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Elections 2020 September 29, 2020

Five big questions as America votes: Middle East

By Middle East Programs

As part of the Atlantic Council’s Elections 2020 programming, the New Atlanticist will feature a series of pieces looking at the major questions facing the United States around the world as Americans head to the polls.

In every US presidential election since the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Middle East and North Africa has been a top foreign policy issue. The 2020 presidential election is no different, as the first term of President Donald J. Trump was marked by the assassinations of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; the continuing US withdrawal of forces from Iraq; the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement; and normalization between Israel and some Gulf Arab states.

Below are the five major questions facing the United States in the Middle East as the US elections approach, answered by top Atlantic Council experts:

Should the United States withdraw from the Middle East?

To many, the Middle East appears to be a region of ongoing violence and seemingly intractable problems that defy solution—and that it will very likely always be so. This opinion, backed up by a trail of numerous failed diplomatic initiatives over at least the last seven decades, numerous regional conflicts, and oil embargos against the West can make a decision to withdraw from the region an attractive option. In the United States, the belief that the country is now “oil independent” and the realization that it is engaged in great power competition with Russia and China add to the growing list of reasons to withdraw.

In this renewed era of great power competition, the challenge to simultaneously provide sufficient military forces in the Pacific to counter China, and in the Atlantic and the increasingly volatile Eastern Mediterranean to counter Russia, is increasing. While withdrawing military forces from the Middle East in order to send them to growing hotspots elsewhere seems like the solution, doing so provides the opportunity for China or Russia to expand their influence to the Gulf region and potentially puts the security of global petrol resources into the hands of the Chinese or Russians, to the detriment of the United States and its allies. While US military presence in the region is currently less than optimal given the constant Iranian threat to regional stability, the diplomatic effort, economic, and yet to be fully understood intelligence benefits make a good case for continued US involvement in the region, which makes America and its allies safer and more prosperous.

Vice Admiral (Ret.) John W. Miller is a former commander of the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and is a nonresident senior fellow.

US withdrawal from the Middle East would grant wins to nearly every adversary the United States faces; China, Russia, Iran and extremist groups would happily fill the gap in every aspect other than providing security. Nobody else will agree to secure the Arab world from threats like terrorism and armed Iranian proxies. The region would be on its own, but it would not be prepared. Decades of US train and equip programs in the region have not produced self-sufficient partners. So while withdrawal would not be strategic, what is necessary is an assessment of the return on investment the United States yields from its current model of engagement, and creative thinking about how to square two seemingly paradoxical US objectives in the region: reducing the US footprint and resources dedicated to the Middle East because of increased requirements elsewhere, and maintaining partnership primacy with Middle Eastern states over Russia, China, and Iran, and increasing the region’s security sector capabilities and interoperability with the United States.  

Solidifying the US position as the preferred partner for regional nations is predominantly a bilateral mission. However, improving the region’s ability to defend itself and to operate with US counterparts in times of planning and times of conflict would be achieved most efficiently and resource-effectively by strengthening the region as a bloc. The obstacles to this are inter-regional disputes. Just as it would not be tenable to secure each American state independently without the combined resources that make up the National Guard, the US military, and federal law enforcement, it is not tenable for the United States to secure each Middle East state without a region-wide base of partner capability. It is not tenable for the United States to build national land, air, naval and special forces in each country of the region that are capable of independently securing that country. Nations of the Middle East should be asked to work with the United States on solidifying a region-wide construct like the Five Eyes agreement for intelligence sharing and strategies for missile defense, counter terrorism, border security, technical interoperability, and training standardization that will improve America’s ability to build the region’s self-sufficiency in an era of continued constrained resources. 

Kirsten Fontenrose is director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative.

Should the United States re-engage in Syria, or leave it up to Russia and Turkey to solve?

The United States has not left Syria, and by remaining engaged in a limited capacity has been able to prevent a Bashar al-Assad victory, an ISIS resurgence, and domination of Iran in Syria’s northeast—all of which are outstanding destabilizing factors in the region. The US presence in the northeast has forced Russia to hesitate on launching a full assault on Idlib province, which has provided a fragile safe haven for 4 million Syrian civilians. 

