Behold the New Middle East—Same as the Old Middle East

Feb. 22 2017

Over the past decade, America has withdrawn from the Middle East, states have collapsed, governments have been overthrown, Iran has rapidly expanded its influence, and a significant détente has come into being between Israel and the Sunni Arab states. But, writes Michael Singh, much more remains unchanged and could be changed for the better:

The economic and political stagnation that birthed the 2011 uprisings has, if anything, worsened. . . . Those countries that were doing reasonably well in 2008—for example, Jordan, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates—are today continuing to prosper despite the region’s turbulence, due to sound leadership and patient, low-key U.S. and international cooperation. The biggest change in the region has arguably come from the outside, starting with the role of the United States. There is no American alliance in the region that stands stronger in 2017 than it was in 2009. . . .

It is tempting to see Middle East policy in terms of “solving” Syria, Iraq, or the Israel-Palestinian dispute, but such solutionism tends not only to fail but to crowd out attention and resources for endeavors that are just as important in the long run but less high-profile.

Thus, as vital as the fight against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq will continue to be, there are three other changes to U.S. policy in the region that President Trump could make that would serve our interests well over time. First, he should act firmly to counter Iran. Doing so would not only help to . . . end the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere, but would [also] put the U.S. back on the same page . . . as our allies, who consider Tehran’s regional ambitions to be their top threat. Second, he should seek to rebuild U.S. alliances in the region, focusing not merely on improving bilateral ties but on forging a more capable and useful multilateral grouping of likeminded regional partners.

Finally, he should help our [Arab] allies, where they are willing, to engage in economic, security, and political reforms. The objective should not be to remake them in our own image, but to help them take actions that benefit our mutual interests by making them more resilient to regional threats and responsive to their own populations.

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More about: Arab Spring, Middle East, Politics & Current Affairs, U.S. Foreign policy


A Better Syria Strategy Can Help Achieve the U.S. Goal of Countering Iran

While the Trump administration has reversed much of its predecessor’s effort to realign Washington with Tehran, and has effectively used sanctions to exert economic pressure on the Islamic Republic, Omar Hassino argues that these measures might not be enough:

Iran and its militias control more territory and natural resources in Syria and Iraq than before President Trump took office. . . . The U.S. should back the low-cost insurgency approach that has already shown potential in southwest Syria to bleed the Iranian forces and increase the costs of their expansion and [of Tehran’s] support for the Assad regime. It makes no sense that Iran can fund low-cost insurgencies to bleed American allies in the region, but the United States cannot counter with the same. The administration should also consider expanding support to the proxy forces that it currently works with—such as the Revolution Commandos near the [U.S.] al-Tanf garrison in southwest Syria—for the purpose of fighting and eliminating Iranian-backed militias. This limited escalation can curb Iranian expansion and put pressure on the Assad regime in the long term.

Furthermore, in this vein, the U.S. should empower peaceful Syrian civil-society groups and local councils operating outside Assad-regime control. Last year, the Trump administration eliminated assistance for stabilization in Syria, including funding going to secular anti-Assad civil-society groups that were also combating al-Qaeda’s ideology, as well as the Syrian [medical and civil-defense group known as] the White Helmets, before quickly [restoring] some of this funding. Yet the funding has still not completely been resumed, and if this administration takes an approach similar to its predecessor’s in relying on regional powers such as Turkey, these powers will instead fund groups aligned ideologically with Muslim Brotherhood. This is already happening in Idlib.

The United States must [also] jettison the Obama-era [strategy of establishing] “de-escalation zones.” These zones were from the start largely a Russian ruse to help the Assad regime conquer opposition areas, and they succeeded. Now that the regime controls most of Syria and Iranian proxies are dominant within the regime side, support for de-escalation is tantamount to support for Iranian expansion. The United States must [instead] prevent further expansion by the Assad regime and Iran in parts of the country that they still do not control.

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More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy