Trump's Big Test in the Middle East
The president-elect will encounter a region convulsed by change.
After decades of global stability, anxiety and unpredictability are now ubiquitous. A vacuum of American leadership is eroding long-standing alliances and emboldening challengers to the international order. Nowhere is this trend more evident than in the Middle East. The region’s conflagrations, its array of power-brokers, old alliances, and new coalitions, will test Donald Trump, and demand that his administration clearly define America’s priorities and interests there. Europe and Asia will be watching.
Trump has criticized the Iraq War, and forswore repeating such costly interventions—hinting that he will continue the Obama administration’s pivot away from the region—but his posture toward the Islamic State and Iran could put the United States on the same path that led to that conflict. Trump promises closer collaboration with traditional Arab allies, who want the United States to help end the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Yet that conflicts with the priorities of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has thrown his support behind the Assad regime, but with whom Trump would like to make common cause. Nor can the United States defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria—Trump’s top priority—while also confronting Russia and Iran, which backs some of the most powerful militias fighting the Islamic State. It cannot, in other words, choose both its Arab allies and Russia in Syria, nor both fight ISIS in Iraq while picking a fight with Iran.
While defeating ISIS in its strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa is a key step, it is only a first step. For Trump, preventing the rise of a successor to ISIS will require a diplomatic effort aimed at reaching political settlements in both Iraq and Syria. That means taking stock of the region’s changing needs.
Since Republicans last held the White House, the long-standing regional order that Washington relied on for decades has disappeared. In its place: a contagion of conflict fueled by popular protest against sclerotic authoritarian regimes, and sectarian and tribal fighting over scraps of broken states. All this, as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey jockey for influence to protect their interests where they must, and further them where they can.
Obama largely sidestepped dealing with any of this, focusing instead on defeating ISIS. What would happen after ISIS was his successor’s concern. Trump cannot afford such insouciance. The Middle East overshadowed Obama’s pivot to Asia, and it could do the same to the president-elect’s foreign and domestic priorities. The task for Trump is to arrive at a new regional order, one that would repair the frayed map of the Middle East and shore up its governments.
For decades, the United States relied on dictatorships to ensure regional stability. That bedrock is no more. The so-called Arab Spring popular uprisings buffeted state institutions, first provoking social strife, and in the worst instances, civil war. Sects and tribes—filial identities long hidden behind the edifice of dictatorship—saw threat and opportunity in the ensuing chaos, igniting paroxysms of violence that led to more disorder.
The most intense competition is between Sunnis and Shiites. This is a political rivalry that has been enshrined in the division of power in states across the region, from Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq in the north, to Bahrain and Yemen in the south. More broadly, it also afflicts Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Every turn in the regional collapse has ineluctably stoked the Iranian-Saudi rivalry.
As a consequence, the Arab world has been pulverized. Iraq and Syria are, for all intent and purposes, no longer nation-states in control of their territories. Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf emirates have been spared the worst of the upheaval. But after long relying on America for their security, they now lack the capacity to manage the region on their own. Saudi Arabia’s strength has also been sapped by low energy prices, uncertain leadership, and its taxing war in Yemen.
Power in the Middle East has moved from its Arab heartland to Turkey and Iran. Turkey weathered a failed coup, but does not seem to have lost a beat in aggressively pursuing its regional agenda. In a replay of the erstwhile Ottoman-Safavid division of the Middle East, Turkey and Iran are now poised to step into the regional vacuum. The two frequently coordinate their positions on the Kurds, and have signaled a willingness to shoulder some of the burden that Washington either cannot take or does not want.
Turkey’s efforts to cultivate regional influence have had mixed success. Its hopes of swaying power in Egypt, Libya, and Syria, were dashed early on, but President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Ottoman ambitions remain strong. Whereas America’s Arab allies have largely shunned direct military involvement in Iraq and Syria, Turkey has sought a greater role in operations to push ISIS out of its strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa. Its primary focus is to contain Kurdish nationalism, but it also sees itself as protector of Sunni interests in Iraq and Syria.
Iran is an even more important factor in the region’s future. It has long sown regional instability, while also doing much of the fighting against ISIS, emerging as the sole regional power wielding influence in Baghdad, Damascus, and Sanaa. It is in Washington’s best interests that Iran use that influence constructively.
Throughout the campaign, Trump depicted America’s military adventures in the Middle East as wasteful fool’s errands. Yet he also vowed to defeat ISIS, which implies that unless he reverses course and embraces costly interventions, he’ll have to work with Arab allies, Turkey, and Iran. Similarly, any tenuous peace to be achieved in the region will require regional actors’ support for, and enforcement of, political settlements in Iraq and Syria, given the role of their respective clients in the conflict.
Russia is already following this strategy, engaging both Iran and Turkey in planning for the endgame in Syria. If the United States cooperated closely with Putin over Syria, it would have to join his framework. It would be better if the United States, rather than Russia, were the architect of such a framework. The United States could extend it to include Iraq as well, but also gain the support of the Arab world. In so doing, it could limit Russia’s ability to maneuver in the region, and leverage those gains in Europe. Yet from the perspective of America’s own objectives, it would be better if the United States, rather than Russia, outlined and worked toward its own vision of a settlement—one that included Iraq as well, and could garner broader support in the Arab world. Doing so could limit Russia’s ability to maneuver in the region.
Turkey is a NATO ally Washington can work with. But relations between Ankara and Washington have been frayed. Trump would have to repair the damage. Turkey’s domestic politics will be a point of contention, but greater investment in diplomacy and trust-building could facilitate an agreement over the future status of Syria’s Kurdish region, paving the way for closer collaboration in launching operations against ISIS. That would be the basis for a broader agreement over the final status of Syria.
Iran is unlikely to emerge as a working partner for the United States any time soon. Still, the two nations have reduced tensions through the nuclear deal, which has served as the basis for tacit cooperation in rolling back ISIS in Iraq. Scrapping the deal will not help build on those gains in the pursuit of regional stability. Rather, it would further destabilize the Middle East. U.S. gains in Iraq could unravel, the Syria war would continue to fester, and the specter of greater instability would spread everywhere that Iran has influence, from Afghanistan, to Yemen, to Lebanon. Washington would be faced with fighting Iranian influence, while contending with Sunni extremism without Iran’s help.
Better, then, for the Trump administration to accept the nuclear deal and further its implementation. Isolating Iran may satisfy the critics of the nuclear deal, but it will not serve America’s broader interests in the Middle East.
Those interests lie in pursuing order in the Middle East, not in expanding the scope of its conflicts. Washington’s leverage with Turkey and its Arab allies, the nuclear deal with Iran, and gains it has made against ISIS in Iraq, could be a basis for achieving broader political settlements in both Iraq and Syria, and ultimately the region. That may not be easy, but living with the alternative—calamitous wars, more refugees, and terrorism— will be infinitely harder.