U.S. policy towards the Middle East yet again faces a crisis of presidential engagement, or rather the lack of it. Put differently, what Obama began may become a hallmark of Trump’s approach—heading away from the region. Or at best, Hillary’s-presidency-that-wasn’t may manifest itself over there: Obama’s plus some vitamins and supplements. No grand gestures, no grand vision, and no grand deal. Just more of the plodding, Realist ‘same-same’ incrementalism that marked the previous eight years, albeit with a bit of tweaking. Many in Washington may applaud that, but then again, their reaction connects back to a series of miscalculations, miscalculations that very few seem interested in re-visiting.
A consensus view in DC seems to be forming: keep Trump away from the Middle East. The task of pre-empting and thwarting any uniquely Trumpian approach seems to have been delegated to a pentumvirate of “five good men”, as Thomas Friedman put it last week. They must act quickly, for there is indeed a policy taking shape in the Oval Office. (An interesting facet of the new Washington is that we now need to distinguish between an ‘Oval Office’ and a ‘White House’.)
Will Trump eventually manage to bring his panache, showmanship and exuberance to Middle Eastern policy? Can he succeed in reshuffling the deck and dealing out a new hand? The window on that opportunity is closing shut, rapidly. The pentumvirate needs to convince him that that real estate of the globe is too cumbersome, and not prestigious enough, for the Trump brand, before others in his Oval Office get the ball rolling in the other direction.
What would a Trumpian policy for the Middle East look like?
One essential element would be a manifestation of Trump’s ‘ahead of schedule, under budget’ signature credo. Yet the man is not a mere rug merchant camped out in the bazaar, eager to for a quick turnaround. The other essential element of his unique style is that it has got to be ‘yuuge’; he enjoys constructing something ornate, flashy and enduring, then slapping his name on it in large block letters. Trump would go for a policy that brings about a peace that lasts a generation or two for the Middle East. It also helps if he manages to fix what is perceived by many in Washington and around the world as his predecessor’s greatest failing.
So here’s what I imagine is being considered in the Oval Office: in a few months, Trump will unveil his first grand foreign policy initiative, centering it on the Middle East, and specifically on Syria. In other circumstances, it may have been centered on bringing peace and reconciliation to eastern Ukraine, but given the ‘reds-under-the-bed’ anxiety pervading Washington, the Oval Office will move down the list and arrive at the second tough international challenge: disentangling the Syrian knot.
The ultimate goal of such a policy is to rearrange realities on the ground in such a way that would make a resolution of the Syrian crisis more likely. It must involve a containment or rollback of Iran’s influence there, a buy-out of Russia’s investment in the conflict, and bringing in regional powers such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia to fill up the territories vacated by a retreating Islamic State. Saudi and Gulf money is supposed to pour in to rebuild what much of the civil war had destroyed. These monies will also matter when paying off Russia, and standing-up the governments of Jordan and Lebanon (and maybe even Egypt). There may be two riders to the deal: neutralizing Iraq (or even attempting to pry it away from Iran’s orbit), as well as—and here’s where it gets quite ambitious—laying the groundwork for an Arab-Israeli peace accord, with Gulf money propping up Palestinians for an interim period, and diplomatic representation by Arab states in Jerusalem, alongside a brand new U.S. embassy. The idea seems to be that the dividends of peace should precede a two-state or one state solution, consequently making it easier to decide on what course to take after the rewards of peace are realized and made tangible for ordinary Arabs and Israelis.
That’s all quite the tall order, but it fits what would constitute a mega-deal that Trump would want to adopt.
