The Syria Gambit
Last Friday, President Biden gave the order for airstrikes against two Iranian backed Shi’a militias – Kataib Hezbollah (pictured) and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada - operating in eastern Syria. On the surface, it was retaliation for deadly rocket attacks on US and allied personnel in Iraq earlier this month. And of course, that may be all it is. This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve assumed our foreign adventures were better planned than they actually were.
Iran, for its part, condemned the attack but also denies any involvement or direction. The Islamic Republic’s official line being that Iran (yes, economically crippled, isolated and sitting on boiling nation of discontent) is the region’s stabilizing force. And if you want people to believe a story like that, it won’t do to admit to are funding civil wars in Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria.
The 21st century world has gotten used to airstrikes in the sandy hinterland and it’s doubtful the action would have moved the geopolitical needle save an international attempt to resurrect the Iran Nuclear deal that Trump pulled the US out of in 2018. But the world is watching, so, in the spirit of good faith for which Mr. Zarif pleaded in the pages of Foreign Affairs, let us break the habit of a lifetime and take the Iran at its word.
Granted, this makes sloppy politics on both sides of the divide, but modern politics is more about scoring theatrical points at home that than achieving positive outcomes abroad. Seen through the game theory, however, our latest Syria gambit is a solid move. Nobel prize winning mathematician John Nash developed what’s known as The Nash Equilibrium to describe a stable outcome that results in making rational choice based on what an actor believes the other actor will do, with the assumption that both actors cannot improve their strategy to achieve their positive outcome.
It helps to know what the endgame for both players: Iran wants to dominate a stable Middle East. Its strategy to achieve this has been to destabilize the region through the meddling of deniable proxy forces in the hope that the US will withdraw from the ensuing chaos in humiliating frustration. Then the proxy militias can open the local doors to Iranian dominance. You do have to give it to the Persians for their long game.
As for the US, we also claim to want a stable Middle East, but it would help if we could tease emotion and point scoring out of the equation. American’s (or Trump’s) diplomatic blind spot was that Trump (or America) had to be declared the winner of any transaction. We’d do ourselves and the world a favor focusing more on desired outcomes rather that political victories. And here the desired outcome, ironically, is a stable Iran, not a crippled one. Diplomacy works best when both parties can take some face-saving victory home. Now, what’s the play?
Going forward: Yes – pummel the Iranian-back proxy militias in Syria that have been targeting US forces for a decade. Today (3 March) these proxy militias opened fire on the last US base in Syria housing US troops. So we keep pummeling, it is, after all a war. No, we are notretaliating against Iran, we’re suppressing destabilizing forces in the region (note the alignment of stated goals). As such both actors in the equilibrium must agree – at least superficially – that the situation in Syria has absolutely no connection with the nuclear negotiations or Iranian sanctions relief. There is of course a connection and it’s a pretty obvious one. In the polite world of diplomacy there is no reason to be quite so straightforward.
In the aftermath of the strikes, Tehran has refused European offers to re-start mediation to bring both Iran and the United States back into the nuclear deal. On the surface, Tehran’s volte face here isn’t about the strikes in Syria, but about sanctions.
The beauty of the Syria gambit is that Iran can neither admit to involvement in the proxies – which would risk an open conflict with the US, abandonment of its allies China and Russia and regime change in Tehran – nor can it well afford to cut them adrift, without risking loss of control over its proxies. Retaliatory strikes in Iraq, as we’ve seen, are tricky, but in Syria they sap both Iran’s limited resources, but political will at home in a way that the unifying effect of international sanctions never will. Tehran’s regional adventurism is paid for at the expense of a crippled economy – without delivering victories, the domestic front will boil over. Which practically, is the best bet for regime change and a non-nuclear Iran.
And what about the second player in the scenario? Joe Biden was elected, narrowly by clearly, to bring insane foreign and domestic politics back to terra firma. Evidently, much to the chagrin of both Republicans and Democrats – whatever that tells us. Because Biden isn’t seeking re-election, he can’t improve his personal strategy by bowing to either faction. This gives his administration, as well as the United States, a distinct advantage in that the administration can stay focused on the positive outcome, rather than the political points. This matters more than we think.
There are, of course, more than two players: It isn’t entirely clear that the European Union is quite ready to forgive America’s late “Trumpiness.” France and Germany have signed major investment deals with China – and while the US is marching towards energy efficiency, it’s Russia that is keeping the European lights on and the homes heated. It’s in Europe’s best interest to have Iranian oil on the market. They also know that a nuclear Iran is a greater threat to them than it is to us.
For the Biden administration to continue to lean on the proxy forces and lift the knock-on sanctions against Europe for doing business with Iran has a two-pronged affect. First, it’s a box of chocolates for the insulted Europeans, and those alliances need to be patched over in the face of a growing China bloc that is trying its best to isolate its main rival.
Regarding Iran, we are able to move forward in Syria, weakening Iran’s grip regionally by effectively isolating its proxy forces from the mothership, without triggering a blow back in either Iraq or escalate the prickly situation with Iran. Tehran is unable to accept responsibility for the militias without risking an unavoidable and unacceptable outcome (read: open conflict with the United States) that would destroy the regime. While its ally China would like to isolate the United States, it can’t do so yet, and knows it. Tehran must proceed as if the situation is not escalating, and for that matter, so should we. Our back isn’t against the wall but Iran is cornered. This makes them unpredictable and further destabilizes the situation as they limp closer to a nuclear option.
History and nature tell us that, unless you are certain of a clean kill, it is better to give the cornered a way out. Lifting the knock-on Iran sanctions for Europe, will give them this because the regime can sell it as an American blink at home. Let them. The truth is that there is little we can do change the reality on the ground in Iran without creating a larger mess. The future might be better served by tying sanctions to human rights rather than a weapon Iran knows it can’t use but we can’t really stop it from developing.
On the other hand, I was in Iraq at one of our draw downs, and it’s entirely possible that no one has thought this through. It does happen.