Five Middle East crises facing whoever wins the US elections
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
The next US president, whether US President Donald Trump remains in office or Democratic challenger Joe Biden takes home a victory, will face several crises in the Middle East. These include dealing with the Iranian threat, the emerging extremism of Turkey, the failing leadership of the Palestinians, problems in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean and an emerging disaster in the Sahel and the possible destabilization of Iraq.
The Middle East has been a challenge for US presidents going back 50 years. Many administrations come into power wanting to “do something” relating to the region, usually “solving” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, the past decades have shown that this conflict is not the central one in the region. Other problems, such as Islamist extremism, also appear to be reduced in the past years, as Islamic State was defeated. What is left is rising authoritarian regimes such as Turkey and the Iranian attempt to achieve hegemony over Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
Turkey’s growing extremism
The Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become increasingly extreme. This year alone it created a crisis with Greece several times, bombed Iraq, continued military threats in Syria against US partner forces, threatened Armenia, Israel, Egypt, the UAE and other countries. Turkey is at the intersection of the Middle East and Europe, and it uses this to blackmail Europe regarding migrants and to meddle in the affairs of all its neighbors.
Mounting evidence shows Turkey’s extremism is not only fueling terrorism but also destabilizing the region. Countries and groups are seeking out Russia as they are increasingly pressured by Turkey, enabling Turkey, Russia and Iran to partition the region. This is because the US has not stood up to Turkey and defended its friends and allies. Turkey has lost out on the American F-35 but is buying the Russian S-400 air defense system and has used it to threaten Greece.
These are serious problems. There are calls to remove Turkey from NATO, but Ankara’s lobbying arm in the US claims that if Turkey is pressured, it could become more dangerous than Iran. In addition, Turkey sells itself as balancing Iranian and Russian influence.
The reality is that Turkey is fueling extremism and working with Iran and Russia to remove US influence. The next US president will have to confront Turkey’s ambitions to control the Eastern Mediterranean.
In addition, Turkey’s hosting of terrorists and incitement against Europe and others needs to be stopped. It is only a matter of time before Ankara sets its sights on Israel, the way it has threatened others.
Iran is out from under an arms embargo, and it is rapidly developing better precision guidance for missiles, larger ballistic missiles and more drones. These are dangerous weapons, but Iran can’t win wars with them alone. It traffics them to threaten Israel. Its goal is to present Israel with a threat, not to defeat Israel in one battle. It wants to choose the time and place for the attack on Israel, or on other US allies. Iran has already attacked ships and Saudi Arabia over the past years. It has also harmed Kurds and ordered rocket fire at US troops in Iraq.
The US president needs to deter Iran. However, Iran is trying to eject US forces from Iraq and open the road to the sea via Iraq and Syria. This is Iran’s grand strategy. The US doesn’t want to counter this with war, but needs to find a way to stop Iran’s increasingly powerful militias in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, as well as its arming of Hezbollah. The Trump administration’s maximum economic pressure worked to weaken Iran, but the country is just waiting for sanctions relief to grow back its networks.
The US president has a tough job dealing with Iran, because it can strike across 3,000 miles of front lines, from Israel to Saudi Arabia. This is not just a crescent of threats, but a giant circle of them. It means the US Navy in the Gulf has to deter Iran, and the US must provide Israel with support and close intelligence sharing on the nature of Iran’s next move, which could be in cyberspace.
US troops in Iraq and Syria
The US has led a successful campaign against ISIS, but US troops are being threatened in Iraq and pressured in Syria. A small footprint of only around 2,000 soldiers in Iraq and 500 in Syria means the US influences a huge amount of territory without having to do much. But that shouldn’t lead to complacency or a disorderly withdrawal.
The use of the troops to guard oil wells is just an excuse to keep them in Syria. The US needs a better excuse, such as supporting Kurdish rights in eastern Syria. The US should be clearer on its decision to protect and work with Kurds in Syria. This could mean encouraging the local Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party), which runs eastern Syria, to work with the Kurdish opposition ENKS (Kurdish National Council), and also to find a way to accommodate tribes in Deir al-Zor. Overall, the US goal should be stability. After years of betraying Kurdish allies, the US needs to do more to shore them up.
These are key linchpins on which the whole region now turns; like spokes of a wagon wheel, the Kurdistan region links Iran, Turkey and Iraq and Syria.
The US should increase its footprint in Erbil in northern Iraq and outfit its base with proper air defense, and then use it as a conduit to support US forces in Syria. The message should be that the US is here to stay.
