America’s Major Challenges in Middle East Policy, 2017

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The incoming Trump administration is riven by a profound division between those determined to avoid deep entanglements in the Middle East, such as Donald J. Trump himself, and the hawks he is putting in key positions, who desperately want to overthrow the Islamic Republic of Iran. This division is made more difficult to interpret by Trump’s own erratic pronouncements, such that he sometimes speaks of, e.g., putting 30,000 US troops into the fight against Daesh (ISIS, ISIL). It is impossible to know whether Trump will disengage even more than President Obama did, or whether the hawks will win out and intervene with covert operations or perhaps more explicitly against Iran. Yet another complication is that Moscow now views Iran as a Russian client in the region, and would really mind if the US did interfere in Iran. Trump is obviously close to President Vladimir Putin, but his cabinet is full of saber-rattlers against the Russian Federation.


The chief challenge facing the Trump administration will be rolling up the phony caliphate of Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) in Syria and Iraq.

In Iraq, the battle for Mosul has stalled because the Iraqi military only has one or two effective counter-terrorism brigades (roughly 3,000 infantrymen to a brigade). They have taken very high casualties, being in the vanguard of the fight, with hundreds dead. At this rate the only effective units of the slightly rebuilt Iraqi military would be used up well before Mosul could be entirely conquered. It is difficult to see how Trump could speed up this fight without committing US ground troops, and if he did that they would likely take high casualties (not popular with the American public). Since the fight is in urban Mosul, a city about the size of Houston, massive US bombing campaigns are not effective (Trump’s macho reference to carpet bombing Daesh has no connection to reality).

In Syria, the only force willing to take on Daesh in its home base of Raqqa and Deir al-Zor provinces in a thoroughgoing way are the leftist, feminist Kurds of the YPG. The Obama administration allied with them, at the cost of alienating Turkey (which considers the YPG a branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Ankara and Washington classify as a terrorist organization).

Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan appears to have made a deal with Russia to cut the YPG leftist Kurds out of any civil war settlement. In return for Turkish acquiescence in the regime recapture of all of Aleppo, Russia and the Bashar al-Assad regime agreed to let Turkey move against the Kurds in the north and to attempt to forestall the Kurdish-American assault on Arab Salafi Jihadi territory, whether that of Daesh or that of groups like the Freemen of Syria and the Levantine Conquest Front (or Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda affiliate).

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Trump will have to decide whether to continue with Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s alliance with the YPG Kurds or whether to give in to the emerging Putin-al-Assad-Erdogan troika. Since neither Turkey nor Russia nor the regime has seemed willing to march on Raqqa and destroy Daesh, Trump will face the problem of how to achieve the results he promised the American public. As President Obama discovered, the most effective forces in fighting Daesh are Shiite and closely allied with Iran, so the US really only has two choices– give up on defeating Daesh and target Iran, or press the fight against Daesh in tacit alliance with Iran. Which course is chosen will be momentous for both the US and the Middle East.

Personally, I think the terrorism capabilities of Daesh will be substantially degraded if they lose their territorial perches, and so would advise finishing them off as soon as possible in alliance with whoever will accomplish it. While I admit that rolling up the so-called caliphate won’t destroy Daesh or entirely stop its terrorism, it seems self-evident that more resources (like ruling a state with 2 or 3 million people) equals more capability. A small declining organization is less effective, and that should be the goal.

There is also the question of the aftermath. Let us say that Daesh/ ISIL is no longer a territorial state by next summer. Then you have to put Syria and Iraq back together, which requires that Sunni and Shiite and Arab and Kurd and other groups make a political set of bargains with each other, with which they can all live. Is Trump capable of pushing the parties to make this deal? Or will he withdraw from the region and leave it to its devices?

Trump has made it clear that he likes the idea of Middle Easterners being ruled by strong men, and that there will be no Bush-style Wilsonian democratization attempts on his watch. He will likely have good relations with President-General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt. The bad thing about that policy is that al-Sisi will likely over time become extremely unpopular in Egypt, since he won’t be able to deliver on his extravagant economic promises. As al-Sisi sinks, so will the American reputation, if Trump lionizes him. Russia is already in deep disrepute for propping up the seedy one-party state in Syria, and if Trump backs Putin’s Syria policy, people will hate the US as well.

Despite his admiration for strong men, Trump has gratuitously insulted the rulers of the Sunni Gulf monarchies, saying the would institute an oil boycott to force them to fight Daesh. He has also angered them with his comments on Islam and on barring Muslims from coming to the US. Saudi Arabia is a swing producer of petroleum and president after president has found it essential to have good relations with Riyadh. It is not clear Trump can if he has alienated them so badly.

One place he could usefully take them on is regarding the building disaster in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and its allies have been bombing civilian infrastructure in hopes of using air power to overwhelm the Houthi guerrillas, could well get blamed on the United States. The US provided the fancy weaponry to Saudi Arabia, and actually helps pick targets and provides logistical support. Hunger, displacement, and other catastrophes are growing exponentially.

