Just when the world may have thought stability could be returning to Syria after rapid Syrian Army and Russian advances over the summer, it appears we are once again on the path of an eventual major showdown between US forces and Iran inside Syria.
Washington defense officials are pointing to ways that Iran continues to "defiantly" spread its military clout beyond its borders even as its economy is in a tailspin and under possibly the most aggresive sanctions regimen in history.
A new Wall Street Journal report outlines what could be the start of a dramatic White House pivot towards escalation against Iranian and pro-Tehran forces in Syria like Hezbollah. This follows the Washington Post dropping an exclusive bombshell Thursday night based on top White House policy planning sources that President Trump has approved a plan for complete 180 policy shift in the region involving "an indefinite military and diplomatic effort in Syria".
The WSJ reports, based on US defense sources:
Tehran signed a long-term security pact with Syria in August, and has kept up the flow of arms and financial support to proxy forces around the region, according to U.S. officials and a person close to Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia.
It's such activities that Washington has hoped, but failed to curtail after President Trump pulled the US from the 2015 nuclear deal last May and renewed sanctions targeting everything from defense to automobile manufacturing in Iran.
But it appears that while economic turmoil guts Iran domestically, mostly impacting middle class families and common citizens on everything from having their savings wiped out to being unable to find diapers on store shelves, the guns continue to flow from Tehran to its proxies in the region as in the words of the WSJ it's "signaling that it will buck U.S. efforts to roll back its military presence in the Middle East, moving to cement foreign alliances and continuing to project power abroad despite sanctions that have helped put intense pressure on its economy."
A top Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, Ali Vaez, for example told the WSJ, “It is an absolutely misguided perception that the Iranians will retreat from the region if they have economic problems.” And he underscored: “Whenever they come under increased pressure, they feel the need to double down.”
During a meeting with his military leadership on Sunday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reportedly said that Iran must urgently boost its personnel and buy more equipment, though downplayed the threat of direct war with the US.
In Syria and Lebanon, one Middle East defense official was quoted by the WSJ as saying “Not much has changed,” in terms of Iran's significant financial support to Hezbollah and Shia militias. “Wages are paid, training and funding is the same,” the official said.
Meanwhile a week ago a new Reuters report based on regional and US defense sources alleged that Iran has transferred ballistic missiles to Shia proxy forces in Iraq — a story which Tehran has officially denied, calling it propaganda to gem up support for military action.
Responding to the story, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Twitter that he was “deeply concerned” about the reports. “If true, this would be a gross violation of Iraqi sovereignty,” he said, noting that “Baghdad should determine what happens in Iraq, not Tehran.”
But this WSJ constitutes perhaps a rare admission, and lends credence to Iranian officails' claims that it is not looking for confrontation in the region with the United States or Israel:
Iran has exercised some restraint in confronting the U.S., according to analysts who noted that it has stopped harassing U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf and hasn’t tested a medium-range missile since July 2017.
While Tehran has rebuffed the Trump administration’s demands that it withdraw from Syria, it has pulled its forces out of the southwestern areas near the Israeli border at the behest of Russia, which sought to accommodate Israeli concerns.
However Washington analysts quoted by the WSJ write this off as “strategic patience” not an intent to withdrawal or play nice.
“Iran might have decided to slow down. But it’s a passing phase,” according to the analyst.