Last Tuesday, in front of the UN General Assembly, President Trump gave a great, forceful, and bluntly honest speech calling Iran what it has been for a long time, a “rogue state whose chief exports are violence, bloodshed and chaos.”
But on the same day, the U.S. military acknowledged that it has closed an outpost in southeast Syria called Zakaf amid reports that American forces and their contingent of Syrian rebels had pulled out from an important base in the area effectively ceding the ground to Iranian backed militia.
The Zakaf post was constructed by U.S. forces to extend their presence in southeast Syria closer to Bukamal, an Islamic State-controlled key border town on the Syria- Iraq border where Islamic State’s most senior leaders have been sighted in recent months. It appears that the U.S. vacated Zakaf after the Syrian Army and its Iranian-backed proxies effectively cut off the U.S. backed forces from any overland approach to Bukamal, bypassing the coalition’s outposts at Tanf and Zakaf and linking up with their Iraqi Shiite counterparts at the Iraqi border in the east. Moreover, a week before, it was reported that the Pentagon accused the Russians of bombing a U.S. proxy group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces or SDF which was able to clear 70 percent of the city of Raqqa, the self- proclaimed capital of ISIS and was advancing towards the Islamic State held cities of Deir al-Zour and Bukamal.
It seems that while the U.S. coalition forces were in good faith focusing on fighting ISIS and eradicating them, the Iranians and their Pro-Assad proxies aided by the Russians, have been busy positioning themselves to step into the vacuum after the defeat of ISIS by attacking U.S. protected rebels, undermining and cutting U.S. military forces and routes, and taking over and holding territory.
It was a well-known risk which the U.S. ignored that degrading and destroying ISIS in Syria and Iraq would only help Iran and its axis of Shi’ite evil step into the created vacuum and keep the territories.
Until now the U.S. led allies’ efforts were geographically separated from the combined efforts of Iran, pro Assad-Syrian forces, Hezbollah and Russia to defeat ISIS. But now it seems that the buffer between those efforts disappeared through a calculated strategy by Iran to take over most of Syria and convert it to another vassal Shiite state, like Lebanon, despite the U.S. and its allies’ presence.
Now, the U.S. and its allies should rethink their priority of solely focusing on eradicating ISIS and start to compete with Iran and its proxies for territories of Syria before the Islamic State loses more ground. Now the fight is over the most important remaining prize of Deir- al-Zour district, the largest swath of Syrian desert to remain under the Islamic State’s control in southeast Syria.
First, the U.S. must break from any tactical military collusion with Iran and Russia to defat ISIS. Instead, the U.S. with its Syrian allies needs to defeat ISIS on its own by bringing in more military forces and airpower and recapturing the strategic border towns on the border with Iraq and let the Sunni Syrian rebels and Kurdish allies hold on to them.
Second, the U.S. cannot withdraw again under pressure as they did on Zakaf until ISIS is defeated and must stay there after they are defeated. Ten of thousands of Sunni civilians depend on the U.S. led coalition for their protection in the displacement camps in eastern Syria. Syria and Iran are likely planning to cleanse the Sunni people from Syria. It is now clear that Syrian President Bashar Assad will survive the rebellion and control most but not all of Syria. The U.S. must insist through military might or otherwise on establishing an autonomous safe-haven for Sunni Syrians in eastern and southern Syria in addition to recognizing an independent Kurdish State in northeast Syria.
Otherwise, Iran will create and establish its own Islamic Shiite caliphate spreading from Lebanon through Syria and Iraq to Iran itself. This would be a serious threat to the moderate Sunni countries like Jordan, and the Persian Gulf states, and eventually to Israel and the West. Replacing the threat of a radical Islamic Sunni caliphate with the threat of a radical Islamic Shiite caliphate is short sighted and could be a catastrophic strategic mistake to be regretted for generations to come.