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.