US President Joe Biden began his term in office with a vow to replace “forever wars” with “relentless diplomacy.” Nevertheless, diplomacy needs enforcement. As the US retreats from world affairs, and especially from the Gulf region, it does not want to handle a collapse in Syria. In this sense, the administration sees that the status quo, though unsatisfactory, is the most realistic interim solution that ensures the least damage possible.
However, after the Nov. 23 missile attack on its Al-Hasakah base in Syria, the US might realize that a frozen conflict policy is unsustainable. As the outlook for a possible deal with Iran grows bleaker, the US needs a contingency plan to contain Iran’s destabilizing activity in the region.
Of course, diplomacy should continue, but there should also be a parallel course. This should work on reining in Iran in the region, as the US can no longer bank on a deal that will entice the regime to ask its proxies to reduce their aggressive behavior. Here, the US should coordinate with allies and adopt a clear strategy along with comprehensive action plans.
The point is, there should be both carrot and stick in America’s approach with Iran. The problem with the current US policy is its lack of balance. It has always been either offering a carrot or waving a stick. While Barack Obama adopted a laissez-faire approach, Donald Trump imposed impossible conditions.
Policies are usually disrupted and adjusted by events. When events take place, states are pushed to review their policies. Attacks such as last week’s on Al-Hasakah show that America’s hands-off approach emboldens Iran. Russia and Israel have an agreement under which the latter has a green light to bomb Iran and its proxies in Syria. Iran, feeling uncomfortable with this arrangement, is seeking to push the US out of Syria. This would increase its bargaining position with Russia and other players. Nevertheless, after the debacle in Afghanistan, a consensus in the US was reached to keep a small contingent in Syria.
US forces had been spared, up until a short while ago, by the Iranians, who do not want to spark a larger confrontation. They also do not want to disrupt the negotiations to return to the nuclear deal, since Iran’s main objective remains to remove sanctions. But as the Israelis increase attacks on Iran, and as Tehran loses hope of a revival of the nuclear deal and the removal of sanctions, it will play hardball.
Iran views Syria as is its terrain and it is banking on the loyalty of Bashar Assad to maintain its presence there. It is now taking a more aggressive stand toward the US to save its presence in Syria. Last week’s attack came a month after an attack on the Al-Tanf military base by a group called the Syria Allies Operations Room. The Iranian media, when reporting on the attack, made a comparison with Afghanistan and said that only military attacks drove the US out of that country.
Iran is now banking on the US being intimidated by the attack and that it will eventually leave Syria. Nevertheless, Iran does not want an all-out confrontation. It wants to exhaust the US in Syria, hence the calculated attacks. Although it is not in Iran’s interests to go to war with America, Tehran is assuming that sustained pressure on its positions will push Washington to leave Syria once and for all. Therefore, the US should expect more attacks of this sort. But the question is does the US have a plan, or will it leave and create more chaos, as it did in Afghanistan?
However, there is also a consensus in Washington that something should be done regarding Iran’s proxies. Tehran is known to keep raising the bar until it gets a slap on the wrist. What will the US do now?
The Biden administration should realize that, if it does not take the initiative, others will. The problem will be if many parties see the void and come with initiatives that clash with each other, resulting in chaos. Hence the policy of frozen conflict can be a policy of chaos.
Unless the US takes a proactive approach, it cannot guarantee that all other elements will remain the same. Though the status quo is the aim of the US, it is unacceptable for many players. Hence the initiative of the UAE to normalize with Assad. This initiative is a direct consequence of the passive US attitude.
At some point, the US will have to take action, as it cannot afford chaos. As US Gen. David Petraeus, who led the 2007 surge in Iraq, has said: “The Middle East is not part of the world that plays by Las Vegas rules: What happens in the Middle East is not going to stay in the Middle East.” Chaos in the region means a headache for the US and the West. Sooner or later, the US will realize that a passive approach aimed at freezing the conflict and avoiding a collapse is doomed to fail.
• Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese nongovernmental organization focused on Track II. She is also an affiliate scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
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