A tour of possible scenarios reveals what U.S. policymakers ought to be focused on as they chart the future of regional force posture.
The latest political-military drama in the Middle East—the United Arab Emirates claiming that Qatari jets buzzed two passenger planes, and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates’ announcement of an alternative to the Gulf Cooperation Council—demonstrates the ongoing row with Qatar isn’t ending anytime soon. It also underscores what we wrote when the dispute broke out last summer: it is long past time for the United States to rethink its force posture in the Gulf.
The Qatar flap will hardly be the region’s final challenge to U.S., allied and partner interests. In this second piece in a series, we look at various plausible scenarios that may arise in the next 10 to 15 years, and what they suggest about U.S. force posture. (A third and final piece will outline near- and mid-term recommendations for U.S. leaders.)
One such scenario starts close to home, when the U.S. administration refuses to certify that Iran is in compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — aka the nuclear deal. As political pressure builds on the U.S. Congress to resume crippling sanctions akin to those imposed in 2012-13, European allies diverge from the U.S. assessment on Iran's compliance and pledge to uphold the deal. The transatlantic split prevents Washington and its allies from negotiating a follow-on agreement before various provisions of the JCPOA expire, so Iran resumes its nuclear-weapons development and redoubles its regional destabilizing activities. Israel reacts by preparing to take unilateral action, even though the risks to its security have rising since the last time it pledged to do so (before the JCPOA), given substantial Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and militias’ sustained presence in Syria and a battle-hardened Lebanese Hezbollah along its northern border. The U.S. military, ordered to boost its efforts to reinforce regional partner security and deter Iran’s rogue behavior, draws the necessary resources from the European and Asia theaters, setting back plans for countering Russian and Chinese coercion and for modernizing the future force.
In a second scenario, the JCPOA is upheld, but the United States and its European allies still fail to negotiate a follow-on agreement. In the absence of an international, unified approach in the waning years of the deal, Iran’s Supreme Leader calculates he can covertly restart the program without significant blowback. Iran therefore clandestinely resumes the program as the various JCPOA provisions fall away. Suspecting Iran’s moves, Gulf governments and Israel feel more threatened, and they boost efforts to counter Iran’s activities in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. This regional escalation finally compels the United States and European allies to quietly seek patches to extend some provisions of the JPCOA, but short of a follow-on comprehensive agreement that will forestall all threatening nuclear pathways. Uncertainty lingers about Iran’s nuclear future, once again pulling the United States into deeper assurance relationships and deterrence missions with its regional partners.
In a third scenario, regional competition with Russia, Iran, and China constrains U.S. freedom of action diplomatically, economically, and militarily. Russia solidifies its presence in Syria by reinforcing naval and air bases, rewinds to the 1970s in Egypt through arms sales and basing deals, strikes energy agreements with Saudi Arabia and the Iraqi Kurds, and redoubles its military assistance to Iran. Chinese economic and infrastructure investments in the Gulf increase, with notable support for Saudi reforms under the Vision 2030 plan. Meanwhile, Iran continues to test the United States and its partners under the threshold of conventional warfare by using proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen; improving its missile, cyber, and maritime capabilities; and colluding with Russia to fill gaps in regional governance and to exploit waning U.S. influence. The robust Russian and Iranian physical presence increases the risk of escalation and constrains U.S. operational choices. Meanwhile, China woos Gulf governments with economic and technological partnerships, weakening perceptions of U.S. relative power in the region.
In a fourth scenario, the governments of Syria and Iraq fail to effectively stabilize and govern following ISIS’s expulsion from key territory. This fosters a new generation of Salafi fighters, who begin mounting attacks against U.S. and partner interests. Aided by Iran and Russia, President Bashar al-Assad’s control of the strategically important population centers and coast in Syria’s west, center, and east to Deir ez-Zour bifurcates U.S. and internationally-supported de-escalation zones in Syria’s northeast and south. Syrian Kurds control the northeastern territory and a loose affiliation of Syrian opposition groups largely control the south. International partners inject stabilization support to these areas, but the political vision for either region, disconnected from the Assad regime, remains unclear. The U.S. military continues to train, advise, and assist its Kurdish partners in Syria’s north even as NATO ally Turkey conducts near-routine interventions to disrupt Kurdish political and territorial control there. Meanwhile, Assad’s control of much of Syria continues to fuel the Sunni insurgency. Exploiting uneven governance in Syrian opposition-controlled territory, Salafi groups regrow their ranks and tap supply lines stretching across the border with Iraq.
In Iraq, Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militias continue to grow in influence, which in turn feeds the rising Sunni insurgency. Baghdad’s ability to respond remains weakened in the wake of 2017’s Kurdish independence referendum, which hurts cooperation with the Kurdistan Regional Government. The PMFs bristle at continuing U.S. force presence in Iraq, yet the United States is compelled to keep troops there to deter Iran and to counter the Sunni insurgents. U.S. leaders find it hard to make or execute plans amid the political uncertainty in Syria and Iraq, and the linkage between the fate of both countries.
These four scenarios suggest several indicators to watch over the next two to five years. First is Iran’s response to an anticipated harder-line U.S. policy, which may show whether Tehran can be deterred in the nuclear, conventional, and unconventional domains. Second, watch for Russian efforts to disrupt U.S. diplomatic and security approaches in the region, which could clarify Moscow’s ambitions and intent beyond Syria. Third is the emerging next generation of Salafi fighters; if it thrives, that could be evidence of gaps in local security and governance conditions that Iran and Russia can exploit. Fourth is China’s economic investment in the region, which may well help U.S. partners but erode Washington’s influence as their preeminent strategic partner. A final indicator is dynamics among and within the Gulf countries. “Unity” in the region is always relative, ebbing and flowing and often more disaggregated. Increasing Gulf propensity for independent and costly military action, combined with assertive Saudi and UAE leaders who seek to move their countries forward will affect U.S. choices about its force posture in the region.
Some unknowable combination of these alternative future scenarios will likely materialize. The United States will need to sharpen its strategy and corresponding posture in the region to place bets on its close partners but also adapt to a more agile approach. Our next article will outline possible steps the United States, working with allies and partners, might take in light of these future scenarios. The Middle East is in the throes of particularly “interesting times,” as the Chinese proverb wishes, and U.S. posture in that region must adapt accordingly.