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Trump in the Middle East: A New Strategy or More of the Same?

By Blaise Misztal

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

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This post is part of The Next Agenda, a series that explores the main policy challenges facing the next Congress and presidential administration on issues from immigration and infrastructure to economics and energy. Check back regularly for future installments.

When it comes to the Middle East, the transition from President Barack Obama to President-elect Donald Trump may well exhibit just as much continuity as divergence.

Trump in saying he wants to “fix our own mess” appears to agree with Obama’s stated preference for “nation building at home.” Both have expressed a desire to resolve immediate concerns in the Middle East with as little cost in U.S. blood or treasure as possible in order to free up the United States to pivot to other, more important issues. For Trump, the central problem of U.S. Middle East policy will be, as it was for Obama, identifying partners who can help shoulder the burden of trying to fix problems in the Middle East.

Yet, Trump differs sharply in his assessment of what those problems are. It is already clear that Trump sees both of this predecessors’ Middle East policies as failures: the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a mistake; the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2010 was precipitous; ISIS has not been decimated; the campaign for Mosul is a “total disaster”; and the nuclear deal with Iran is one of the worst agreements ever.

To address this morass—principally defined by the twin failures of the ISIS campaign and the Iran nuclear deal—Trump will likely have to find new partners in the Middle East. Russia and Syria seem to be in prime contention to form a new coalition with the United States. But Trump has also indicated that, like both of this predecessors, he would also look to Turkey for support of his Middle Eastern objectives. The emergence of a Washington-Moscow-Damascus-Ankara axis would represent a dramatic substantive change in U.S. Middle East policy and would face a number of challenges.

A New Anti-ISIS Coalition: Washington-Moscow-Damascus-Ankara?

“We could find common ground with Russia in the fight against ISIS,” Trump has suggested. “They too have much at stake in the outcome in Syria, and have had their own battles with Islamic terrorism.” But Putin alone will not defeat ISIS. Although he has proven more willing to provide “boots on the ground” in Syria than Obama, it is doubtful that, even under the most favorable cooperation agreement between Washington and Moscow, Russian forces would ever roll into Raqqa.

For Trump, the central problem of Middle East policy will be, as it was for Obama, identifying partners who can help shoulder the burden of trying to fix problems.

Certainly, any U.S.-Russian coalition would also necessarily include the Syrian government, cementing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s position in Damascus, and rendering his regime’s troops the new anti-ISIS force of choice. However, it is unclear whether Syrian troops, even with U.S. and Russian support, could be able to fight both the Syrian opposition and ISIS. After all, the tide of battle was turning against Assad early in the civil war until the intervention of Iranian troops and Hezbollah guerrillas on behalf of the regime.

For Russia and Syria to effectively assist the United States in fighting ISIS it will need the assistance of either Iran and its proxies, the cessation of Syrian civil war, or the addition of a fourth party to the coalition. The first is unlikely, as discussed below, and the second and third options might be accomplished simultaneously by giving Turkey a role to play in this new Middle Eastern partnership. In fact, this coalition would probably only work if Turkey agrees to join.

Erdoğan’s Price for Cooperation: The Kurds

There is a bipartisan tradition of incoming U.S. presidents turning to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as the solution to U.S. problems in the Middle East.

George W. Bush—after an initial hiccup when Turkey denied U.S. troops basing rights for the 2003 invasion of Iraq—saw in Erdoğan the embodiment of his freedom agenda and the harbinger of liberal democracy to the Middle East. Barack Obama turned to Erdoğan as a steward of regional order amid U.S. withdrawal of forces from the region, and as a partner in outreach to the Muslim world. Now, Trump might need Erdoğan to shore up a coalition with Russia and Syria.

First, with the Mosul offensive likely to stretch into next year, Trump will need partners in Iraq, too. Second, any concerns, however muted, that the Obama White House has had about the erosion of democracy under Erdoğan are unlikely to carry over into the next administration. Trump’s predilection for “strong” leaders has led him to declare that Erdoğan deserves “credit…for being able to turn [the July 15 coup attempt] around” and will likely mean he will have few qualms about working with Erdoğan, even as he becomes increasingly autocratic. The question, therefore, is whether Erdoğan would be receptive to joining Trump, Putin, and Assad in a new regional coalition.

There is a bipartisan tradition of incoming U.S. presidents turning to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for help.

On the one hand, the costs of such a realignment might seem too great for Erdoğan. He staked his Syria policy on forcing Assad out and supporting the Syrian opposition. Could he really abandon them now? Would he give up the forces Turkey has supported in Aleppo in exchange for the chance to shape a new Middle Eastern order? There is reason to believe he might.

Erdoğan has already been calibrating his approach to Syria and Russia. Not only has he patched up relations with Putin but he has had members of his government float the possibility of accepting that Assad remains in power. If Erdoğan is on the brink of discarding his foreign policy of the last five years, just as he discarded “zero problems” before that, then what might push him over edge would be the possibility of getting international support for reining in Kurdish aspirations in Syria and cementing Turkish influence in northern Iraq.

To be sure, Trump has declared himself a “big fan of the Kurdish forces” and suggested that “it would be really wonderful if we could put them [Syrian Kurds and Turkey] somehow both together.” No matter Trump’s intentions, however, pursuing a rapprochement with Russia and Syria would likely amplify, not attenuate, Turkish-Kurdish tensions.

