By John Ubaldi,
President Trump inherited a Middle East in disarray with few discernible options. But throughout the election campaign – and now as president – he has vowed to defeat ISIS.
However, how can Trump achieve the strategic outcome of victory? This is a question missing from his rhetoric and one that the previous two presidential administrations failed to address.
What Will Be the Political Strategy in Syria and Iraq after ISIS?
Constructing a military strategy to defeat ISIS is the easy part. As military strategist Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic & International Studies, wrote:
“Defeating ISIS in two war-shattered countries with deep divisions, no clear path to recovery, and deep ethnic and sectarian divisions in the areas where ISIS must be defeated risks repeating the same disaster that occurred in U.S. planning for the invasion of Iraq: Failing to plan for the strategic outcome of victory, and to address the key civil and military consequences.”
ISIS is only one set of problems. There is also Syria, which has been in perpetual civil war since 2011. Millions of its citizens have been displaced.
It is a war between the forces of President Bashar al-Assad and his allies Iran, Russia and Hezbollah versus a deeply divided rebel force, with major factions having ties to al Qaeda. Also, the sharp animosity between Arab and Kurdish groups must be factored into this conflict.
Iran May Force US Out of Middle East
Once ISIS is defeated, Iran will do everything it can to push the United States out of the region and cement its arc of Shiite domination from Iran through Iraq and Syria. Iran will also link up with its proxy army of Hezbollah in Lebanon, which now controls the government in Beirut.
Last month, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said the United States would stay in Iraq after ISIS is defeated. But he didn’t elaborate in what capacity the U.S. would remain there.
A continued U.S. presence in Iraq would place the United States in direct confrontation with Iran, which also plays an active role in the Sunni and Shi’ite tensions in Bahrain, Kuwait and Yemen. While serving as commander of USCENTCOM, then-General Mattis repeatedly warned that the United States was no bystander in the confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Arab states.
Should the US Disengage from the Middle East?
Many policy leaders on both sides of the political aisle believe we have spent too much capital and human resources in the Middle East and that we should disengage from Middle Eastern conflicts. However, those policymakers fail to understand the vital nature of U.S. strategic interests in that region.
There are seven economic choke points in the world; three are located in the Middle East. The Straits of Hormuz, where 17 million barrels of oil a day are shipped around the world, is one of them.
Even though the U.S. has reduced its oil purchases from this region, oil is still a major trading commodity on world markets. Any disruption would have a serious impact on the world’s economies, including that of the United States.
The other two choke points are at Bab el-Mandeb or the Mandeb Strait. It is located between Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula and Djibouti and Eritrea in the Horn of Africa. Bab el-Mandeb is the path between the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. Ironically, this waterway is close to the ongoing conflict in Yemen and the Suez Canal, where Egypt struggles to contain ISIS militants.
The U.S. must now deal with Iraq facing an unstable Syria; pressure from Iran, Turkey, and other Arab states; and a bankrupt government in Baghdad.
Splitting Iraq into three distinct mini-states is a recipe for disaster and would only perpetuate the ongoing violence and suffering. The Sunnis would feel marginalized, as all oil is concentrated in the Shia south and Kurdish north, leaving them with only the desert.
What Is the US Political Strategy for the Middle East?
In focusing on a military solution, one has to also factor in the lack of effective governance in many of the nations throughout the Muslim world. The 2010 Arab Spring revolution caught Islamic militants by surprise, as it did the rest of the world.
The citizens of these nations were finally fed up with continued repression, corruption and economic stagnation. They finally rebelled, but in the years since the Arab Spring, the situation has only grown worse.
If this situation wasn’t bad enough, the Middle East region faces a huge population explosion of young people and a corresponding high rate of youth unemployment. The lack of investments in education and healthcare in these nations is further straining sectarian, ethnic and tribal tensions.
Often, the debate in the U.S. centers on “nation building,” as was the case in Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States needs to understand these Middle Eastern conflicts are complex and multi-dimensional problems. A military option is not the only answer.
The defeat of ISIS is one aspect affecting the Middle East. The U.S. needs a more comprehensive and long-term strategy that incorporates outside powers such as Russia, Turkey and Iran.
Many of the other issues have nothing to do with Islam. Ethnic, tribal and regional tensions and an unequal distribution of wealth between urban and rural areas foster perpetual conflict.
The Middle East has confounded the U.S. for decades. Nevertheless, these conflicts cannot be ignored. We cannot simply walk away, leaving the nations of the area to their own devices.
What is needed is a long-term strategy not determined by an election schedule. We must wait and see how President Trump moves forward in this pivotal region of the world.