A pair of top White House officials is pushing to broaden the war in Syria, viewing it as an opportunity to confront Iran and its proxy forces on the ground there, according to two sources familiar with the debate inside the Donald Trump administration.
Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence on the National Security Council, and Derek Harvey, the NSC’s top Middle East advisor, want the United States to start going on the offensive in southern Syria, where, in recent weeks, the U.S. military has taken a handful of defensive actions against Iranian-backed forces fighting in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Their plans are making even traditional Iran hawks nervous, including Defense Secretary James Mattis, who has personally shot down their proposals more than once, the two sources said.
The situation in southern Syria has escalated in recent weeks, after a U.S. warplane shot down an Iranian-made drone that had attacked U.S. forces on patrol with Syrian allies near an American outpost at al-Tanf. The drone attack came after two U.S. airstrikes on Iranian-backed Shiite militias, which had moved too close to the Americans’ garrison.
Despite the more aggressive stance pushed by some White House officials, Mattis, military commanders and top U.S. diplomats all oppose opening up a broader front against Iran and its proxies in southeastern Syria, viewing it as a risky move that could draw the United States into a dangerous confrontation with Iran, defense officials said. Such a clash could trigger retaliation against U.S. troops deployed in Iraq and Syria, where Tehran has armed thousands of Shiite militia fighters and deployed hundreds of Revolutionary Guard officers.
Mattis, Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Brett McGurk, the U.S. diplomat overseeing the anti-Islamic State coalition, all favor keeping the focus on pushing the Islamic State out of its remaining strongholds, including the southern Syrian city of Raqqa, officials said. “That’s the strategy they’ve signed off on and that’s where the effort is,” said one defense official.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
The Pentagon has publicly asserted it has no intention to fight forces supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad, unless provoked.
“The Coalition does not seek to fight Syrian regime or pro-regime forces but remains ready to defend themselves if pro-regime forces refuse to vacate the de-confliction zone,” U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, said in a June 6 statement.
It’s not the first time Mattis and Dunford have found themselves having to push back against White House proposals for aggressive action they consider ill-conceived and even reckless. Earlier, the two opposed a tentative idea that would have sent a large U.S. ground force into Syria to oust the Islamic State instead of relying on local Syrian Kurd and Arab fighters backed by U.S. commandos.
The latest disagreement coincides with a months-long White House review of Iran policy, which includes an examination of the role of Iranian military officers and proxies supporting the Syrian regime, as well as the multilateral nuclear agreement with Tehran. The broad policy assessment has exposed divisions in the administration over when and where to counter Iran, officials said.
“I don’t think we have a serious Syria strategy or a serious Iran strategy, and they have to go together,” said Danielle Pletka, senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, who criticized the previous administration’s policy on Iran as weak. “Syria is Iran’s soft underbelly. Iranians have proven to us over and over again, they’re committed to keeping Assad in power. The idea of pushing back on Iranians in Syria is a wise one, but what is the end game?”
For Iran hawks in and outside the administration, the civil war in Syria represents a pivotal moment that will determine whether Iran or the United States exerts influence over Iraq and Syria. These Iran hawks fear that if Washington stands by, Tehran will emerge as the dominant player with a land corridor through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
But pursuing a wider war against Iranian-backed fighters in Syria would be “both unnecessary and extraordinarily dangerous,” said Colin Kahl, who served as national security adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden.
Targeting Iranian proxies in Syria would aggravate relations with Shiite-ruled Iraq and “blow up the strategic relationship” with Baghdad, Kahl said. And it would put thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq at risk of retaliation from Shiite militia just when U.S.-led forces are close to defeating the Islamic State.
“It’s unnecessary because the contest with Iran in Iraq and Syria is not something that will be won or lost in the next couple of months,” Kahl said.
President Donald Trump has employed tough rhetoric against Iran that seems to signal plans to confront Tehran, though the administration has yet to take any dramatic action along those lines. Although touted as a speech aimed at unifying the Muslim world, Trump’s addres in Saudi Arabia in early May made clear the United States was going to take sides in the Middle East’s sectarian struggle, choosing to back Sunni Arab states in an effort to isolate Shiite-ruled Iran. The Gulf monarchies and Israel have welcomed Trump’s vows to push back against Iran.
Some administration officials have argued for taking on Iran in Yemen too, by expanding support for the Saudi-led coalition battling Houthi rebels, who enjoy backing from Iran. Like Syria, however, a larger U.S. role in Yemen’s civil war carries an array of risks, and experts say treating Yemen as a proxy war with Iran could backfire badly. In their fight against the Houthi rebels, forces loyal to ousted president Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and the Saudi-led coalition that backs them, have worked with local actors with suspected ties to al-Qaeda.
It is unclear where McMaster falls in the debate over how to respond to Iranian proxies in Syria, but he likely sides with Mattis and the Defense Department’s position given his own military background. McMaster has also had previous run-ins with Cohen-Watnick and Harvey, both of whom work for him, but at times have sought to go around him.
Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had hand picked 30-year-old Cohen-Watnick, who is viewed as too inexperienced by some of his colleagues and distrusted by some at the CIA, and Harvey, who was a military intelligence advisor to now retired Gen. David Petraeus when he was commander in Iraq. Cohen-Watnick reportedly “told other administration officials that he wants to use American spies to help oust the Iranian government,” according to a recent New York Times article.
McMaster tried to move Cohen-Watnick to a different job within the NSC when he took over as national security advisor. To save his job, Cohen-Watnick appealed to two keys advisers — Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner — who then asked Trump to block the move.
Harvey has also tried to outmaneuver his boss. He tried to get so-called “Obama holdovers” fired from the National Security Council by appealing to the president and his chief strategist Steve Bannon. But McMaster refused.
While officials argue in Washington over strategy and vie for influence in the administration, events on the ground in Syria are moving quickly, raising the potential of an inadvertent conflict. The pro-Assad fighters, a mix of Shiite militias, Syrian troops and Lebanese Hezbollah militia along with Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps advisors, have continued to venture close to the U.S. forces at the al-Tanf base despite warnings to keep clear.
U.S. military officers said they will not hesitate to hit Iranian proxies if American special operations forces are endangered.
“If our folks are on the ground and they’re threatened, we will use air power, whether it’s against regime forces or pro-regime forces,” one officer said.
This article was published jointly with Foreign Policy.