The Kurdish areas are safe and pro-American. Instead of abandoning friends, as the US did in the past, the US should learn the lessons of the past. When the US withdraws, its enemies are encouraged. Kurdish groups want US support, but after October 2017 and October 2019 they are concerned that the US won’t be here for the long term.
The aging Palestinian leadership
The Palestinian Authority is stagnant and its residents are apathetic. This is not good, because the Palestinians now have a whole lost generation that grew up with hopes of Oslo and suffered through the intifadas launched by their parents and now have no hope or clear future.
While the Palestinian issue does not deserve the previous focus the US gave it, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. The large Palestinian communities of Jordan, Lebanon and those in the West Bank and Gaza as well as Jerusalem Arabs are more divided than ever, but they have importance for all the countries where they exist. Ignoring them in the past has proven to lead to bad results.
While it is unlikely that the factions in Gaza and Ramallah will unify, and this is not in Israel’s interests, it is in everyone’s interests to maintain stability.
The Trump administration alienated the Abbas leadership of the PA so much that it couldn’t be brought on board for the Israel-UAE peace deal.
This is unfortunate because the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank has historic connections to the Gulf. That is why Mohammad Dahlan has made a home in the Gulf. Azmi Bishara, once an Arab leader in Israel, is also in Qatar, at least according to the last news that has referenced him. This shows that the Gulf has a major role to play. Yet Palestinian politicians are increasingly looking to Turkey and Iran for support. That is bad news for US interests and Israel.
The reality is that eventually the leadership in Ramallah will change. A peaceful transition of power requires the Office of the United States Security Coordinator to have more resources and not let the Palestinian Security Forces wither on the vine. In addition, the US needs to engage whoever might be the new leader and not let Hamas regrow its roots in the West Bank, or let Turkey use its new networks in Jerusalem to destabilize the area.
The Palestinians once had hope that the US would do more. The US needs to approach this issue not as a paternalistic colonial-style power, but work with Israel to understand what might be in the best interests of everyone. Having Hamas, Turkey and Iran with greater influence in Ramallah, staring down on Tel Aviv, is not in the interests of the US or Israel or allies ranging from Jordan to Abu Dhabi and Cairo.
The arc of instability from Libya to Afghanistan
In the old days a future-thinking writer named Thomas Barnett wrote The Pentagon’s New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century which compartmentalized the Middle East as part of the “non-integrated gap” of the world.
In the Middle East we don’t see ourselves as “disconnected” or not “integrated,” but the reality is that for decades there have been extremist threats from the region due to ungoverned spaces and non-state actors eating away at states. From Libya to Yemen and Afghanistan, there is an arc of instability. Think of this arc as the mirror or yin to the yang of Iran’s circle of power that runs from Aden to Tyre.
The Middle East today is divided into the Turkish-backed Muslim Brotherhood groups, such as Hamas and the GNA in Libya as well as Qatar; and the Iranian-backed militias such as the Houthis, PMU in Iraq and Hezbollah, and the Assad regime. Then there is Israel, the UAE, Jordan, Egypt, the US and the arc of pro-Western stability that runs to Greece and India.
However, there are countries across the Sahel, from Niger to Somalia and linked to Libya and Afghanistan, that are still controlled or threatened by extremists. These are mostly Sunni jihadist groups. They are the remnants of al-Qaeda and ISIS frothing around to create some new evil that will combine the worst of these former terrorist groups.
The US must confront this, using its resources in Africa, generally from AFRICOM and SOCOM, to defeat these enemies. The US has special forces operating in some 90 countries, including 8,000 personnel drawn from a force of tens of thousands that can support operations.
The US needs to be selling more armed drones to its allies and get serious in working with France and other states to beat back the scourge of these terrorist armies.
Leaving Africa to fester is not a good choice, and it has been revealed that these groups are threatening Mozambique and the Central African Republic. That means Africa is being eaten away by extremists.
The long-term ramifications are clear: People are fleeing, they are suffering enslavement, and they try to get to Europe. This in turn creates more crises in Europe, radicalization and populism.
Getting serious about dealing with the “gap” countries is important. The horrors of the Taliban and ISIS in Afghanistan are still being felt, with attacks on Sikhs, university students and others. It’s essential that the US not just view this as an “endless war” and hope for the best. This has resulted in massive killing in the past in these countries and refugees fleeing, which destabilizes neighboring countries. Dealing with the refugees from Syria in Jordan and Turkey, as well as helping Yazidis resettle is also part of bringing stability.
The US can’t do all this alone, and Europe increasingly is inward looking, but the US needs to do something on this issue or it will get worse.