The Obama administration’s ability to maintain relations with both groups, however tenuously, is largely a result of the ambiguity of the current situation. Will Syria ultimately remain intact and territory currently held by Kurds eventually be returned to the control of a central government? Is Syria splintering and an independent Rojava a real prospect? Or will some middle course be found, given Syrian Kurds a measure of autonomy, like their Iraqi kinsmen, but not independence? So long as the outcome is unclear and Washington avoids taking a position, it can attempt to walk a fine line between supporting the Kurds and recognizing Turkish anxieties.

But the moment that a Trump administration halts any pretense of pursuing regime change or supporting the Syrian opposition, U.S. policy will be quickly clarified: it will support whatever Damascus and Moscow decide. This, in turn, will spark a competition between Turkey and the Kurds.

Pursuing a rapprochement with Russia and Syria would likely amplify, not attenuate, Turkish-Kurdish tensions. 

In such a scenario, Erdoğan would likely seek to ingratiate himself with the Washington-Moscow-Damascus axis by offering Turkish services to quell ISIS. Of course, given that for Turkish forces to get to Raqqa they would have to travel through Syrian Kurdish-held territory, this might also include the added benefit of helping Assad reestablish his hold over the northern part of his country.

Erdoğan might seek an even more attractive deal, as Turkish media have rumored, asking for some territorial concessions from Syria, or at least the right to maintain Turkish bases and influence in parts of Syria, in exchange for Turkish support. He would likely pursue a similar course in Iraq, where Turkish troops have had bases for decades and where Erdoğan has been anxious to play a role in the fight for Mosul precisely to ensure Turkey’s continued clout there.

Thus, the building blocks of a U.S.-Russian-Syrian-Turkish bloc emerges: Assad stays in power; Turkey gives up support of the Syrian opposition; the United States gives up its support for the YPG; Syrian and Turkish forces move on Raqqa with Russian and U.S. support; Turkish forces receive a greenlight for operations around Mosul; and, afterwards, Ankara and Damascus are expected to manage the region’s economic and political reconstruction.

Dealing with the Iran Deal

Still, a major obstacle could emerge to the formation of such a new grand coalition in the form of Iran. Trump has made clear that he believes the nuclear agreement negotiated last summer by President Obama to be deeply flawed and that he would consider discarding it. Given that Tehran, in conjunction with Moscow, is one of Assad’s main supporters, antagonizing Iran while seeking rapprochement with Syria could prove difficult. But such a policy would not be any more inconsistent than the one pursued by Obama, seeking rapprochement with Tehran while antagonizing Assad. The question is whether it would be any more successful.

Here, the deciding factor will be Moscow. If a Trump administration is simultaneously seeking an anti-ISIS coalition with Russia and re-imposing sanctions on Iran and both sides are jockeying for Syrian support, will Assad think joining forces with a global superpower and a major power preferable to tying his fate to an embattled regional power? Probably so.

Antagonizing Iran while seeking rapprochement with Syria could prove difficult.

But even if breaking Syria away from Iran proves possible, Tehran can still create complications. Each of these, however, is only likely to make Turkey more important for the success of Trump’s policy agenda. Retracting the support Iran provides Assad in the form of both Iranian and Hezbollah troops could impact the Syrian forces’ ability to fight ISIS. This would heighten the need for Turkish participation in the fight for Raqqa. Similarly, Iran could order the Shiite militias it controls in Iraq to stop fighting ISIS or, worse still, to foment more sectarian unrest there. Yet again, this would raise the need for Turkish assistance in Iraq. Taken to the extreme, should Iran seek to undermine Iraqi stability in order to lash out at the Trump administration for backing out of the nuclear deal and its loss of influence in Syria, it could also hasten the possibility of Iraq’s dissolution. In such an eventuality, Turkey would gladly angle for a major role in any sort of Sunni rump state that might emerge.

Conclusion

President Trump could usher in a major realignment of U.S. Middle Eastern policy. Yet, his potential search for partners to help solve the region’s problems and the likelihood that Turkey would number among any new coalition that Trump would forge would actually represent a direct continuation of past administrations’ belief that Turkey, and Erdoğan in general, can carry Washington’s water. Both Obama and Bush were ultimately disappointed by Erdoğan, he proved to be neither the liberal democrat nor the regional power that they had thought him to be.

President Trump could usher in a major realignment of U.S. Middle Eastern policy.  

In  this case, too, the potential for failure of a policy that hinges heavily on a leader as undependable as Erdoğan, not to mention Putin and Assad, seems quite high. The logic of Washington-Moscow-Damascus-Ankara coalition could easily break down. Putin and Assad, just like Obama before them, might prefer to keep playing the Turks and Kurds against each other rather than anointing a clear winner. Or they might allow Erdoğan to help subdue the Kurds, but then go back on any promises of increased influence within Syria. Indeed, any such coalition does not seem like it could persist for much longer than the matter of months that might be required to target ISIS main contingent in Raqqa.

But from the perspective of a Trump administration that might not matter. Defeating ISIS, not a stable balance of power, would likely be its proximate goal. Striking a short-term marriage of convenience with Erdoğan and Putin and Assad might accomplish that goal. With such a narrow vision of U.S. regional interests, it would almost certainly minimize the chance for disappointment that Bush and Obama encountered in the Middle East but so too would it minimize U.S. regional influence.

KEYWORDS: PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA, IRAN, TAYYIP ERDOGAN, SYRIA, RUSSIA, VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH, BASHAR AL-ASSAD, ISIS, KURDS, IRAN DEAL, YPG, DONALD TRUMP, THE NEXT AGENDA SERIES