In Syria, the US Must Prioritize Countering Iran

Iran’s retaliation with over 300 drones and missiles after Israel killed one of its top generals in Syria is the latest reminder of that country’s strategic importance to Iran’s regional ambitions.

It is for that reason that the mission of US troops in Syria should be expanded to include a new task: countering Iran’s destabilizing actions.

Since 2014, the stated US priority in Syria has been defeating ISIS. And while the terror group still maintains centers of strength in Afghanistan and the Sahel, in Syria it is “largely contained” and in a “survival posture,” according to a Department of Defense Inspector General report.

This provides an opportunity to refocus the US mission in Syria.

US Troops in Syria

Some might prefer to bring home the 900 American troops publicly acknowledged to be in the country.

Since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, there have been nearly 180 attacks on US troops in the Middle East, including those in Syria, resulting in the deaths of 3 servicemembers and traumatic brain injuries to at least 130 others.

The attacks on US forces are being undertaken because Iran views their presence as a threat. This is precisely why the United States should maintain its positions in Syria — and use them to counter Iranian influence.

Immediately withdrawing from Syria in response to growing Iranian attacks will be taken by Tehran as a sign of weakness — and only encourage more attacks against US troops elsewhere in the region. It will also create a vacuum for Iran to fill, enabling it to further expand its footprint.

Iran’s Proxies in the Middle East

Freedom of action in Syria is critical to Iran’s goal of arming proxies and projecting power across the Middle East. Iran maintains a stronghold in the country’s easternmost area of Deir Ezzor, which is also the main transit area of new fighters and weapons through the Iraqi border at Albukamal.

At a training area there, in partnership with Hezbollah, Iran has drilled new fighters from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq in drone warfare and other capabilities, and has mobilized many of them to the Golan Heights to attack Israel.

In 2018, Tehran set up an air base outside of Palmyra, which Israel described as critical for transporting weapons to proxies across the region, including precision-guided munitions for Hezbollah. It was this air base that Israelis claim Iran used to launch drones towards Israel.

Disruptive Effect

US troops, by their presence alone, have a disruptive effect on Iran’s activity. Instead of withdrawing, American troops in Syria should be tasked with countering nefarious Iranian activities while also keeping ISIS on the back foot.

The objective should be to degrade Tehran’s ability to use Syria for regional power projection, training, arming, transport, and logistics for its terror network, particularly Lebanese Hezbollah.

Operationally, this would require a combination of hard and soft power: kinetic actions against Iranian military infrastructure, arms depots, and training sites; blocking actions to disrupt the land corridor between Iraq and Syria that Iran uses to transport weapons; and identifying and empowering local voices to promote awareness of Iran’s threats to the local population.

Conveniently perhaps, the US’ major troop presence in Syria is also in the eastern part of the country, within a stone’s throw of Deir Ezzor and other areas with a high concentration of Iranian military presence.

But the United States does not have enough presence to take on Iran’s proxies directly, it would need to build stronger partnerships in this part of the country.

Counter Iran Mission

The US-led Counter-ISIS Coalition has built an effective working partnership with key local stakeholders, particularly the Syrian Democratic Forces and local tribes, over the last decade. Given that those forces might be stretched thin with the ongoing counter-ISIS fight, the United States should prioritize coordination with regional partners like Jordan and Gulf States who have been responding to Iranian threats emanating from Syria over the last two years (particularly the interdiction of Iran-affiliated drug smuggling).”

No additional legal authority is needed for such a counter Iran mission, given that Iran is already engaged in an ongoing armed conflict against the United States.

As JINSA Distinguished Fellow military law expert Geoffrey Corn observed, the fact that Iran has persistently attacked US personnel means “that the United States is legally justified in identifying and neutralizing elements of Iranian military power – to include their proxy militias – without the need to engage in a separate self-defense analysis for every military engagement.”

Nevertheless, Congress passing an Authorization for the Use of Military Force against Iran would make this mission unimpeachable legally and usefully signal resolve to Tehran.

The United States should change its posture toward the Iranian regime as it continues to threaten US personnel and partners. The timing is especially crucial for our partners, particularly Israel, who have also been under Iranian attack.

Diminishing Iran’s footprint and freedom of maneuver in one of its most strategically significant areas of operation can have a significant impact on restoring security to us and our partners.

Lt Gen Scott Howell, USAF (ret.) is former Commander of Joint Special Operations Command and a 2022 participant in JINSA’s Generals & Admirals trip to Israel.

Blaise Misztal is Vice President for Policy at JINSA.

Jacob Olidort was Director of Research at JINSA.

Originally published in The Defense Post.