Time and time again, we have learned that what happens in Syria does not stay in Syria. Although there is a push to lighten the US footprint globally, doing so can only be done if allies can be trusted ensure our full interests. Such a partner does not exist at the moment in either Turkey or Russia. Further, allies who fought with us in the battle to defeat ISIS should not be abandoned, left vulnerable attacks by ISIS, the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran. While Russia and Turkey have invested significant diplomatic and military capital in Syria, neither has a comprehensive strategy—much less the capacity—to deliver on medium to long-term issues such as civilian protection, humanitarian access, and counterterrorism. A lasting solution in Syria, that protects US interests, necessitates that the United States continue to hold its leverage. 

Jomana Qaddour leads the Syria portfolio at the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs and is a nonresident senior fellow.

When ISIS’s territorial control was ended by US and Syrian Kurdish forces, President Trump announced that he would withdraw US forces from Syria. This move emboldened Ankara to send Turkish forces to push Syrian Kurdish forces away from the border. Russia then offered to mediate an agreement between the Syrian Kurds and the Assad regime which would result in the return of Syrian government influence over Syrian Kurdish territory that it had lost earlier in the war. This episode increased tensions between Moscow and Ankara, as has Russian military support for Assad regime efforts to retake Turkish-backed opposition forces in Idlib province. In addition, with the drawdown of US forces resulting in Syrian Kurdish forces becoming more focused on their conflict with the Turks, ISIS has been able to make something of a comeback even if it no longer controls territory.

The United States has had its own differences with Turkey—including over its purchase of S-400 Russian air defense systems—and does not want to be involved in any conflict between Turkey and Russian-backed Syrian forces inside Syria. On the other hand, a Syrian government takeover of Idlib could lead to a flood of refugees pouring into Turkey hoping to go from there to Europe—something that both Turkey and European governments want to avoid. While it may be tempting to just let Russia and Turkey sort out their differences, there is a real risk that they will be unable to do so. Neither Democrats nor Republicans want to see greater US military involvement in Syria, but the US should increase its diplomatic involvement there. American diplomacy might not be able to resolve the many conflicts taking place inside Turkey, but it might be able to prevent them from escalating. This alone would be an important accomplishment.

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University and is a nonresident senior fellow.

The United States has an opportunity to correct a serious blunder and reengage in Syria at a pivotal time to maintain the delicate peace and stability in Idlib, Syria’s last rebel-held bastion, and lead the path towards an eventual political settlement. Assad, with his Russian and Iranian allies, continues to maneuver and prepare for an inevitable showdown in Idlib, creating an extremely dangerous and volatile environment as well as a potential humanitarian catastrophe. The regime and its allies, which remain committed to a military victory, look poised to make the same miscalculation they made earlier this year when they underestimated Turkey’s resolve to defend its red lines, seriously escalating the situation.

If a solution for Syria is left up to Russia and Turkey, the conflict could be prolonged and may never be solved. Turkey is determined to maintain the status quo until a political solution to end the war is found while building up the self-governance capability of Idlib and, at the same time, increasingly tackling the radical elements on its own. Turkey-Russia relations are complex and multi-dimensional, comprised of many topics, Syria being just one. For a better chance of success, efforts towards a settlement should focus on Syria. US diplomatic engagement could therefore play a role in extricating Syria from the complex agenda of comprehensive relations between Russia and Turkey. This can also help towards a rapprochement between Turkish and US policies.

A US re-engagement on the ground would pose a clear deterrent against any action which could imperil the fragile peace and protect the enormous internally-displaced population, which has nowhere left to run, while Turkey is carrying the heaviest burden. The United States, which since 2014 has viewed Syria primarily through the lens of countering terrorism, could play an active role, in cooperation with Turkey, in repatriating the thousands of foreign extremists now crowded in Idlib, who pose regional, if not global, security risks. It also has a chance to right a wrong by showing solidarity to NATO ally Turkey, which has faced greater threats and burdens emanating out of Syria since the start of the war than arguably any other country. If the United States does not act, make no mistake, the biggest winners will be an emboldened Russia and Iran.

