But as Henry Kissinger wrote last month, a campaign dislodging ISIS from the Fertile Crescent could also lead to “the emergence of an Iranian radical empire.” How so? Because in spite of the many nuances and complications of Middle East politics, the conflict now burning from Baghdad to Beirut has devolved into a zero-sum game. Once the United States eschewed a heavy footprint on the ground, Iran could only profit from the anti-ISIS campaign, which props up its friends and clients in Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut. Fighting ISIS, at this point, means assisting the Islamic Republic in achieving its long-cherished aim of a land-bridge linking Tehran, through Baghdad and Damascus, to the eastern Mediterranean.
Since firing missiles at Assad’s and Russia’s positions in Syria in April, the Trump administration has taken a hands-off attitude toward the regime in Damascus. It’s worse elsewhere. In Iraq, American forces are teamed with an Iraqi military that works in close coordination with Popular Mobilization Forces under control of the IRGC. Trump’s national security adviser, H. R. McMaster, has reportedly “directed the NSC staff to look at ways the U.S. can be more aggressive in its posture towards Hezbollah” in Lebanon. Meanwhile, though, the administration continues to fund the Lebanese Armed Forces, which are little more than a Hezbollah auxiliary these days. The United States has not partnered directly with Iran, Assad, and Russia but rather acted through cutouts. Still, the effect is the same.