One of the staples of opinion among Syrians struggling to survive the twin onslaught of the Islamic State (ISIL or ISIS) and the Assad regime is that the United States “sold” Syria to Iran to close the deal with Tehran on nuclear weapons. The reasoning behind this extraordinary belief is based, at least in large part, on observable facts: the celebratory reactions of the Assad regime and Hezbollah to the deal’s conclusion; the insistence by Washington that Syrian rebels it trains and equips ignore regime depredations and focuses only on fighting ISIL; the refusal of the Obama administration to organize any defense of Syrian civilians under mass terror assault by the regime; and the prospect of Tehran acquiring the financial means to fatten its subsidization of Assad. The reasoning is defensible. Yet it leads to a conclusion that is profoundly wrong.
The truth of the matter is not so attractive. The United States and its P5+1 partners elected to set aside raising slaughter in Syria and Tehran’s decisive role in facilitating with Iran to avoid complicating and perhaps undermining the nuclear negotiations. Iran felt no such constraint. As important as it was to Tehran to negotiate an escape from sanctions while retaining certain capabilities in the nuclear realm, it never saw its support for Assad regime barrel bombing, starvation sieges, and chemical attacks as likely to alienate Western nuclear negotiators. This is not something for which anyone in the West can take pride. The salient fact, however, is that Syria was not on the agenda: neither to be saved nor to be sold.
Now, however, President Barack Obama and his European partners have the agreement they sought. Now they are, in a sense, unbound. Although protecting Syrian civilians from mass murder may not animate the current crop of Western political leaders, in and of itself, the battle against ISIL certainly does.
Western leaders, beginning with President Obama, grasp with total clarity the fact that Assad’s scorched earth survival strategy that has made Syria safe for ISIL. They understand with certainty that every barrel bomb, every chemical attack, and every child starved to death is a recruitment lifeline to ISIL, both within Syria and around the world. They fully get it that Tehran’s unconditional support for Assad regime lawlessness highlights the operational bifurcation of Iran’s objectives toward ISIL: kill it in Iraq, where it presents a security threat to Iran and its Iraqi allies; keep it alive in Syria, where it remains Bashar al-Assad’s opponent of choice; their client’s potential ticket back to polite society.
To “sell” Syria to Iran would, therefore, be to deed much of the country to ISIL. Except when the regime finds itself sitting atop something ISIL wants—an oil field, an airbase, or a desert town filled with priceless antiquities—Assad and the pseudo-caliph find live-and-let-live far preferable to fighting each other. Instead, they focus their respective military energies on eliminating anyone offering an alternative to each. The caliph and Assad want to be the last two parties standing in Syria: Assad so he can confront the West with a “me or them” choice; the caliph so he can recruit around the world as the hero combatting the twin evils of Assad and Washington. The other big winner in such a scenario would be Iran: its ability to support Lebanon’s Hezbollah from a secure portion of Syria would be assured.
To wage war against ISIL in one part of Syria while giving the Assad regime and Iran a free hand to terrorize civilians in the other part is to work at cross-purposes; it is the policy equivalent of one hand clapping. For many months, some senior administration officials have privately bemoaned the strategic vacuum created precisely by this unsustainable, self-defeating situation. Now, with the nuclear talks done, they are finding colleagues inside the administration suddenly interested in connecting the dots between ISIL’s successes in Syria and the Iran-abetted criminality of the Assad regime.
Unlike the canard that the United States is behind the creation of ISIL, the selling of Syria thesis is at least understandable if one appreciates the experiences and perspectives of those willing to reach such a profoundly negative conclusion. Syrians both inside Syria and around the world have felt totally abandoned by the West. They see a senior US official mark the twentieth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre by tweeting, with no sense of irony, “Remember—and never let it happen again.” They watch the Assad regime and Hezbollah do the political equivalent of a victory lap in celebration of what they think their Iranian masters have accomplished for their benefit.
That victory lap may be premature. Irrespective of what policy priority he may assign to the protection of Syrian civilians as a humanitarian imperative, Mr. Obama has a war to win against ISIL and a vote to win in the US Congress. The common denominator in surmounting both challenges is Iran: specifically, its support of ISIL-sustaining mass murder by the Assad regime. Throwing sand in the gears of Assad’s mass murder mechanisms is essential to winning the fight against ISIL. It may also persuade some fence-sitting Democrats in the US Senate that the administration is not credulous when it comes to Iran.
The United States has not sold Syria to Iran. Ideally not much time will pass before Tehran and its friends will confirm the West’s acceptance—operationally and intellectually—of a fundamental fact: that stopping them from doing their worst to Syrian civilians is the starting point for beating ISIL in Syria.
Frederic C. Hof is a Resident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.