Redefining U.S. Policy in the Middle East: Finding Coherence in 2017


Russian president Vladimir Putin and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Joseph V. Micallef Best Selling Military History and World Affairs Author and Keynote Speaker

One of the most immediate challenges facing President-elect Donald Trump and his national security team will be to redefine U.S. policy in the Middle East. Eight years of Obama foreign policy has proven to be incoherent and disjointed and has left the region in disarray, with Russian power and influence ascendant. That point was driven home when Russia, Iran and Turkey met in Moscow on December 20, to settle the latest attempt at a Syrian ceasefire. The fact that such a meeting occurred without the participation of the United States underscored the growing irrelevance of Washington in resolving the Syrian civil war. This is the third attempt in the last 12 months at implementing a ceasefire between Damascus and the various Syrian rebel groups. It will likely prove to be as short lived as its predecessors.

There is no shortage of issues destabilizing the Middle East, but addressing seven macro issues will form the core of any new U.S. policy in the region. These seven issues are: the Iranian/Shia challenge, economic instability from low oil prices, the political stability of Egypt and its role in the larger Middle East, especially in North Africa, Russia’s current role in the region, the emergence of Turkey as a rogue actor, the civil/proxy wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen and, finally, the ongoing battle against jihadism in general and the Islamic State (IS) in particular.

Iran has emerged as a regional power in the Middle East. It has used its location on the Persian Gulf and the Strait to Hormuz to leverage its position by demonstrating its ability to disrupt oil tanker traffic moving through the Gulf. Such actions would bring it into conflict with U.S. naval forces in the area. While Tehran does not have comparable naval power, it has tried to show that the use of large numbers of lightly armed small craft, some of which would be maritime IEDs, in swarm tactics, could disable larger ships.

In addition, Iran has positioned itself as the defender of Shia minorities throughout the Middle East, especially in the Gulf, and has tried to mobilize those minorities as a means of expanding its influence in the region. That policy has led Tehran to get much further involved in the Syrian, Iraqi and Yemenite civil wars and to project its military power elsewhere in the Middle East.

The challenge for the United States is to find a way of containing Iranian ambitions. The partial dismantling of the sanctions against Iran has enhanced Tehran’s ability to project its power and influence in the region and to gain access to essential technology to upgrade its industry, especially its petroleum sector. The much-vaunted opening to Iran by the Obama administration has so far proven to be an illusion. Tehran has shown little interest in engaging with Washington. While the incoming Trump administration may opt to impose new sanctions on Tehran or tighten the existing ones, there is little prospect that the rest of the world will follow suit. The “Iranian nuclear agreement” is now part of the new reality in the Middle East and is not reversible.

At best, President Obama’s policy toward Iran may have deferred Tehran’s ability to field nuclear weapons. Even that accomplishment is suspect, however, and assumes that Iran was relatively close to developing a nuclear capability. There is considerable evidence that Tehran was nowhere close to having such a potential. In which case, the Obama led P5+1 agreement to regulate Iran’s attempt to develop nuclear weapons means that Tehran gave up something it didn’t have in return for the lifting of the sanctions and access to Western markets and technology.

What Washington wants is a regional, secular, Sunni coalition that can counterbalance Tehran’s Shia arc of influence that currently stretches across Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. To date, however, no such alliance has emerged and there is little prospect of one. The previous player to fill this roll, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, disappeared when U.S. forces overthrew Hussein and Iraq’s Shia majority took control of the country.

The U.S. has supplied advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, but those countries lack the population and armed forces to present a sufficient counter to Iranian power. The two countries that do have the military strength to present a sufficient counter to Tehran have very different agendas. Cairo is reluctant to get involved in the Gulf. Foreign deployments of its military have proven disasterous in the past and are highly unpopular with Egyptians. Turkey, under its president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has broader ambitions to expand Turkish influence and to lead the Sunnis in the region. But many Sunni Arabs are reluctant to follow Turkish leadership. A third long shot is Pakistan. The Saudi’s have tried to get Pakistan to play a broader role in the Gulf. Islamabad has enough problems on its hands, however, without being drawn into a broader Sunni-Shia rivalry.

The danger from the U.S. standpoint is that the Saudis and their allies resort to organizing and funding various jihadist groups to counter Tehran’s ambitions in much the same way that Pakistan has resorted to such groups in Kashmir in its struggle with India, and as happened in Syria during the civil war. While this strategy may be successful in countering Iranian ambitions in the short-term, it does so at the risk of expanding jihadist influence in the region and risks spilling over into anti-Western violence in Europe and North America.


Iranian missile test

The price of oil has become a major source of financial instability in the Sunni led petro-states along the Gulf. At current prices, all the major oil producers are unable to balance their governmental budgets and have been forced to dip into their reserves. In Saudi Arabia’s case, the government’s current deficit amounts to 16 percent of GNP, and Riyadh is moving aggressively to cut expenses and intends to reduce the deficit to 11 percent of GNP in 2017. A recent agreement which, for the first time, also included production cutbacks from non-OPEC members, has given oil prices a bounce.

