The deal, also signed by Jordan, remarkably resembles the Obama administration’s Mideast deals that Trump (rightly) criticized so harshly during the 2016 presidential campaign. And sure enough, just like the nuclear deal with Iran and the deal with Russia on Syria’s chemical weapons, this new pact strengthens Iran — despite Washington’s assurances otherwise.
One part of the deal, meant to reach a long-lasting ceasefire in southern Syria, stresses the need for the “reduction, and ultimate elimination, of foreign forces and foreign fighters from the area.” Spokesmen for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who negotiated it with his Kremlin counterpart Sergey Lavrov, indicate that passage is meant to remove Iran and its proxy fighters from Syria.
But does it?
Lavrov said Tuesday that Moscow never promised anything like that. The Iranian presence in Syria is “legitimate,” Lavrov said. The only unwanted outsiders are “various foreign terrorists, militants who are attached to those groups of armed opposition that the US supports.”
Oops. A Mideast deal with Russia is falling apart before the ink is dry.
Just like that Nobel-worthy 2013 pact to rid Syria of chemical weapons. Since then, there were so many deadly chemical attacks in Syria that now Moscow and Washington can’t even agree on how to monitor them.
And just like the 2015 pact known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, ostensibly aimed at halting Iran’s nuclear progress (while allowing it to develop nuclear-capable missiles and intensify its research and uranium enrichment). Now even some of Trump’s opponents agree on the need to fix it, but Russia says, Hey, a deal’s a deal.
Why even sign Mideast deals with Russia when it doesn’t share our goals there?
Moscow doesn’t mind Iranian advances. Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed militias were very helpful in Syria, securing the Kremlin’s top goal of keeping the butcher Bashar al-Assad in power. For its trouble, Iran has won a large measure of control over the future of Syria, just as it controls neighboring Lebanon.
Tehran is setting up Syrian and Lebanese missile factories. As the BBC reported over the weekend, it’s now also building a permanent Syrian military base, located just south of Damascus and merely 30 miles from the Israeli side of the Golan Heights.
No wonder Jerusalem is nervous. Israel isn’t a party to the US-Russia deal, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted Monday, adding he “informed our friends in Washington and our friends in Moscow that we will operate” in Syria “in accordance with our security needs.”
Translation: The Israel Defense Forces will continue to forcibly prevent Iran and Hezbollah from creating a beachhead near its Syrian border. Netanyahu has long drawn a red line around such a presence, and the IDF has strictly enforced it.
This week the IDF redeployed Iron Dome anti-missile systems in the south, as Iranian Gaza proxy group Palestinian Islamic Jihad threatens a new war. At the same time, a tense political crisis in Lebanon may add an incentive for Hezbollah to attack as well.
The Saudis, who have instigated the latest crisis in a somewhat clumsy attempt to free Lebanon from Iran, are already beginning to siphon funds from Lebanese banks, the country’s most important economic lifeline. Meanwhile, even some of Hezbollah’s supporters wonder why the group should continue to bleed in Syria when the main enemy was always supposed to be Israel.
With all that, and with the Syrian wars winding down and Iran’s confidence rising, Tehran, or one of its affiliates, may be tempted to turn on Israel next. A new legitimation for the Iran-led coalition in Syria, signed off by America no less, can only make the situation more combustible.
In other words, Trump has just signed a pact that in many ways resembles the “worst deal ever,” as he often calls the JCPOA and other Obama deals. True, we must have some continuity in foreign policy, but this?