Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Photo: Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images

President Trump’s recent decision to withdraw the approximately 2,000 U.S. troops stationed in Syria signals that Washington is unwilling to challenge Iran in a theater of conflict that the Islamic Republic has invested heavily in for more than seven years. This will have significant consequences for Middle East security as well as the success of the administration’s Iran policy.

The big picture: Washington is currently in the throes of a maximum pressure campaign against Iran. But absent a military strategy to counter Iran’s support for regional destabilization, it will be relying on sanctions alone to change Iranian behavior — which is no easy task.

Background: According to Ambassador James Jeffrey, “The U.S. cannot dictate events in Syria, but by its presence can contest Iran’s (and Russia’s) freedom of action.”

  • Tehran has stood by the Bashar al-Assad regime since the beginning of the war in Syria, marshaling countless Shiite militiamen as well as members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to fight and die there.
  • Iran is also trying to create a land bridge from Tehran to the Mediterranean, where it can more easily project power and transport men, money and munitions into war zones.

What’s next: Iranian officials have refrained from their traditional hyperbole in the immediate aftermath of the president’s announcement, but that may soon change. It is unknown what the fate of the U.S. strategy to counter Iran in Syria — which was recently reported to be economic — will be.

The bottom line: As Iran’s risk tolerance in the region grows, the Trump administration has undercut its own Iran policy by seeking to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. This compounds the message of irresolution sent earlier this year by removing missile defenses and closing down diplomatic facilities. While Iran contemplates its response to reimposed sanctions, those who favor escalation against the U.S. will cite this American move as proof of weakness and seek to press their advantage.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Go deeper

40 mins ago - Podcasts

The fight over fracking

Fracking has become a flashpoint in the election's final week, particularly in Pennsylvania where both President Trump and Joe Biden made stops on Monday. But much of the political rhetoric has ignored that the industry has gone from boom to bust, beset by layoffs, bankruptcies and fire-sale mergers.

Axios Re:Cap digs into the state of fracking, and what it means for the future of American energy, with Bob McNally, president of Rapidan Energy Group.

Democrats sound alarm on mail-in votes

Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images

Democrats are calling a last-minute audible on mail-in voting after last night's Supreme Court ruling on Wisconsin.

Driving the news: Wisconsin Democrats and the Democratic secretary of state of Michigan are urging voters to return absentee ballots to election clerks’ offices or drop boxes. They are warning that the USPS may not be able to deliver ballots by the Election Day deadline.

Nxivm cult leader Keith Raniere sentenced to life in prison

Carts full of court documents related to the U.S. v. Keith Raniere case arrive at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York in May 2019. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Nxivm cult leader Keith Raniere, 60, was sentenced to 120 years in prison on Tuesday in federal court for sex trafficking among other crimes, the New York Times reports.

Catch up quick: Raniere was convicted last summer with sex trafficking, conspiracy, sexual exploitation of a child, racketeering, forced labor and possession of child pornography. His so-called self-improvement workshops, which disguised rampant sexual abuse, were popular among Hollywood and business circles.