Defne Arslan is the Istanbul-based Director of Atlantic Council IN TURKEY.

During the 2011 Arab Spring, the United States tried to support democratic transitions where it could, but in Syria, however, America’s silence was deafening, leaving a void that Russia, Iran, and Turkey were all too eager to fill. America’s reluctance to get involved in “yet another” Middle East conflict resulted in an outsized Russian influence in Syria, which saved the Bashar al-Assad regime from certain demise in 2015; the human cost of Russia’s intervention since then has been staggering. Similarly, a US withdrawal from northeast Syria in 2018 paved the way for a Turkish incursion that has upended the lives of thousands of residents in the north. For its part, Iran used US disinterest in Syria to expand its footprint in Syria, from increased support to the Syrian government to the use of Shia proxies to the spread of “soft power” through cultural initiatives and institutions.

When it comes to policy, hindsight is always 20/20. Yet it is not difficult to imagine a vastly different balance of power in the Middle East—and millions of Syrian lives and livelihoods intact—had the United States used its considerable diplomatic weight early on to prevent the Assad government from using excessive force against peaceful protestors. Should the United States continue to take a largely hands-off approach in Syria, it will provide Iran and Russia further opportunities to use the country and its people as proxies and pawns in their own regional ambitions, destabilizing Syria’s neighbors and leaving the door open for the resurgence of violent extremist groups. It will miss an opportunity to use its relationship with Turkey to de-escalate tensions with the US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the north, as well as compel the SDF to become more inclusive in their governance vis-à-vis local Arab communities. And it will watch along with the rest of the world as more innocent Syrians are starved, tortured, and displaced. Simply put, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where the United States re-exerts its moral and diplomatic standing in the world without re-engaging in Syria.

Jasmine El-Gamal is a former Middle East advisor in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Middle East Policy from 2008-2013 and is a nonresident senior fellow.

Will Iran sit down with the United States to renegotiate a new nuclear agreement?

The Iranian position has been very clear: the United States must return to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) before any new negotiations can take place. After that, Iran will speak with the United States in a multilateral setting—presumably the Joint Commission set up to monitor implementation of the JCPOA. But it is by no means clear that Iran will extend or otherwise alter its 2015 concessions on the nuclear front without significant new incentives in terms of US sanctions relief. 

The whole JCPOA experience has been extremely traumatic for Iran and trust in US promises—never high—has been severely undermined by the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw unilaterally while Iran was in full compliance. Iran has pivoted even more decisively toward China, Russia, and its immediate neighbors and is less dependent on oil exports and trade with and investment from Europe than four years ago. These trends will be hard to reverse, even under a Biden administration.

Barbara Slavin is the director of the Future of Iran Initiative and is a nonresident senior fellow.

What will the Israeli-Palestinian conflict look like in the next four years? 

The landscape of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been altered drastically since 2016. Any hopes for the immediate resurrection of already moribund talks between the parties evaporated in December 2017, when—after President Trump granted formal US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city—the Palestinian leadership suspended contacts with US mediators. A series of subsequent measures, including the termination of US contributions to UNRWA and the closure of the PLO office in Washington, deepened the rift between Washington and Ramallah. More recently, in January, the presentation of Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan was welcomed by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and panned vigorously by the Palestinian Authority’s President Mahmoud Abbas. The vacuum has been filled by fairly tight, if not absolute, coordination between Trump and Netanyahu and, in the wake of a normalization wave in relations between Israel and the Sunni kingdoms of the Persian Gulf, the relegation of the Palestinian track to the outer reaches of world attention.