This agreement is unlikely to produce a sustained price increase however. Rising production in Libya, which was exempt from the agreement, will already offset a quarter or more of the announced cut. Moreover, improvements in fracking technology in the U.S. have brought the breakeven price for frackers down to the low $30s. The U.S. rig count has been rising steadily over the last few months. The expected opening of federal lands to fracking and the easing of federal regulations will likely lead to an increase in U.S. production over the next several years. Long-term, a 1.2 million barrel a day production cutback is not going to move prices in a meaningful way.

The risk is that these governments will drastically scale back the financial largess that has ensured domestic peace and stability. Short-term, three to five years, these countries have the financial resources to weather the storm. Long-term, however, they will need oil prices, at a minimum, to be $100 per barrel to cover their deficits and stabilize their economies. Low oil prices will become a major source of instability in the Sunni petro-states, one that Tehran will be quick to exploit.

Egypt could play a critical role in the Middle East, should it chose to do so. Short-term, Cairo needs to stabilize the Egyptian economy. Tourism, Egypt’s third largest economic sector, is down by around 40 percent. The slowdown in the Gulf has also impacted remittances from Egyptians working there while also decreasing demand in a key Egyptian export market. The strained relations between Cairo and Washington have not gone unnoticed by either Tehran or Moscow, and both have been quick to try to exploit it. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood has also tried to exploit Egypt’s current economic weakness to restore its political influence there.

Egypt has a key role in stabilizing North Africa, especially Libya, and countering the spread of jihadist influence there. Washington needs to move quickly to repair its relationship with Cairo, help Egypt stabilize its economy, and to support Cairo’s role in counter-jihadist activity, both domestically and across north and central Africa.

The Kremlin has taken advantage of the incoherence and indecision of Obama’s Mideast policy to expand its role and influence there. To be clear, despite its pretentions Russia is not a superpower and never again will be, its nuclear arsenal notwithstanding. It is, however, a super problem for Washington in the Middle East. Its success in expanding its Middle East role is more illusion than substance. Its ability to project power across the Middle East is limited, nor is it able to challenge the United States militarily in the region. It can, however, complicate the conduct of U.S. policy in the Mideast and play the role of a spoiler.

By concentrating its efforts on ensuring the survival of the Assad regime, however, and leveraging Iranian power and influence toward the same goal, the Kremlin has made it clear that it will stand by its Mideast clients. Recently, Moscow has been moving aggressively to back Libyan Field Marshall Khalifa Hiftar in an obvious attempt to restore its influence in Libya, another former Soviet client state. That position is in sharp contrast to the ambivalence the Obama White House has shown in standing by America’s Mideast allies.


US Secretary of State John Kerry meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

Russia is now a player in the Middle East. While it’s not as influential as it claims, its interests in the region cannot be ignored. Moreover, it will continue to exploit U.S. mistakes to expand its influence and possibly flip or at least “Finlandize” long-standing American allies like Egypt and possibly even Turkey.

The best way to counter Russian influence in the Mideast is to have a clear and consistent U.S. policy that makes our continued support of our allies there clear, is precise about when we will or will not intervene militarily and insures that any such intervention has precise goals and is executed effectively. Russia will succeed in stabilizing the Assad regime, will probably expand its influence in Libya and it can engage to a limited extent with Saudi Arabia and its allies to try to stabilize and raise oil prices. Beyond that, a skillful American policy will likely preempt any future expansion of Russian influence. The Kremlin can leverage Tehran’s power and influence for its own ends, like supporting Assad in Syria, but long-term a powerful Iran is not in Russia’s strategic interest. On at least this point there is possible common ground between Washington and Moscow.

Turkey, a long-standing American ally, has under its president Recep Tayyip Erdogan increasingly behaved as a rogue actor in the region. Erdogan is attempting to build a broad Sunni coalition to counter Iran, but is couching it in the context of a restoration of Turkish influence in the lands of the former Ottoman Empire. Moreover, he is defining that coalition in Islamist and anti-Western terms. Erdogan’s assertion that Turkey has a “responsibility to its brothers in the former Ottoman empire” is popular among his constituents, but has gotten little traction among Arabs in the region.

Moreover, Ankara’s willingness to support radical jihadist groups including, for a brief time the Islamic State, and turning a blind eye to the role of Turkish companies in facilitating the smuggling and sale of contraband oil and stolen antiquities from IS, puts it at sharp odds with U.S. policy in the region and has led to a sharp deterioration in Ankara’s relations with Washington and the European Union. This is particularly true of Erdogan’s attempts to use the Syrian refugees to leverage more favorable terms from the EU for Turkey and its citizens.

Erdogan’s arrest or dismissal of individuals that he claims were supporters of the failed coup now exceeds 110,000 Turkish citizens. He has used the coup attempt to purge the government, courts and military of any potential opposition and to close media outlets that criticized him. If Erdogan continues along his current track, his actions will amount to a counterrevolution of the Ataturk led revolution that established the modern secular Turkish state.

Turkey has two significant vulnerabilities, however. First the Turkish economy is dependent on access to European markets and capital. Secondly, its flirtations with Moscow, notwithstanding, long-term Russian and Turkish interests are divergent. Russia is still the principal security threat to Turkey and, despite the Turkish military; Ankara will need allies if it finds itself confronting Russia. Erdogan’s foreign policy is largely failing and is doing so at a time when Turkey’s economic weakness makes it dangerous to alienate the EU or the United States.

The civil wars in Syria and Yemen have become Shia-Sunni proxy wars, ones in which the success of neither side is in Washington’s interest. In Yemen, the U.S. is providing intelligence and logistical support to the largely Saudi led effort, while Iran is supplying the Shia related Houthis. The U.S. has wisely avoided a deeper entanglement in Yemen. Houthi elements have attacked, no doubt under Iranian instruction, U.S. warships in the region to either force a U.S. withdrawal or an escalated U.S. involvement, either one of which would be in Tehran’s interest. Washington does not want to see a pro-Iranian regime in the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula on the flank of the Red Sea, but it has little to gain from an expanded American role there.

American involvement in the Syrian civil war was initially prompted to contain the expansion of the Islamic State and then, in a typical example of mission creep, grew into a half-hearted effort to support the Syrian rebels and overthrow the Assad regime. The premise was that the U.S. would arm and train “moderate” elements within the anti-Assad opposition while supporting their campaign with airpower.


Islamic State jihadist fighters in Mosul, June 2014

The idea that there were “moderate elements” within the Syrian opposition or that these could be identified and organized into a coherent group proved to be illusory. Likewise, the role of U.S. air power was so constrained by restrictive rules of engagement that only a quarter of the missions delivered their payloads. Notwithstanding a haphazard policy, the U.S. and its allies have succeeded in rolling back the Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq.

In Syria, the largely Kurdish led and staffed Syrian Democratic Forces has emerged as an American proxy ground force. Supported by U.S. airpower and Special Forces, the SDF has succeeded in expelling IS from large areas of Syria. Turkish opposition to the role of Syrian Kurds in the SDF and to a separate Syrian-Kurdish state, the so called Rojava, however, has led the U.S. to forego supplying heavy weapons to the SDF and to constrain the areas where the SDF operates.

In Iraq, U.S. supported Iraqi Army units and Peshmerga forces, in collaboration with regional Sunni militias and the Iranian sponsored Shia militias, have also successively rolled back the Islamic State and are now invading Mosul – IS’s last major urban center there. The battle for Mosul will be bitterly fought street-by-street. Mosul is a city roughly the size of Houston, Texas. Its prewar population was approximately two million people. Its current population is unclear and has been estimated at anywhere from 400,000 to one million inhabitants. The Battle for Mosul will be the biggest urban battle since Stalingrad, a city that was only one-fifth of Mosul’s size.

While the United States has made notable progress against the Islamic State, it is losing the war against jihadism. Both al-Qaeda and Islamic State have successfully expanded their franchises to some 50 countries around the world. The al-Qaeda sponsored Jabhat al-Sham (Conquest of Syria Front), the former al-Nusra Front, is well positioned to inherit IS’s jihadist mantle. Moreover, despite U.S. success in rolling back Islamic State, that campaign will likely still take an additional one to two years of effort.

Even stripped of its territorial domain, however, Islamic State will continue. Its foreign franchises will survive, and in Syria and Iraq it will simply revert to its earlier role as a jihadist insurgency. The problem with combatting jihadism is that it has become a seductive, emotionally charged, powerful idea and it’s impossible to defeat an idea with military force. You can only defeat an idea with a “better idea,” an effort that Washington has failed to pursue.

You cannot separate jihadism from its Islamic roots, even if most Muslims reject the jihadist interpretation of Islam. A “better idea” also must have Islamic foundations, a concept that the Obama administration has been unwilling to address on the premise that linking jihadists and Islam is inherently racist. Ultimately jihadism must be defeated both intellectually and physically. It needs to be defeated in cyberspace and social media just as surely as it needs to be defeated on the battlefield.

Two decades of Mideast policy have amply demonstrated that the US cannot reshape the region’s politics and governments to its liking. It still has a role to play there, however, has considerable influence and retains the ability to intervene militarily to contain the spread of violence that is destabilizing the region. The latter is an important role, but one that it should use very selectively and with the utmost prudence.

These seven topics are only some of the issues that currently divide the Middle East. They are, however, the most important and must form the core of any new strategy. They need to be addressed in a systematic and comprehensive fashion if we want a coherent policy in the Middle East.



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