The mechanics, or rather the groundwork, for such a deal may already be in the works, so is the effort to derail them. Here’s how individual actors would factor in the deal, as well as the ways they may be leveraged by those in Washington who do not want the deal to go through:
–Turks (and Kurds): Erdogan may have promised Trump that the Turkish armed forces would do the heavy lifting in Northern Syria against the Islamic State, with the Turks taking the fight to Raqqa. Tukey’s role on that front would entail 20,000 Turkish troops, alongside 5,000 Arab and Turkmen paramilitaries, to be mobilized and amassed by early May. There is serious pushback in some administration circles against this role, much of it emerging out of late Obama era plans for Raqqa. For the time being, it seems that there is a gentlemanly stand-off: no U.S. decisions would be made for Raqqa until after the April 16 referendum in Turkey. The pro-Turk faction in the Oval Office (and the vice presidency) may argue that an Erdogan win would make it very difficult to ignore him, or worse, to upset him. According to their calculus, Erdogan is a much better fit as the face of the ‘pan-regional Sunni ally’—as far as imagery and symbolism go—than General Sisi, who has his own cheerleaders in the administration. But the latter’s argument seems to be on the wane when the choice stands between Sisi and Erdogan.
Those who oppose a role for Turkey in Raqqa are making several counter arguments: it would antagonize the Kurds; it would empower Erdogan to go even further authoritarian; the Turkish military is not up to snuff for such an operation; and it wastes time to such an extent that Raqqa may end up falling to the Syrian regime before the Turks even get ready. However, that last argument seems to have been nullified by the recent rebel offensive in Hama and Damascus, which incidentally (…or not) serves to distract the Syrian regime from the Raqqa front.
The case for the relative weakness of the Turkish military is premised on its lack of talent after a decade-long succession of purges directed at its officer corps, most recently during last summer’s coup attempt, and by citing the bumbling nature of the Turkish attempt to seize al-Bab. They also make the case that the Turkish public is not ready for hundreds, if not thousands, of casualties resulting from a military adventure deep into Syria.
Erdogan may have his own reasons as to why he needs to do this. First, fulfilling his promise would purchase continuing relevance in the eyes of Trump. Second, getting the insular, cultish, and paranoid officer corps to follow his orders for a big campaign would be the final stage in his years-long drive to wield his authority over them. And when it comes to casualties, Erdogan may think that the Turkish public’s tolerance for such bloodletting has increased after the hundreds of casualties that fell during the coup attempt, and the IS and PKK terrorism assaults preceding and following it.
But where does all this leave America’s de-facto alliance with Syria’s Kurds? Erdogan, along with a sizable proportion of the Turkish public, does not distinguish between the PKK and Rojava. There is credible evidence to warrant this view. It is not that irrational for him to demand that the U.S. pick a side: either Turkey, or Turkey’s enemy, the PKK. There’s political value in such posturing. Erdogan has turned up the temperature on identity politics for almost two years now, and he can see tangible results. There’s very little convincing him otherwise as to the utility of such an approach.
If the Turks were to move on Raqqa, they would either have to clash with the Syrian regime en route, or alternately they would clash with the PKK. As things stand now, they would definitely choose to clash with the latter. And they may choose to do so by heading to Raqqa through Tell Abyadh, rather than through al-Bab (via Minbij), just to make this point. Should the Kurds fight back, then the Turks would hold the Americans responsible. The Kurds may have sensed such subtle shifts happening, and that may explain why they have been less subtle than usual in exploring avenues of cooperation with the Russians and the Assad regime, as a hedge against America’s forthcoming pro-Turkey tilt.
But at the end of the day, even with all the romanticizing of the YPG in the Western press, with their warrior Amazons and all, and with the incredible strides they have made against the Islamic State, and even with the fig-leaf of working with non-Kurdish Syrians as part of the SDF, the Kurds have far less geostrategic clout than Turkey. Even Russia would choose Turkey over the Kurds. There are those who are sympathetic to the Kurds within the Oval Office—reportedly even the president himself—but such sympathy won’t manifest itself in political dividends for Rojava. The Barzanis in Arbil would likely cash out on this goodwill down the road, with Erdogan looking on approvingly as their emerging patron. (Whatever happens to the ‘other’ Kurds of the KRG is marginal to this plan.)
But then again, things are moving rapidly around Raqqa these days, with acquiescence of the Pentagon and America’s European allies. There may also be some within the Turkish military who would be quite content if they ended up arriving late to the party. That gentlemanly agreement to wait until after the Turkish referendum may be rendered obsolete if the Kurds are nudged into early action based on some opportunity or provocation provided by the Islamic State.
