Colin P. Clarke is Senior Research Fellow at The Soufan Center and an assistant teaching professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Institute for Politics and Strategy.
America's slow-motion retreat in Syria could embolden Iran and Russia and perhaps lead them to underestimate U.S. resolve to protect its interests in the Middle East. Clearer U.S. priorities and more deliberate engagement could reduce risk and help avoid miscalculation.
In Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East, a U.S. military drawdown combined with modest diplomatic exertion is signaling irresolution and weakness. Not surprisingly, Russia and Iran are teaming up to hasten these trends.
In several theatres, Russia is on the offensive. In eastern Syria, it is deploying forces closer to U.S. troop positions. In Afghanistan, the U.S. is investigating whether three American soldiers died from explosives detonated by Taliban insurgents who might have received bounties from Russia. In Iraq, the government is exploring deeper military ties with Russia, most likely in part as a hedge against a potential U.S. pullback and in response to the U.S. assassination of Iran Quds Force chief Qasem Soleimani. In Libya, Russian combat aircraft and mercenary forces have deployed to help rebels oppose the United Nations-backed government.
Meanwhile, Iran is reaching out to Russia. On July 21 Foreign Minister Javad Zarif made his second visit to Moscow in a month. In Syria, Iran and Russia have propped up the brutal Assad regime and watched idly as the U.S. bore the burden of destroying the Islamic State.
Even though at various points Iran and Russia have grown frustrated with Assad, they have advanced their cooperation. Advisers from the Quds Force have operated alongside Russian officers to assist Syrian forces. Iranian and Russian proxy forces—including Lebanese Hezbollah, Wagner Group mercenaries, and Shia militias from Iraq—have combined their energies. Moscow and Tehran also have some overlapping interests in the South Caucasus and Central and South Asia.
The Pentagon has voiced concern about a Russia-Iran relationship that transcends the conflict in Syria and involves training, exercises, and weapons sales elsewhere.
Iran and Russia may have set up camps to train Taliban fighters and helped ship them arms. Both seek a compliant Afghanistan and are arming local assets to give them clout. And while this alone is not a reason for the United States to remain in Afghanistan, it should be recognized as one of several likely potential outcomes if and when Washington does draw down in earnest.
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