Strategic Thinking About the Middle East

In its first weeks, the Trump Administration openly castigated terrorism as America’s primary threat and underlined it anti-Iranian orientation. It also announced its intention to relocate the US embassy to Jerusalem and its readiness for a partnership with Russia against the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). Unfortunately, taken together these moves are mutually contradictory. If the United States is to make progress against both ISIS and Iran without worsening the challenges to US interests, it must think more coherently and strategically about those challenges in the Middle East.

We must first recognize that the threats posed by ISIS and Iran not only overlap but are also not the only major threats in the Middle East. New outbreaks of unrest in other countries and recurring violent conflicts between the Palestinians and Israel are possible, but the greatest of these threats is Russia’s campaign to impose itself as a co-equal if not dominant player in the Middle East. Russia’s threat overlaps with those posed by Iran and ISIS because Iran is Russia’s ally and Irano-Russian activities both sponsor terrorism on their own accord and also enhance ISIS’ appeal.

Iran is attempting to realize its major power ambitions in the Middle East by sponsoring Hezbollah’s Shia militia and enlisting allies like Syria, prompting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accuse Iran of “trying to create a second terrorist front” against Israel in the Golan Heights. Iran is also accused of violating a UN resolution concerning its missile program—a charge it denies—while it has become challenging to inspect its nuclear program accurately.

Iran’s effort to subordinate Syria and Iraq to it are major recruitment factors for ISIS. So Iran not only sponsors terrorism, it generates Sunni terrorism in response to its policies. Russia too, to regain the equality with America it covets, must forge a coalition with Iran, Iraq, and Syria, and impose itself as an interlocutor  or host negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Meanwhile Moscow also is a state sponsor of terrorism. Beyond exporting its terrorists to Syria in 2012-14, Moscow is Iran and Hezbollah’s principal armorer, and does not considers Hamas to be a terrorist group but rather a legally elected partner who should form a united Palestinian bloc with the Palestinian Authority—an obvious red flag for Israel.

Russia’s past anti-terrorist “cooperation,” to call it that, with the United States was also virtually useless. It stonewalled American investigators of the Tsarnaev brothers who committed the Boston Marathon bombing, for example. Russia may occasionally attack ISIS but only to detach Turkey from the West, not because it wants to start fighting with ISIS. Indeed, for the most part, it conspicuously refrained from attacking ISIS and will not do so again no matter what it tells President Donald Trump. Whereas cooperation with Iran is at the foundation of its Middle East policy and Moscow has long believed that it is vital to work with Iran lest it become pro-Western and thereby isolate Russia from a major role in the region; it is already apparent that cooperation with Donald Trump’s administration will be limited, difficult, and unreliable.

Moreover, Moscow’s ambition to project military power all across the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East is an insidious plan that steadily advances. Russia now has bases in Syria and Cyprus, seeks them in Egypt and Libya, and is undermining the UN-backed regime with its support for Libyan military leader Khalifa Haftar. Its bombing raids in Syria deliberately add to the refugee burden threatening European stability while its bases will provide the means to extrude NATO from the Eastern Mediterranean that will now become an anti-access area denial zone.

Finally, its military presence gains leverage for Russia over gas supplies to Europe because Middle Eastern suppliers must now reckon with the threat of Russian military as well as economic and political pressure against them, possibly in tandem with Iran. Thus Russian Middle East policy aims to undermine not only the United States in the Middle East but also its European interests and alliances. It will contribute not to a new regional order but to destabilizing the US built order.

Fortunately, the US possesses the means to meet these challenges. Beyond its own formidable capabilities, it has the great good fortune to have at hand a growing and even flourishing if still tacit alliance between Israel and Sunni Arab states, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Emirates. Even though this alliance is anti-Iranian and anti-Shia, the United States simultaneously plays a leading role in rebuilding Iraq’s government through its campaign there against ISIS. This alliance and support for Iraq restrains and contains the Irano-Russian axis of Shiite and pro-terrorist states even though we no longer have an alternative to Bashar al-Assad in Syria. If properly sustained with coherent US support, this coalition can defeat ISIS, block Russian influence, and help sustain Turkey’s adherence to a more pro-Western inclination thereby thwarting the key Russian goal of neutralizing Turkey as a pro-Western actor.

But to execute this strategy the United States must encourage Israel and the Palestinians to negotiate without preconditions and avoid the recriminations that dotted the Obama period. No Israeli government will negotiate about Israel’s security without confidence that Washington truly has its back, something President Barrack Obama conspicuously failed to understand. Likewise, the Palestinian Authority must renounce fantasies about internationalizing the issues with Israel and focus on making a deal with Israel, the only power that can guarantee any kind of Palestinian political future. For our part it also means avoiding symbolic, emotionally satisfying but strategically misconceived moves like unilaterally moving the US embassy to Jerusalem. Not only will this move rupture the Sunni-Israel alliance, it provokes another intifada, the one thing that could move Sunni Arab states to line up against Israel and drive them towards Iran, give Moscow infinitely more openings with which to break our alliances and reverse progress towards peace. Moving the embassy is not even an Israeli priority but it undermines US interests and Israel’s security unless it is part of a larger political process.

Thus Washington can contain and ultimately reduce the threats posed by ISIS, Iran, and its ally Russia, all of whom sponsor terrorism, by judiciously combining its military power with shrewd diplomacy. But to understand the prospects for doing so Washington must think strategically and realize that contradictory moves and using force without political understanding not only leaves the field to our enemies and imperils our friends, it also means putting Americans at risk here as well as in the Middle East.

Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.