The U.S. Must Maintain Its Leverage over Russia in Syria. Israel Can Help

April 12 2018

Donald Trump—who recently announced an imminent American withdrawal from Syria—is now considering the possibility of punishing Bashar al-Assad for his recent use of chemical weapons. Michael Doran has some advice for the president:

A precipitous [U.S.] departure [from Syria] will cede leverage to Iran at the very moment when the United States-Iranian conflict is set to escalate. On May 12, President Trump may well decide to reimpose nuclear sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Restructuring the nuclear deal to American specifications requires convincing Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, that America is resolute in its determination to pare down the Iranian nuclear program. Retreating from Syria will foster the opposite impression. Trump should instead be thinking of exploiting Iranian weaknesses.

Here the Israelis are the key. Their [presumed] attack on Monday on an Iranian base in the Syrian desert is striking not just for the military and intelligence capabilities it demonstrated but also for its defiance of Vladimir Putin. Boldness and ability of this magnitude in an ally is a four-star asset that Trump’s Mideast policy has so far failed to exploit.

Imagine if Washington and Jerusalem were to develop a joint military plan designed to contain and degrade Iranian forces in Syria. Even a limited American military commitment to a coordinated United States-Israeli strategy would immediately change the balance of power on the ground. It would most likely engender more diplomatic cooperation from Putin while sending a powerful message to Tehran about the necessity of respecting American demands regarding its nuclear program.

Going forward, Trump should . . . keep mum about his plans. Meantime, he should reconsider his intention to withdraw. As it is, the United States has a small footprint in Syria—an estimated 2,000 troops. The right strategy could reduce those numbers further while gaining even more of that precious commodity over Iran and Russia: leverage.

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More about: Donald Trump, Iran, Israeli Security, Politics & Current Affairs, Russia, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy

Hizballah Is in Venezuela to Stay

Feb. 21 2019

In a recent interview, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mentioned the presence of Hizballah cells in Venezuela as further evidence of the growing unrest in that country. The Iran-backed group has operated in Venezuela for years, engaging in narcotics trafficking and money laundering to fund its activities in the Middle East, and likely using the country as a base for planning terrorist attacks. If Juan Guaido, now Venezuela’s internationally recognized leader, is able to gain control of the government, he will probably seek to alter this situation. But, writes Colin Clarke, his options may be limited.

A government led by Guaido would almost certainly be more active in opposing Hizballah’s presence on Venezuelan soil, not just nominally but in more aggressively seeking to curtail the group’s criminal network and, by extension, the influence of Iran. As part of a quid pro quo for its support, Washington would likely seek to lean on Guaido to crack down on Iran-linked activities throughout the region.

But there is a major difference between will and capability. . . . Hizballah is backed by a regime in Tehran that provides it with upward of $700 million annually, according to some estimates. Venezuela serves as Iran’s entry point into Latin America, a foothold the Iranians are unlikely to cede without putting up a fight. Moreover, Russia retains a vested interest in propping up [the incumbent] Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro and keeping him in power, given the longstanding relationship between the two countries. . . . Further, after cooperating closely in Syria, Hizballah is now a known quantity to the Kremlin and an organization that President Vladimir Putin could view as an asset that, at the very least, will not interfere with Russia’s designs to extend its influence in the Western hemisphere.

If the Maduro regime is ultimately ousted from power, that will likely have a negative impact on Hizballah in Venezuela. . . . Yet, on balance, Hizballah has deep roots in Venezuela, and completely expelling the group—no matter how high a priority for the Trump administration—remains unlikely. The best-case scenario for Washington could be an ascendant Guaido administration that agrees to combat Hizballah’s influence—if the new government is willing to accept a U.S. presence in the country to begin training Venezuelan forces in the skills necessary to counter terrorism and transnational criminal networks with strong ties to Venezuelan society. But that scenario, of course, is dependent on the United States offering such assistance in the first place.

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More about: Hizballah, Iran, Mike Pompeo, Politics & Current Affairs, U.S. Foreign policy, Venezuela