–The Saudis (and Emiratis, Jordanians, and Egyptians): Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman came to Washington armed with a power-point slide show and a comprehensive and ambitious regional plan, meaning to capture Trump’s attention. He succeeded. So much so that three top Oval Office functionaries escorted him to the Pentagon, seemingly with the message that the president wants the prince’s plan enacted. It also helps that Saudi Arabia is pledging to plow tens of billions of dollars into America’s economy, and that Saudi lobbying largesse—always impressive—may have tripled and may have even quadrupled over the last few weeks throughout the labyrinths of DC.
(US President Donald Trump and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman speak to the media in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC, on March 14, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / NICHOLAS KAMM)
The contours of the plan have been kept (mostly) under wraps. That secrecy could be more of a function of intra-Saudi rivalry and friction than anything that has to do with Washingtonian dynamics. Bin Salman needs Trump to sign off on his vision before he can turn around to his royal cousins and face them with a fait accompli: Saudi Arabia has made promises, and these promises must be kept if its unique relationship with America is to be maintained. Bin Salman may cite Trump’s phone call with his father back in late January as the starting point when the American president asked for Saudi Arabia’s help in creating safe zones in Syria, and that the Saudis had to rise to the occasion.
I’d imagine that the gist of the plan is to contain and rollback Iran. Such a rollback would entail having the Saudis taking on an activist and direct role in Syria. There is to be a safe-zone tens of mile deep into Syrian territory hugging the Syrian-Jordanian border. There won’t be enough time to prop-up a significantly adept local Syrian fighting force, hence the actual fighting against Islamic State pockets and policing of the safe zone would be handled by Saudi, Jordanian, Emirati and possibly Egyptian forces. The Egyptians are still negotiating their fees, while the Jordanians got an aid package yesterday from the Saudis that includes renovating the Aqaba-Amman highway.
Instead of heading north to battle the Syrian regime, this safe zone would serve as the base for a foray into the Syrian side of the Euphrates Valley, setting up the battle for the town of Deir Azzour (which, along with its hinterland extending to Albu Kamal and al-Qa’im in Iraq, is actually larger, and more strategically significant, than Raqqa) as the final knockout blow levelled against the Islamic State.
The Saudis would be very comforted if the Turks were to be situated nearby in Raqqa at that point. Much has been made of Saudi-Turkish tensions, over such contentious issues such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet the Saudis know that Erdogan is not a Muslim Brother. He may have sympathized with Egyptians Islamists at some point, but his brand of Islamism came out from a very different tradition. Furthermore, the Saudis have been using an Iraqi-born Meccan cleric, with whom Erdogan and his family have deep spiritual ties, as their conduit into the latter’s good graces. Such direct, personal relationships are further augmented by another critical one through a retired Turkish military adviser, with long-standing relations with the Saudis, who had been appointed by Erdogan to his inner circle since the coup.
I understand recent diplomatic overtures by Saudi Arabia towards Iraq to be all about what the Saudis want from Baghdad as it relates to this plan, even though the Saudis have not be explicit with the Iraqis about what they are embarking on. The Saudis want the Iraqi government to bar Qasim Soleimani from crossing the Iraq-Syria border and getting to Deir Azzour first, thus linking up with the Syrian regime pocket still surviving there, surrounded by the Islamic State. The Saudis, though, seem to have indicated to Iraq that they are willing to spend a lot of money rebuilding Anbar, Mosul and other war ravaged Arab Sunni territories in Iraq that have been liberated from the Islamic State.
With the Turks in Raqqa, and the Saudis in Deir Azzour, and the Iranians held back, better concessions can be drawn out from the Assad regime, consequently leading to a settlement of the Syrian conflict, or so the thinking goes. The Emiratis and Jordanians are already going around Washington seeding the soil with the notion that an accommodation with the Assad regime is the only realistic endpoint of this conflict. The Emiratis have taken on this role because the Saudis haven’t left much for them to do, and even though the Emiratis may voice their doubts about Bin Salman’s plans to their friends in the administration, they also know that they don’t have the strategic wherewithal to be a substitute for the Saudis as regional players; remember Qatar? The Jordanians for their part want Bashar al-Assad to know that they are not coming after him, so that he doesn’t come after them. Besides, there’s little the Jordanians can do other than go along with what the Americans and the Saudis want. The Egyptians once thought that Trump would champion them back into a pan-regional role, only to find out that with Trump you need to give before you can take, and Gen. Sisi has little to give. So, they’ll just go along with the ride on this all-expense-paid Saudi adventure.
