Why you should care
Because the Middle East is still volatile and becoming more so.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “The Spy Who Told Me” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
OZY Senior Columnist John McLaughlin teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and was deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004. Follow him on Twitter: @jmclaughlinSAIS.
Does the Trump administration have a Middle East policy? Yes and no. It has elements of a policy, but they do not add up to a strategy — and in their individual pieces, they fall well short of solving problems. They may, in fact, be making some matters worse.
To be fair to the administration, the Middle East is a confusing mess right now. The Obama team made only limited progress, and all of the choices before Trump have significant downsides. This said, it’s possible to discern at least three major Trump objectives in the region: destroy ISIS, combat Iran and support Saudi Arabia. Let’s look at them one by one.
The United States and its allies have succeeded in pushing ISIS out of most of its main strongholds in Iraq and Syria, in particular its nominal capital in Raqqa, Syria, and its major base in Mosul, Iraq. Although the group’s so-called “caliphate” is thus dismantled, there are still dangerous pockets of ISIS activity in both countries. But they are slowly being hunted and squeezed by a combination of U.S., Kurdish, Turkish and Russian forces.
So far, so good, but there are at least two major unresolved problems that give this victory a Pyrrhic feel. First, the underlying problem — the thing that animated the extremist cause and attracted legions of foreign fighters — remains unresolved: the grievances of Sunni Arabs. These Muslims, constituting over 50 percent of Syria and 20 percent of Iraq, are fed up with the discriminatory policies of the Shia-led government in Iraq and the Alawite-dominated regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Decertifying Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear agreement has painted Trump into a corner he may not yet see.
Both of these conditions have been aggravated by the course of the conflict. In Syria, Russian intervention succeeded in shoring up and strengthening Assad’s government. In Iraq, the pivotal role Iranian-dominated Shia militias played in Baghdad’s military success has further marginalized the Sunni population. The militias’ influence is such that when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last month told Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to get rid of the Iranian-controlled militias, Abadi told him that they are part of Iraqi institutions and it’s the U.S. that should “go home.” Basically, Tillerson got the back of Abadi’s hand.
More broadly, ISIS is not so much defeated as displaced, which was demonstrated last month by the killing of more than 300 people in an Egyptian Sufi Muslim mosque, apparently by one of ISIS’s strongest affiliates. Unlike al-Qaida, ISIS has an effective global strategy centered on a string of formal affiliates and pledged loyalists stretching from the Middle East through Africa and to Southeast Asia. And in these territories there is enough ungoverned or loosely governed space to permit training, plotting and refitting for operations, including in the West.
Trump and many on his team are deeply hostile to Iran. But so far it’s hard to see much more than rhetoric, and some of what they have done appears to be making matters worse. Washington has taken a back seat so far in negotiations on a political settlement for Syria, for example, letting Russia, Iran and Turkey run the show in a series of conferences they’ve held with the parties in Kazakhstan. The United States may be able to recoup influence in later U.N. talks, but policy so far risks leaving Iran, which committed thousands of troops in Syria and took heavy casualties, in a strong position. It is easily able to reinforce its extremist ally Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon. Over time this will pose an increasing threat to U.S. allies Israel and Jordan. This creates greater potential for Israeli-Iranian clashes as indicated by Syrian press reports claiming that Israel attacked an Iranian base near Damascus on Friday.
Meanwhile, decertifying Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear agreement has painted Trump into a corner he may not yet see. Decertification by itself does not end the agreement, but Trump said he would pull out the next time he has to certify if Congress has not toughened the agreement, and the other parties to it have not worked with the U.S. to strengthen it. This is unlikely to happen by mid-January, when the next certification decision lands on Trump’s desk. Congress is overloaded and divided and our international partners in the agreement thought decertification was foolish and counterproductive, arguing it played into the hands of Tehran’s hardliners and signaled to North Korea that it cannot trust U.S. diplomacy. So get ready for a confusing scramble as January approaches.
Trump has unreservedly endorsed a rough-and-tumble consolidation of power by the young crown prince and likely future king, Mohammed bin Salman, aka MBS. The crown prince justifies his arrest of allegedly corrupt royals as part of a reformist strategy. He is seeking to move the country toward a more moderate form of Islam and diversify the economy away from its heretofore almost exclusive dependence on now-falling oil revenues.
It’s impossible not to wish MBS well, but he is in danger of overreach, especially as he has gotten the country bogged down in proxy conflicts of varying types with Iran in three Arab countries: Yemen, Qatar and Lebanon (and to a degree in Syria). None of these is going well, and in most cases Iran appears to have the upper hand or the better long-term prospect. So it is just not clear whether this is a wise bet by Trump. It is certainly not a sure thing.
The bottom line? When it comes to the Middle East, Trump has created a lot of sound, fury and drama, but much of this is either unfinished, uncertain or unwise. Overall, the region is no more stable than when Trump came to power, and in some ways the region’s volatility may even be increasing.