Can Trump Swing His Syrian Operation into a Crackdown on Iran?

President Donald Trump is after bigger game than a limited military response for Bashar Assad’s genocidal chemical attack in the Douma suburb of Damascus. He intends going for Iran full tilt at the head of a US-European and symbolic Arab force. His pick as Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and new national security adviser John Bolton, have put together a coalition for striking directly at Iran’s military strongholds in Syria. This campaign would override the president’s refusal to sign off on the nuclear deal with Iran on May 12 and help reduce it to a side issue.

The operation also aims importantly to start dissolving the Russian-Iranian bond in Syria, joined recently by Turkey. Moscow signaled Tuesday night, April 10, that it was not backing down in the face of Trump’s projected military operation when the Russian ambassador vetoed the US UN Security Council motion for investigating the use of chemical poison in the Damascus suburb. The rumors that the US handed Russia an advance list of its intended Syrian targets are unfounded, nothing more than a Moscow ploy to present a false front of business as usual.

The American operation itself is being cast by US military chiefs as a series of strikes by a united Western front. Trump’s challenge to Europe to repair the flaws in the 2015 international nuclear pact with Iran, else he would take the US out of the pact next month, has morphed into a grand scheme for the US and Europe to turn the screws on Iran by relentless, concerted military pressure on its bastions in Syria. France and the UK appear to be coming on board and, possibly, other US allies. Israel will also be along in some capacity, along with token air force input from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

President Trump has come to believe that this venture does not conflict with his wish to bring US troops home from Syria; and may even help. He has long contended that America should leave the Syrian mess to other players and such players should soon be in place.

The contours of the Trump plan were sketched early Monday, April 9, when Israeli Air Force jets fired missiles at the western part of the T-4 air bases near Homs, targeting the site of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards aerospace headquarters in Syria. Seven Iranian servicemen were killed, including a colonel. The US green light for the strike on an Iranian stronghold in Syria was advance notice for Russian President Vladimir Putin that the Trump administration would not limit its operation to Syrian targets.

This campaign, mostly likely focusing on air, sea and missile combat, will therefore be a far cry from the one-off Tomahawk strike against the Syrian air base a year ago. However, at this juncture, neither the US nor France and Britain command enough naval and aerial strength in the Middle East for following through on a major enterprise that could consume weeks or more. They are still getting their act together. While mustering the necessary firepower is the most urgent task, the campaign’s planners are challenged by four still unanswered questions:

  1. How far will Putin want his army in Syria to be involved in face-to-face action with US, British and French forces on the offensive? In previous issues, DEBKA Weekly reported the merger of Russian and Syria air and missile defense networks under a joint command operating out of Russia’s Khmeimim air base in Latakia. Until now, this command stood aside and did not interfere in US and Israel aerial operations over Syria. But now, Moscow sounds a lot less cautious on this score.
  2. Until now, Russia’s most advanced S-400 and S-3000 anti-air missile systems were not brought into play. But in recent weeks, Russia is increasingly taking a hand in Syria’s air defense operations. On February 10, Syrian air defense batteries were allowed to go into action for the first time against Israeli warplanes and missiles; they shot down an Israeli F-16. Would Putin now order similar actions against US, French and British cruise missiles, or even jets? On April 11, the Russian ambassador to Lebanon told a Hizballah outlet: “If there is a strike by the Americans then … the missiles will be downed and even their launch sites would be targeted.”
  3. Putin is furious with the British for laying squarely at his door the nerve agent attack on the former Russian spy and his daughter. Could he resist shooting down a British warplane if it flew within Russian sights over Syria? Or blowing up one of the two submarines which Prime Minister Theresa May has contributed to the operation after they reach the eastern Mediterranean?
  4. The deal on deconfliction zones on which Trump and Putin shook hands in Hamburg in July 2017 was meant for enforcement in all parts of Syria. However, in the interim, their agendas moved over to separate pages. Putin and his strategic advisers understood that Trump was interested in three key areas: the Syrian-Iraqi borderlands on the eastern bank of the Euphrates; the southeastern Daraa region abutting on Jordan and close to Al Tanf at the junction of the Syrian-Jordanian-Iraqi borders; and the Quneitra district opposite Israel. The Trump administration fixed on the latter two for keeping Iran’s forces and its proxies including Hizballah away from the Jordanian and Israeli borders. Trump’s interests therefore conflicted with any Moscow decision to allow its allies to take up positions on the two sensitive borders, even though he knew they were preparing a war of attrition on Syria’s two neighbors.

5. The possibility of Iran going for a second strike without Russia, most likely in the Gulf or the Red Sea regions for holding Gulf oil export routes to siege. (Read a separate item on Iran’s plans). Iran may additionally stir up escalated aggression on Israel’s borders with Gaza (as it has in recent weeks) and Lebanon.

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