There are some potential glitches. First, the Iranians may not sit back and let this unfold. Second, the Saudis are up to their necks in Yemen, and cannot be assured that their forces would perform well in an equally complicated battlefield like that in southern and eastern Syria. Third, many of Bin Salman’s cousins find it foolish to engage in another cross-border military adventure; in fact, many think of him as a fool to begin with, according to press reports here and there. Fourth, for all this to work, there needs to be lots of Saudi and Gulf money lubricating the wheels, and it stands to reason that the price tag—rebuilding Syria, rebuilding Sunni Iraq, paying off Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, and Russia, and paying for U.S. military cover—may be so hefty, that even the Saudis wouldn’t be able to afford it. These are, for the most part, the same arguments that led the Obama administration to turn down Saudi Arabia’s offer of intervention in Syria made a year ago.
That said, a military luminary as significant as General Petraeus has personally vouched that the Saudi military can now take on military tasks in Syria, having learned many painful lessons from its sojourn into Yemen. Besides, one need not be up to the standards of the U.S. military to still fight and win wars; by that measure, even the British wouldn’t pass muster. Moreover, the vestiges of the Islamic State in southern Syria and in the Euphrates Valley are a much softer target nowadays after the jihadists had been savaged by fighting against the Iraqi military and the YPG/SDF. And if the Oval Office has taken a shine to Bin Salman, there’s very little his cousins can do to position themselves as a counterweight to him within the familial hierarchy. As for how Saudi is supposed to finance this war, well, a few hundred billion over five years would still go further than what any other international or regional actor is willing to pay.
But why would the Saudis do something so out of character as intervening militarily in Syria? Because they have to. Saudi youths watched Aleppo being retaken by the Syrian regime, and are now watching Mosul being liberated. After decades of sectarian messaging, those youths understand those events as victories for Alawites and Shi’as with Iran looming over them, while the Sunni powers of the region, namely their own country, waits out the massive conflagration from the sidelines. The Bin Salman clique of the royal family may feel compelled to project power and vigor outwards, if only to sell Saudi youth on the notion that their rule is still relevant. They need to reclaim the mantle of Sunnidom, especially with the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda out there making the case, each in their own way, that the House of Saud are ‘has-beens’.
–The Iranians (and some Iraqis): From the listening post of Baghdad, one gets the sense that the Iranian national security establishment, in all its factions, is terrified of Trump. They see in him the prospect of the first U.S. president, since the advent of the Islamic Revolution, who is unwilling to play the usual game of conflict through proxies and cut-outs that’s been going on for decades, and would consequently take America’s F-16s directly to the skies over Tehran if the latter misbehaves. They don’t believe he intends to bring about regime change, or even to use ground troops: Trump’s war with Iran would be a fortnight of fireworks taking out hundreds of strategic Iranian military and civilian assets, effectively hobbling the country, should one of their provocations, however slight, test his patience. But they also know that he isn’t ready to give such an order, and that he needs time (probably 18 months) and money to double America’s naval and airpower capacity in the Persian Gulf for the light show to kick off in earnest.
But the Iranians can hit back by lighting fires across the region, can’t they? The deterrent value of Iranian sleeper cells in the Gulf or Gaza, or Hezbollah raining down katyushas on Israeli settlements, is not what it used to be. For this is the other part of the equation: they don’t think that Trump cares that much if the Saudis, Israelis, or the Bahrainis for that matter, get bruised. The Iranians could do most of their damage in Iraq, yet by the Iranian calculus, Trump may just let them get away with burning down Baghdad. Doing their worst is not that intimidating for Trump, or so they’ve concluded.