Trump has put out mixed signals about Israel/Palestine, as well. At one point he urged a more even-handed policy. Then he appointed a man as ambassador to Israel who more or less believes that Palestinians have no rights at all and all their property may be stolen at will. Likely, the Palestinians will be screwed over, as they usually are by Washington (which only pays lip service, occasionally, to their rights).

Trump has fence mending to do with Turkey’s Erdogan, who appears to believe that the US tried to overthrow him last July 15 (this is not true) and who in the past couple of weeks has begun putting out the false news meme that the US is backing Daesh. Remember, Turkey is supposed to be a NATO ally. Erdogan is not talking like an ally but like an enemy.

Trump has pledged to rip up the UN Security Council agreement with Iran about making sure Tehran’s nuclear enrichment program remains a purely civilian one and cannot be militarized. Trump, like many in the GOP, does not appear to understand that the Iran deal was not bilateral with the US. It is between Iran and the UNSC, including Russia and China. So it is a little irrelevant whether Trump tears it up. Also, the agreement constrains Iran, so ripping it up just removes the constraints. It is impossible for Trump to reassemble the global boycott on Iran that Obama achieved from 2012 to 2015, and American sanctions just drive Iran’s business to China and Russia.

In short, Trump’s announced Iran policy is a mess, and it remains to be seen if he can shape it into something meaningful. As I noted, this process will be complicated by the anti-Iran hawks– Mattis, Flynn, Pompeo, etc., that he has put in high office. (The cabinet secretaries don’t always let the president know what they are really up to.)

The US has intervened too much and too incompetently or venally in the Middle East. Trump’s initial idea of leaving it alone has virtues. But can he really leave it alone? And by the way, backing the strong men is not the same as leaving it alone.

9 Responses

  1. Thank you Juan for writing an excellent analysis. As one would expect from a political newcomer such as Trump who also believes that he knows more about the world than anyone else in the world (some of the biblical prophets are worth consulting on this) his pronunciations about the region are all over the map. That is cheap when he is not our President. After January 20 there will be dire payments for such behavior.
    Next time please include the issue of weapons sales in the region in your analysis. While the total annual cost of these sales is not very large, the client states of Trump and Putin, the major players in the region, can hardly afford to switch now.

  2. It is clear the man has no clue on what it takes to be President. Moreover, many of his core supporters have also no clue what the ME entails and how “really nasty and brutish” the outside world can be.

    Can you please comment on this news story though from within Iran? It seems that society is also fraying from within

    link to

  3. Why is is Iran so much an enemy of the US that its destruction (our only proven ability) seems a reasonable objective to many senior officials?

    My own opinion is that we do not like strong independent nations in regions where we have an interest of some sort. Any death and destruction we must deal out to achieve our ends is something we can get over. Empathy shmempathy.

    • (1) Bruised USA egos.

      Over the last 100 years, Iran has twice thrown out the imperial powers (UK then USA). The first time it didn’t stick because of the USA , but the second time it has so far. USA losers don’t like to be publicly shown as losers.

      (2) Israel and Saudi Arabia.

      The Israelis and Saudis are able to “tolerate” each other (for now), but their egos get bruised when Iran legitimately acquires power through intelligence and creativity not external war. The USA has CHOSEN to be a puppet to Israel and KSA for totally irrational reasons. I suspect this is a legacy of the UK world empire thinking.

      (3) Irrational, prejudiced USA thinking

      In a world where the USA did what was best for the USA in the long term after a lot of rational thinking, Iran would be a USA ally and Israel and KSA would be ignored. Given USA myopia, do not expect any rational thinking from the USA any time soon.

    • We have had a very bad record when it comes to some nations, where we have worked with them, armed and trained them, help them fight common enemies, and then when they stand up to us, or we do not like the direction they are going, we decide to shock and awe them. Iran is no saintly nation, but we have interfered in their nation from years ago, and have included them in speeches calling them one of the “axis of evils”, so how do you think their reaction would be? Iran and Saudi Arabia are playing proxy wars, and we seem to be siding with SA. Our outrage at other nations are selective, and we overlook human rights violations, if that nation is one of our dear friends and partner in crime. Saudi Arabia and Israel being a couple of them, who now are beloved friends too – after all they have a common enemy, Iran. It is a complicated world, and our leaders have had the record of demonizing nations to rally the country into attacking it, or accept large defense budgets, citing the dangers that nation poses to us. It was the same pattern when it came to Iraq. Now look at the mess we have caused.

  4. Add to the flamable mix the constituency of fear and rage that brought the President-elect into office. They will be unlikely to exhibit much patience with complex and nuanced policy in the region, not that his administration has given any clues about formulating such a thing. We hope for cooler heads to prevail, but where are they, and will their voice be heard?

    • Tom – “They will be unlikely to exhibit much patience with complex and nuanced policy in the region, not that his administration has given any clues about formulating such a thing.” Here’s a clue – Our President-elect has said repeatedly the United States should take Iraq’s oil as the spoils of war.

  5. What evidence is there that Bush was engaged in Wilsonian democracy-promotion? The original plan for Iraq was for it to be ruled by Chalabi as a pro-US strongman. Democracy only happened after Sistani made it happen.

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