The Most Unnerving Visit to the Middle East in a Long Time
I recently returned from the Middle East, where I visited Jordan and Israel. I have been to the region many times, and this was the most unnerving visit I’ve taken in a long time. With the help of Vladimir Putin and Bashar Assad, Iran is winning. Sunni Arabs, Israel and the U.S. are on their heels. How did this happen?
Severe missteps from the Obama administration empowered Mr. Assad, who at the time saw no consequences for slaughtering thousands of Syrians. The death toll has since climbed into the hundreds of thousands, and the war rages on. President Obama’s decision to withdraw troops from Iraq, against military advice, led to the rise of Islamic State. He also ignored advice from his national-security team to help Syrian democratic forces when Mr. Assad was on the ropes. Hezbollah and eventually Russia and Iran came to Mr. Assad’s aid, entrenching him in power.
The Trump administration took the gloves off in fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The results on the battlefield speak for themselves. Yet I do not see a coherent strategy from the administration to combat Iran’s growing influence in Iraq and the domination of Syria by Russia and Iran. Today Mr. Assad is an Iranian proxy and a Russian puppet.
Listen to our military leaders. Army Gen. Joseph Votel, head of the U.S. Central Command, told the House Armed Services Committee last month that “countering Iran is not one of the coalition missions in Syria.” He added: “Iran’s malign activities across the region pose the long-term threat to stability in this part of the world.” As for the Russians, “Moscow plays both arsonist and firefighter, fueling tensions among all parties in Syria . . . then serving as an arbiter to resolve disputes, attempting to undermine and weaken each party’s bargaining positions.”
In the Golan Heights, Israeli soldiers pointed out villages under the control of ISIS and others under the control of the Assad regime—accompanied by fighters from Hezbollah, one of Israel’s mortal enemies and an Iranian proxy. This growing threat on the Israel-Syria border must be confronted before it becomes a launchpad for more rockets into Israel.
The biggest concern is Hezbollah’s militarization of southern Lebanon. When Israel withdrew from the region in 2000, the United Nations promised to provide a buffer via the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, to ensure that southern Lebanon would not continue to be a threat to Israel. On our visit, we were stunned by how pervasive sophisticated rockets have become in the area. The Israel Defense Forces informed us that Hezbollah—with Iran’s help—is manufacturing precision-guided weapons there. Under the nose of Unifil, there are thousands of intermediate-range rockets and missiles pointed at Israel.
Soon Israel will have to attack these rocket sites, which Hezbollah has integrated into civilian infrastructure such as apartment buildings, schools and hospitals. Israeli leaders are concerned that this integration will lead to high civilian casualty rates if the Jewish state has to defend itself. Israeli officials repeatedly reminded us of this fact and expressed hope we would be there for them. I intend to do both. I will hold hearings about the military buildup in southern Lebanon, the failures of Unifil, and the need for more missile-defense funding for Israel.
I hope the administration will develop a strategy that includes no-fly zones inside Syria, so refugees can safely return home, and that the U.S. continues to train forces who want to take on Mr. Assad. We must also make clear to Iran and Russia that they engage these forces at their peril.
Without change on the ground, Israel will be forced to face the growing threats from Iran and its proxies inside Lebanon and the Syria border region. Jordan cannot withstand more refugees, and the civil war in Syria has taken a heavy toll on the Jordanian economy and created radical Islamic threats on Jordan’s border.
There are no easy choices left, because the Obama administration allowed Iran and Russia to fill a vacuum created by poor policy choices. But the worst option is to remain on the sidelines. The antidote is a clear and coherent strategy to push back—not continue a policy of indifference.
Mr. Graham, a Republican, is a U.S. senator from South Carolina.
Appeared in the March 13, 2018, print edition.