President Trump is reportedly looking for a way to respond to Iran’s brazen attack on Saudi Arabia that would be proportional but not drag the United States into a new war. The best place for such a response would be in Syria, where Iran’s military and its proxies are committing war crimes and where Iran’s regional aggression needs to be stopped anyway.
The president and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) got into a public dispute on Twitter Tuesday over the administration’s Iran policy and a potential U.S. response to last weekend’s drone and missile attack on Saudi oil facilities, which U.S. officials believe was perpetrated by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Trump’s June decision to abort a strike inside Iran following the downing of a U.S. drone was “clearly seen by the Iranian regime as a sign of weakness,” according to Graham, who added that “the goal should be to restore deterrence against Iranian aggression which has clearly been lost.”
Responding to Graham, Trump tweeted Tuesday his restraint in June “was a sign of strength that some people just don’t understand!” Of course, the Iranians (and the rest of us) can’t possibly understand Trump’s intentions on Iran, because they seem to change all the time. Just this week, Trump went from saying the United States was “locked and loaded” to “There’s plenty of time … there’s no rush.”
Trump’s reluctance to escalate the military conflict with Iran is understandable. But there is a way for the president to show American strength, restore deterrence, punish Iran and also advance his own strategy of rolling back Iranian regional aggression. Trump could hit back against Iran inside Syria.
Strategically, Syria is crucial to Iran’s plan to control a huge swath of territory from Tehran to Beirut, allowing Tehran to expand a range of malicious activities aimed at undermining the United States, Israel and our Persian Gulf partners, including Saudi Arabia. Trump administration officials repeatedly insist a main goal of U.S. Syria policy is to compel the Iranian military to withdraw, but there’s been little real action to make that a reality.
Trump said Wednesday he intends to increase sanctions on Iran, but that’s not likely to change Iran’s calculus. It’s the sanctions that are pushing Iran to respond militarily in the first place. Also, Iran is violating U.S. sanctions by continuing to deliver oil — to Syria.
We know that this is relatively low risk because the Israelis do it all the time without provoking Iranian retaliation. Israeli planes routinely strike IRGC facilities inside Syria and now even inside Iraq to eliminate threats to Israeli security. Trump himself has used military force inside Syria twice, with no retaliation from the Assad regime.
Of course, any military action carries risks and should not be considered lightly. The escalation ladder is difficult to navigate even when you have an administration that can send clear signals — and we don’t have that now. Iran has the capability to strike U.S. forces in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, a vulnerability of ours we can’t ignore. But if Tehran actually attacked them, our retaliation would be devastating, and the Iranian regime should know that. That’s the whole point of having and maintaining real deterrence in the first place.
By using limited U.S. military force against IRGC targets in Syria, Trump can punish Iran and help Syria at the same time, advancing both the strategic and moral interests of the United States and our allies. Anti-interventionists on the political left and right would surely cry foul, accusing Trump of stumbling into a thinly-veiled regime-change war.
But the risk of action must be weighed against the risk of inaction. If Iran is allowed to attack Saudi Arabia with no real consequences, it will only be emboldened further. Then, the next Iranian attack could be the one that sparks the wider conflict we are all trying to avoid.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views and editorial stance of the SOHR.