Saudi King Salman and Egyptian President El-Sisi at a meeting in Cairo

Trump’s Middle East blueprint: an Israeli view

  • Washington’s two biggest headaches in the Middle East are Syria and Iran
  • Both can be dealt with by a U.S.-Russian agreement on spheres of influence
  • Rebuilding the Sunni alliance against Iran may be the Trump administration’s top priority

The Middle East today is a focal point of global unrest. The range of conflicts encompasses ethnic, religious and tribal warfare; rebellions, civil wars and terrorist campaigns; outside interventions by superpowers; and a myriad of contending interests and alliances.

The United States, which had long exerted a major and (some would say) stabilizing influence in the region, has been mostly absent during Barack Obama’s presidency. Donald Trump will not have the luxury of ignoring the Middle East, since it constitutes a growing security threat. The president-elect made a number of pronouncements on the subject during his campaign, some advocating greater involvement, others leaning toward isolationism. On balance, however, the new president will have no choice but to jettison Mr. Obama’s policy of disengagement or minimal intervention. The most probable outcome is forceful reengagement, in keeping with Mr. Trump’s campaign pledge to “make America great again.”

As a pragmatic businessman, Mr. Trump is not likely to impose an ideology. He does not share neoconservative aspirations to bring about a new and democratic Middle East – if need be by force. But some of his closest advisors, such as John Bolton, are diehard neocons; others come from the hard right of the Republican party - Mike Pence, Newt Gingrich and Jeff Sessions, the prospective Attorney General – or the army, such as Lt. General Michael Flynn, his national security advisor. They all favor active intervention.

One can therefore reasonably expect that this is the direction he will follow. The question is how far he will go. Will it mean a return to massive troop deployments abroad? The more likely option is that he will not draw America into a full-scale war – but that is by no means certain.

The pragmatic alliance of Sunni countries was badly damaged by the nuclear agreement with Tehran

What is sure is that “Islamic terror” and “radical Islam” will be back on the table and fought vigorously, as advocated by General Flynn. The Muslim Brotherhood, which had enjoyed favor with the Obama administration, will quickly lose influence as its supporters are dismissed from sensitive posts. Key Muslim organizations in the U.S. will also be affected by the new policy, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which is led by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Burning issues

In the Middle East two issues, Syria and Iran, need urgent attention because they also threaten the West. President Trump will also need to restore the pragmatic alliance of Sunni countries against Iran, which was badly damaged by the nuclear agreement with Tehran and further weakened by President Obama’s open preference for the Muslim Brotherhood over President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi in Egypt, leading that country to turn to Russia for assistance.

At least at the beginning, the new policy most likely will entail some form of understanding with Russia as part of an intricate rebalancing of global strategic interests between the two powers. This will involve horse-trading over spheres of influence – say, the Middle East versus Ukraine – perhaps the way it was done at the Potsdam conference in July 1945.

Mr. Trump has hinted that he is ready to reach an understanding with Russia

Russia is once again well-entrenched in Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean and cannot be dislodged or circumvented. It is helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army and has set up naval and air bases with considerable forces. Local deployments include the advanced S-400 air defense system, which allows it to dominate Syrian airspace. Russia has also demonstrated its capacity to fire cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea to targets in Syria. This is a powerful deterrent and America will not confront it directly.

Mr. Trump has hinted that he is ready to reach an understanding with Russia and has already held a lengthy conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he invited to Washington. But what will he demand from the Russians, and what will they be prepared to give?

Syrian solution

From what Mr. Trump has said so far, it appears that fighting and destroying Daesh is more important than eliminating President Assad, and that will be his priority. This could well incline him to accept Russia’s insistence on the need to reach a political solution, with Mr. Assad staying in place at least for a transition period. This solution is even more plausible because it would be acceptable to Iran – to some extent and with some reservations – and to Turkey.

Saudi Arabia would be harder to persuade. The kingdom wants to oust Mr. Assad and remove Iranian influence; it fears for the fate of the rebel groups it has been helping. Riyadh could, however, be brought around by a new and more supportive American policy in the Gulf. But what about those Sunni rebels who launched the revolt against President Assad five years ago and enjoy limited American support? Would they be sacrificed on the altar of a deal?

There have been hints to the effect that Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin would encourage negotiations including most rebel organizations – except for Daesh and other extremist Jihadi groups. To bring these organizations to the table, Russia and the U.S. might jointly enforce a cease-fire that preserves the military status quo (i.e. no more Russian airstrikes or government offensives). The rebels would then participate in the political process and an interim government would be set up to organize elections.

Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addresses paramilitary rally in Tehran
Part of the new strategy would be persuading Russia to cool support for Iran and its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, here seen with Basij force volunteers in Tehran (source: dpa)

Iranian obstacle

This solution would leave Syria divided for an indeterminate period between the central government and several more or less autonomous zones ruled by various organizations. This is a solution Iran, Hezbollah and Mr. Assad would certainly welcome, especially since it is more than probable that by the time Mr. Trump takes office in January, they will have taken Aleppo from rebel forces and Daesh will be nearing collapse.

Mr. Assad would remain the dominant military force in Syria, controlling the roads from Damascus (and possibly from the Golan Heights) to the Alawite areas along the Mediterranean all the way north to the Turkish border. This control of the western part of the country gives the government an unassailable strategic advantage.

Turkey would doubtless accept such an arrangement, especially if its current ground offensive succeeds in pushing the Kurdish YPG militias – People’s Protection Units – from some of their positions along its southwestern border.

The main stumbling block in this process would be Iran – which Mr. Trump made a special focus of his campaign. He has repeatedly declared his intention to revisit the 2015 nuclear deal and curtail Tehran’s regional influence. Immediately after the election, Mr. Trump’s Middle East adviser Walid Phares told CNN that the new president would submit the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to Congress for debate.

Iran could be Russia's down payment to the U.S.

This is crucial, because President Obama has refused to call the document an international agreement, thereby bypassing the need for Senate and/or Congressional approval in the ratification process. President Trump will probably pursue the subject, especially since the International Atomic Energy Agency in Geneva declared in early November that Iran had violated one of the provisions by increasing its stock of heavy water – needed to build a nuclear bomb with plutonium – beyond the agreed 130 tons.

Ukrainian tradeoff

All this suggests that the first test of the new strategic rebalancing could be Mr. Trump asking Russia to cool its relations with Iran. A Sunni victory in a possible Syrian election would mean the end of Iran’s influence in that country and leave its ally Hezbollah isolated in Lebanon. It would also frustrate Iran’s strategy of building a so-called “Shia Crescent” from the Gulf to the Mediterranean.

This would be Russia’s down payment to the U.S. It would still leave Tehran free to pursue subversive activities in Iraq and Yemen, but the balance of regional power would have shifted decisively to the Americans and the Russians.

To achieve such a deal, however, the U.S. would have to agree to a Ukrainian quid pro quo. The Russians would demand a definitive renunciation of any plans for Ukraine to join NATO and the lifting of Western sanctions. The European Union’s acceptance would be required, but that may not be so difficult to contain considering the formidable military forces Russia has amassed on the Ukrainian border and the Western Military District – more than a quarter million troops, thousands of armored vehicles and hundreds of planes. Europe would be helpless in such a confrontation, especially if President Trump makes good on his threat not to protect allies who do not pull their own weight in defense spending.

Sunni alliance

Rebuilding the pragmatic Sunni alliance against Iran is another necessary step in this strategic rebalancing. The new president will need the backing of a strong coalition in the Middle East. Presumably, this coalition would include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Emirates and Jordan, with Morocco joining in from afar. Israel would loom in the background as an additional military deterrent and provide intelligence cooperation.

None of this will work unless Washington wins back the trust of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. This will require concrete actions. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states want to see a stronger American riposte to Iranian naval provocations in the Gulf and to missile attacks by Houthi rebels on shipping in the Red Sea. Reopening discussion of the JCPOA with Iran would be a welcome first step.

Egypt needs something akin to the Marshall Plan

Regarding Egypt, a comprehensive U.S. aid package should be formulated quickly so that the country can weather its present economic crisis and avoid plunging into chaos. What is needed is something akin to the Marshall Plan. This assistance would include investments by American companies, technology transfers, scholarships for thousands of students in technical colleges, a resumption of joint military exercise and the provision of training and equipment for the war against terror.

Such are the measures needed as a first step to start restoring order to the Middle East. If nothing is done, the situation will quickly get worse. It is too early to know how this deterioration would play out in Iraq, Yemen, Libya and the Arab-Israeli conflict. All of these issues must be tackled at some point. But as of today, it all starts with Iran, Daesh and a workable deal with Russia.

Obviously, this is only a possible blueprint. Devising and implementing a bold new policy will not be easy, and there will be many obstacles on the road. However, if there is no American reengagement in the Middle East, we will be facing more and bigger wars, a steadily rising death toll, a never-ending refugee flow washing up on the shores of Europe, and a complete loss of control in the region.

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