And here’s the rub: the larger plan for the Middle East can only succeed if the Iranians are that scared of a U.S. president. If Trump gets disengaged from the region, same way as Obama did, Bin Salman’s plan, Erdogan’s foray into Raqqa, and much else would be doomed to strategic futility and unknown consequences, for there is very little holding back Iran’s potential for mischief.
Oddly enough, many heavy-hitters in Tehran (for example, the likes of Velayati and Shamkhani) seem to be sighing in relief that Trump is willing to bash them, for it puts to rest their own internal misgivings about Suleimani’s plan to fight Sunnis across the region to a standstill, a fight that has cost Iran much more than it had gained over the last six years. Furthermore, they can see that there isn’t much more they can do with the landscape: even if Qasim Suleimani pushes through to Deir Azzour, even if they get their acolytes to win big in Iraq’s forthcoming elections, even if they can scrounge together enough cash to keep the Syrian lira afloat, they have effectively arrived at a strategic dead-end. How useful is the Middle East for them if the Americans refuse to come out and play? Not much. It’s too expensive, and too difficult to manage. At least with the Trump plan, there may be a distant, grand deal in the offing if they can offer Trump a sweet enough of a lure, say, by dispensing with Suleimani, for example.
They point to Iraq, their prized jewel after all that toing and froing, as an example of the elastic limit of Iran’s projection of power. As influential as Iran can get, there’s no superseding Najaf’s influence. And as much money as Iran can pour into the country (and they don’t have that much to begin with), whatever sums they can deliver would be paltry by the standards of Iraqi politicians hell-bent on fleecing their own country’s multi-billion dollar budgets. It is also looks like the situation in Baghdad won’t remain static for long, with overt diplomacy blossoming with Riyadh and Ankara, and another, more portentous yet for now hidden channel taking shape between the Saudi royal court and Grand Ayatollah Sistani.
–The Russians: well, this is an easy one, for that meme about Russian imperial ambitions in the Middle East never rang true. Here’s a book that can clarify much for you: Russia and the Syrian Conflict; Moscow’s Domestic, Regional and Strategic Interests, by Nikolay Kozhanov (2016). The ‘tell’ was always that input from Russia’s old hands on the Middle East was not taken seriously by the Kremlin, where a small circle of national security types around Putin concocted policy. How much more military expenditure does Russia want to invest in Syria? Where’s the great strategic and economic prize of emerging as the top international player in that conflict? There’s no significant value in being Iran’s principal ally either. Syria was empty space that Putin slipped into, with a mind to exit once lured away by a West willing to strike a deal to normalize his seizure of Crimea. Russia still sees itself more as a European and Asian power, than a Eurasian one per se. And if the Saudis come knocking too with sacks of money, and the Turks come all embraces and smiles, then that’s not such a bad deal for Moscow after all.
I realize that many may scoff at this idea. Sure, the Russians are also putting out feelers and sniffing around for a role in Yemen, Egypt and even Libya. But can anyone with a straight face tell me that Russia wants to take ownership for those places? The memories of the Soviet Union days can’t be that far behind, and Russians may not remember their past strategic forays into such places as a happy, feel-good memory, or that they got much to show for it.
What could go wrong?
Well, this is the Middle East we’re talking about, so lots could go wrong. And there are many shades of ‘wrong’. It is morally wrong to let hundreds of the financiers, enablers and security dons of the Syrian regime go unpunished for what they unleashed on the Syrian people. It is wrong to allow the Iranian ruling elite go unpunished for their disastrous policies in wreaking havoc across the region. As despicable as the PKK is, it is wrong to deny Rojava the opportunity to outgrow its original organization should it be embraced by the West. It is wrong to allow Erdogan to project his authoritarianism and ambition across Turkey and beyond. It is wrong to allow the Saudis and other Gulf states to remold the region in their image, since what they stand for has bred much of the cancerous rot that sparked region-wide instability. There’s plenty more that is wrong by that calculation, but a decade or more of Realist quick fixes by Washington’s doyens have wrought the stinking reality that we now face.
