National Security & Defense

Iran and Russia Can Be Deterred in Iraq and Syria

Iraqi prime minister Abadi and President Obama (White House via Flickr)

Two weeks ago, I looked at how Russia and Iran were manipulating the Syrian civil war to their advantage. Now their malevolence is spreading. Today, Iranian-led militias are openly terrorizing the Iraqi government, and Russia’s military is mobilizing in support of Bashar al-Assad.

As Michael Weiss noted in the Daily Beast, Russia’s military deployments to Syria are combined arms in nature. With the personnel and associated logistics that Russia is establishing, Putin is rebuffing the West’s desire for a Syrian peace process that would lead to Assad’s eventual ouster.

Why is Putin acting now? Because Britain and France will probably soon join airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, and because Turkey wants tougher American action against Assad. Opposing these developments, Russia’s military deployment thus carries a three-pronged message to President Obama: We’re not going anywhere, and neither is Assad, so challenge us at your peril.

RELATED: Without American Influence, Iran and Russia Will Send Syria Deeper into Chaos

Then there’s Iran. Last week, the Iraqi Army raided Kataib Hezbollah (KH) — an Iraq-based Iranian puppet militia — in response to KH’s apparent kidnapping on September 2 of 17 or 18 Turkish citizens from a sports stadium they were building in Baghdad. KH denies involvement in the kidnappings, but they come straight out of Iran’s proxy-playbook 101: a well-planned operation by attackers in military uniforms. Iraq’s government felt it had compelling evidence to raid KH in response to the abductions, even knowing that Iran’s fury would follow. In kidnapping Turkish citizens, Iran is flagrantly confronting President Erdogan and Turkey’s powerful military. Iran’s leaders are showing that they’re willing to run great risks to deter new Turkish action against Assad.

#share#Still, as Iraq’s government raid on KH attests, Iraqi prime minister Abadi and Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani — a revered Iraqi Shia leader in Najaf (home to a Shia-theological school that counterweights Khomeinism) — are increasingly challenging Iran. They know that Iranian-supported militias such as KH only serve Iran’s sectarian expansionism. After all, Iran’s militias are now threatening Abadi’s ministers and generals on social media. As Iran-militia expert Luke Steg put it to me, the militia threats “show the animosity that is building between the Sistani and Khamenei factions operating in Baghdad.”

RELATED: Iraq: Beyond Shia vs. Sunni

Steg is right. Iraqi politics have deep roots in tangled alliances. As Iran attempts to undercut the government of Prime Minister Abadi, America must support him. More explicitly, if Iranian proxies try to terrorize Abadi’s government into submission, President Obama must be ready to unleash U.S. military power against them. This is the first true test of President Obama’s promise that the Iran nuclear deal won’t constrain American support for our allies against Iran. Our allies and foes will be watching to see what America does.

This is the first true test of President Obama’s promise that the Iran nuclear deal won’t constrain American support for our allies against Iran.

America can confront Iran and Russia as they try to outmaneuver us. We know from prior experience that Iran’s militia ringleader, General Suleimani, can be deterred: Iran becomes more aggressive when it sees the U.S. as timid. We know from prior experience (Bush using symbolic military flights to force a peace deal after Russia invaded Georgia in 2008) that President Putin can be deterred.

Ultimately, America remains the indispensable nation for human freedom and just peace. It would be a strategic and moral catastrophe to allow Iran and Russia free rein in the Middle East; the result would be more instability and terrorism that threatens America and the West. As the world is again learning, with thousands of desperate Syrian refugees streaming to a Europe that does not welcome them, when America fails to lead, many countries pay the heavy price

— Tom Rogan is a writer, a panelist on The McLaughlin Group, and a fellow at the Steamboat Institute. He tweets at His homepage is

Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at

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