The US elections represent a crossroads. A Trump victory would almost certainly augur the continuation of existing trends which have favored Israel largely and frustrated Palestinian political aspirations. Trump could potentially give Netanyahu the green light that he has sought for unilaterally extending the application of Israeli law in the West Bank. Alternatively, a Biden presidency would likely mount an attempt to rehabilitate America’s “honest broker” status and spark the resumption of efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the table, but without presuming a total reversal of present reality. Biden might seek instead to level the playing field by, for example, reinstating a distinct US consulate-general in Jerusalem for managing America’s relations with the Palestinians. As for Palestinian leverage to make the speed of rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world contingent upon progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace, the success of such a campaign should expect to have only minimal impact as regional governments continue to pursue their own interests, irrespective of Palestinian objections.

Shalom Lipner served seven consecutive Israeli premiers at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem and is a nonresident senior fellow.

After decades of stagnation, Israel’s relations with the Arab world have changed profoundly, but the contours of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are likely to remain unchanged. Tensions between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank will continue to simmer; the Palestinians will rely heavily on the international community for salvation and are set to escalate their efforts to address Israel’s occupation in international fora—both at the United Nations and the International Criminal Court. As Israel seeks to expand and retain its newly warmed relations with the Gulf, it will likely refrain from any headline grabbing action vis-a-vis the Palestinians. The prospect of annexation will remain off the table, while smaller incursions like limited settlement construction are likely to continue apace. The Gaza Strip is poised to continue in its cycle between relative calm and conflict.  

Any number of events could rattle the status quo—the collapse of the PA, a major war with militant group Hamas in Gaza, or even a peace agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Any efforts by Iran to court the Palestinians or fill a void in Gaza could also be destabilizing. Both Israel and the West Bank are ripe for leadership changes in the coming years—Mahmoud Abbas is among the oldest leaders in the world and Benjamin Netanyahu’s legal troubles continue to plague him—but neither country is set to see a major political shift in the near term. While a US administration led by a Democrat could usher in some small wins for the Palestinians—including a resumption of peace talks or recognition of Palestinian statehood, Israel is unlikely to see its gains under the Trump administration reversed; the US embassy will remain in Jerusalem and Israel will retain sovereignty over the Golan Heights regardless of who wins in November.  

Carmiel Arbit was previously the director of strategic engagement in AIPAC’s office of Policy and Government Affairs in Washington and is a nonresident senior fellow.

Will China have a greater foothold in the Middle East?

China has a wide set of interests in the Middle East and a clearly articulated set of mechanisms to try to reach them, and many Middle Eastern leaders are receptive to Chinese outreach. Two offshoots from its enormous Belt and Road Initiative—the Digital Silk Road and the Health Silk Road—are especially attractive to leaders looking to build knowledge-based economies while navigating the ravages of COVID-19. That China has been able to link its big data approach to new technologies creates opportunities for deeper digital cooperation. China’s ability to manage the worst of the coronavirus pandemic for now combined with material support for its MENA partners also strengthens its growing position across the region. 

Thus far the Trump administration has offered little in the way of positive incentives for MENA states to reduce cooperation with China, instead warning its allies and partners about the dangers in working with China and then issuing ultimatums. At the same time, there hasn’t been a coherent Middle East policy from the Trump administration, leaving a void that used to be filled by US leadership. A second Trump administration following the template of the first would likely lead to a much more fluid Middle East regional order, with China playing a larger role, along with several other powers with interests that don’t necessarily align with Washington’s preferences for MENA. The scenario is not a China-dominated order—Beijing isn’t capable of or interested in becoming a Middle East hegemon—but rather a region characterized by several local and external powers competing in a highly unstable environment. 

Jonathan Fulton is an assistant professor of political science at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi and is a nonresident senior fellow.

Through our Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative, the Atlantic Council works with allies and partners in Europe and the wider Middle East to protect US interests, build peace and security, and unlock the human potential of the region.

Related Experts: John W. Miller, Kirsten Fontenrose, Jomana Qaddour, Mark N. Katz, Defne Arslan, Jasmine El-Gamal, Barbara Slavin, Shalom Lipner, Carmiel Arbit, and Jonathan Fulton

Image: A U.S. soldier from the 2nd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division stands guard at a military base north of Mosul, Iraq, February 14, 2017. Picture taken February 14, 2017. REUTERS/Khalid al Mousily