In this reality, and with so few options for doing right by the many victims of these lands, the worst possible outcome would be to tamper down Trump’s enthusiasm for the Middle East. For it is far better having presidential prestige propping up U.S. policy, and the unique Trumpian flair for going big, especially is such respects as deterring Iran, than reverting to the Obama-era mode of short fixes and ‘too-late’ incrementalism. Who’s going to make the call on smacking down Tehran if that’s what’s it going to take? The Secretary of Defense? Senator McCain? Who, when it comes to that, can pick up the phone and tell Erdogan to cool it? With the Trump presidency consumed by bureaucratic insurrection in the face of an ambitious home policy, leaving little bandwidth for creative foreign policy making, especially in the Middle East, then continuing headaches in the region can be blamed on Obama’s miscalculations, allowing them to fester with no resolution, and with little backlash or interest from Trump’s constituency. Who would want that outcome if they claim to care about the region?
The best course of action going forward is to have the president engaged with the nitty-gritty. Sure, there may be mistakes and problems, but presidential engagement is a better assurance of trying to address those mishaps than a situation where Trump moves on to some other global challenge, leaving a squabbling bureaucracy to sort things out by committee. If the Oval Office shuts off its view of the Middle East, then we could conceivably be talking about a decade of continuing stalemate, with constant positioning by regional actors to acquire leverage, leverage that will never be good enough to bring them to the table. All the while, such a stalemate only enhances the conditions through which a political creature such as the Islamic State can survive and expand out, even to places such as Saudi Arabia.
The Turks may get into a shooting war with the Kurds. The Saudis may find that the Islamic State is no easy foe in the Syrian Desert. Both the Turks and Saudis may get cold feet once the waters are tested. Russia may think there’s more to squeeze, and the Iranians can irrationally trigger Trump into hitting them directly. All these are understandable concerns. But trying to win back Raqqa and Deir Azzour through locally trained Kurds and Arabs, with arms and mentoring provided by U.S. troops, as Obama and Hillary Clinton had envisioned, does not really bring us to an endgame once the smoke clears and the Syrian regime still stands, and while the Iranians have more Western targets to pick off. Besides, who’s going to pay for it all? It certainly won’t be the U.S. taxpayer, especially not with Trump making decisions. So, here’s a bit of advice for all those in DC who are wary of this new president and his Oval Office boosters: let Trump have a go of it. After all, there’s nothing left to break in the china shop to begin with.
One More Thing
However, if there is one addition I would make to a potential Trumpian plan for the Middle East, it would be this: consider a larger role for Iraq. The Saudis and Turks may not like it, but adding a third component to the mix is a good future deterrent should misunderstandings occur down the road. The Iraqis may not be polished enough for prime time when it comes to doing the rounds in DC as the Saudis have done, but their Special Forces (and Peshmerga) are certainly the most battle-hardened and most proven match against the Islamic State. In fact, the Saudis and Turks may have a far easier time fighting the jihadists because the latter have been principally depleted and bloodied in their fight with the Iraqi military. Hence, Iraq’s role in bringing about the defeat of the Islamic State should be acknowledged by giving the Iraqis one of the principal commands of the Syrian front. Syria’s Kurds should be acknowledged as well, but whereas the Turks can block their deserved glories, Iraq is a sovereign state towards which Turkish protestations can’t extend. So why not have the legitimate forces of the Iraqi state cross the border into Syria to do battle with IS in Deir Azzour instead of the Saudis? U.S. provided Iraqi F-16s are bombing targets in Syria with the approval of the Syrian regime. Won’t it be easier to sort out the regime’s pocket in Deir Azzour if it’s the Iraqis who show up there eventually? According to the cumbersome legalese of the United Nations, Russia can intervene in Syria because it was asked to do so by the Syrian government. The same legalistic courtesy can be extended to Iraq, whereas the Saudis and Turks can only intervene under the international rubric of fighting terrorism. The Iraqi forces should be composed of special forces, Peshmerga and Sunni tribal recruits from Anbar Province, who are culturally attuned to the familiar tribal society across the Syrian-Iraqi border. With the Iraqi state taking on this task, Suleimani will have little moral ground to stand on when arguing that his PMUs should continue the fight up the Euphrates since that is where the car bombs going off in Baghdad are coming from.
I hope this idea gets incorporated into the next slideshow at the Oval Office.