Obama’s options in Syria were limited by his efforts towards the Iran deal. Trump doesn’t have those limitations and is free to strike Assad and Iranian-backed groups. Trump has called Iran’s bluff but risks Iranian-backed militias striking US forces.
As President Donald Trump enjoyed chocolate cake with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar a Lago, he ordered the military to do something former President Barack Obama had never dared – a direct strike Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Trump, a political neophyte then inside his first 100 days in office, had attacked an ally of Russia and Iran after intelligence services concluded that Assad had used chemical weapons on his own people, many of them children.
But Syria never fired back. Neither did Russia, and so far Iran hasn’t been able to either. The salvo of 59 cruise missiles that took out a handful of Assad’s warplanes went virtually unpunished.
The incident typifies the difference in Trump and Obama’s Syria policy, in which Trump seems to have successfully called Iran’s bluff.
Obama was pressed by a similar situation in 2013, after evidence surfaced of Assad violating Obama’s “red line” by using chemical weapons. Instead of following through on his threat to hit Assad in response, Obama instead agreed to let Russia step in and deal with the chemical weapons stockpile.
Towards the end of Obama’s term, it became clear why he shied away from striking Assad as he said he would: he was focused on the Iran deal.
“When the president announced his plans to attack [the Assad regime] and then pulled back, it was exactly the period in time when American negotiators were meeting with Iranian negotiators secretly in Oman to get the nuclear agreement,” Wall Street Journal reporter Jay Solomon told MSNBC last year.
“US and Iranian officials have both told me that they were basically communicating that if the US starts hitting President Assad’s forces, Iran’s closest Arab ally … these talks cannot conclude,” continued Soloman.
- REUTERS/Brendan Smialowski
But Trump has patently different ideas about Iran. He vocally opposed the Iran deal and campaigned on tearing it up. While Trump never followed through on breaking the deal, his administration has moved to put additional sanctions on Tehran after the Iran deal freed up over $100 billion of their funds.
And importantly, Trump has shown he’ll hit Assad if needed, and even hand over power to battlefield commanders to hit Iranian-backed forces if they threaten US troops.
Obama’s refusal to follow through on his red line or punish Assad militarily for a host of potential war crimes committed under his watch “was never about fear of World War III,” said Jonathan Schanzer, an expert on the Middle East from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“The fear for Obama was upsetting the nuclear deal. That was what they were protecting. It wasn’t about sparking some wider confrontation,” said Schanzer, referencing Russia’s 2015 entrance into the conflict on Assad’s behalf.
So while Obama walked on eggshells with Iran to preserve his deal, believing that Iran would exit the deal if he acted against them, Trump has had the benefit of entering office post-Iran deal.
Every review of Iran’s nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency since Trump took office has come back positive. To all outside observers, Iran appears in line with the letter of the deal, even after the April 6 strike on Assad.
But the tension between the US and Iran hasn’t resolved, it’s simply shifted. Nick Heras, an expert on Syria with the Center for New American Security, told Business Insider that Iran’s attention has settled on eastern Syria, where a US-led coalition is getting ready to dislodge ISIS.
“In eastern Syria, Iran is trying to box the US out,” Heras told Business Insider. “The Iranians don’t want the US to open up shop in eastern Syria. Iranians have sent columns of militias to try to force out the US in eastern Syria. The Iranians assess that there’s a threat that the Trump administration would build up a presence to try to stabilize eastern Syria.”
Iran has not taken kindly to the idea of increased US influence or presence in Syria. Since May, pro-Assad, Iranian-backed forces have attempted to attack US-led coalition forces three separate times.
Each time, US air power has replied and devastated Iran’s proxies.
“I believe that Trump’s instincts on the Middle East are not bad. He understands that he needs to project strength to these actors and he is. That’s giving us more leverage with actors that in the past Obama was fearful of challenging, and that’s positive,” said Schanzer.
But while the US is no longer being coerced into walking an Iranian-approved path in Syria, clashes with Iran could put the 500 some US troops in Syria at risk, as the US closes in on ISIS’s final strongholds and the fight for the future of Syria shapes up.