in that country, much of it documented in a 189-page report compiled by Baden-Wurtenburg Southeastern State Intelligence.  But its scuttling was twice interdicted by Tillerson and a couple of Obama administration holdovers on whose advice he apparently relies.  In a scene related to him by a contact close to the action, Matthew R.J. Brodsky, Senior Fellow at the Washington-based Security Studies Group, informs that Tillerson essentially told the president in July “We just aren’t ready with our allies to decertify.” To which the president is reported to have replied “Isn’t it your job to get our allies ready?” Tillerson’s reported answer was, “Sorry sir, we’re just not ready.  We’ll get ‘em next time.”

“Next time” is knocking on the door but still highly unclear is the State Department’s amenability to putting paid to a mistake that will inevitably nuclear weaponize a rogue nation pledged to Israel’s disappearance and irreparably damage America’s ability to shape events in the most volatile corner of the globe.  In the end, of course, the decision to be made will be Donald Trump’s decision.  One can only hope his compass has remained in working order.


William Mehlman represents AFSI in Israel.

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