The region’s post-World War I order is rapidly fracturing
The Trump administration has a unique opportunity to implement a new strategic policy to bring some semblance of stability to the current Middle East chaos. Under the pledge of putting “America first,” our core national security interest in the region should include the following:
- Eliminating the Islamic State as an identifiable entity.
- Preventing Iranfrom achieving a deliverable nuclear weapon capability.
- Preventing Iranfrom achieving regional hegemony.
- Supporting Iranians in their efforts to remove the corrupt Iranian theocracy.
- Keeping open vital sea lanes and strategic choke points.
- Defending U.S. bases and facilities.
- Re-emphasizing our support for our friends and allies while assisting threatened minorities (Christians, Assyrians/Chaldeans, Kurds and Yazidis).
Our strategy in the past has been reactive, but now must be driven by our vital core objectives. In that sense, it is not in the U.S. interest to become involved in a 1,300-year-old, intra-Islamic sectarian fight between Shiites and Sunnis. From a Western perspective, there is no good side in this conflict. Both want to kill us.
It also must be recognized that much of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement nation-state system formed in the Middle East after World War I is coming asunder. Syria and Iraq are fractured states and a readjustment of a regional balance of power between Shiite and Sunni will evolve out of the current crisis with or without U.S. involvement. Our invasion of Iraq and the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni army removed the main blocking force to the expansion of Iran’s Shiite Crescent and ensured the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) out of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq.
A Sunni entity that clearly is not ISIS should be assisted to coalesce in what used to be Iraq. Such an entity could involve Anbar Province and the Nineveh Plain, where Assyrians/Turkman/Yazidis are unifying in an effort at preservation and stabilization.
In areas outside of Alawite and Kurdish control and areas liberated from ISIS in the former Syria, Syrian Free Army (SFA) commanders believe that with U.S. and other Western support, they could pry off significant forces from jihadi militias to create a force to defeat Jabhat al-Nusra, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and ISIS. This approach should be explored. In implementing a new strategy, we must proceed in a manner that gains cooperation from those whose involvement is essential. This includes Russia, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, and Turkey. The Gulf states must be persuaded to end support for Sunni jihadis, which can only happen if they are assured that they will not be threatened or surrounded by Iran’s Shiite Crescent.
The Trump administration’s recent declaration putting Iran “on notice” is a step in the right direction, as were U.S. Treasury sanctions on 12 entities for supporting Iran’s illicit ballistic missile program. Further, President Trump’s call for establishing safe zones in Syria, e.g., one in the northern Kurdish area, one along the Turkish border, and one on the Jordanian border, could help relieve economic pressure on Jordan and Turkey, which are providing support to millions of refugees. In return, we should expect Turkey and Jordan’s support for our new regional strategy.
President Obama’s policy that deliberately empowered Iran to advance its geostrategic ambitions and move toward a deliverable nuclear weapons capability is over. Our so-called nuclear agreement with Iran must also be terminated and Iran’s joint venture relationship, using North Korea as its off-site laboratory to advance its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, must end. Holding Iran accountable to the agreement is a pipe dream. There is no agreement. Further, a clear, unambiguous declaration from the Trump administration with appropriate follow-on action will go a long way to gain Saudi and GCC cooperation.
With regard to Syria, Bashar Assad must go. It appears Russia may support such action as it reportedly proposed Alawite Gen. Manas Tlass (formerly with the Hafez Assad regime) as his replacement at the Astana talks. SFA commanders may accept this as long as the Assad clan is out of power and in exile. Under such an arrangement, the Alawites would keep control of Damascus and their coastal strip heartland, but lose the rest of former Syria. This is the de facto current situation on the ground today.
Russia may find such an arrangement acceptable, provided it keeps its bases in Latakia and Tartus. While these are major concessions, issues involving Ukraine/Crimea must also be part of the discussion, as well as Libya. The bottom line in the trade-offs must be Russia’s commitment to help in getting Iran, Hezbollah and Shiite militias out of what formerly was Syria.
Turkey also may be helpful in the overall realignment but must be managed carefully, as Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) is moving toward an authoritarian neo-Ottoman jihad state. Clearly, the No. 1 Turkish concern is the Kurds. One option may be to not allow the Kurdish northern-Syria enclave “Rojava” to extend to the Turkish border. There would instead be a safe zone there, guaranteed jointly by Russia and Turkey. Gas and oil pipelines also are major factors that must be included in discussions with both Russia and Turkey.
Since we have no vital objectives in Afghanistan, we should stop wasting our national treasure to support a corrupt tribal society.
If this new strategic approach is followed, our vital core strategic objectives will most likely stand a better chance of being achieved while gradually bringing the current chaos under control.
This column was originally published in The Washington Times.