Based on Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric some of his priorities in the Middle East – defeating ISIL and ensuring Israel’s security – will be no different than President Obama’s. Where his policies may differ will be in his stated desires to accommodate Russian interests in Syria while at the same time scrapping the Iran nuclear agreement. Taken individually, both policy shifts are highly problematic. But combined, they are impossible to successfully execute and likely catastrophic.
Already the battle lines are being drawn inside a future Trump administration with two men who are reportedly at the top of Trump’s list for secretary of state coming out in very different places. Rudy Giuliani argued recently that given the focus on terrorism and ISIL, scrapping the Iran deal was a lesser priority. John Bolton meanwhile penned an op-ed calling on Trump to abrogate the deal on his first days in office.
In a recent interview he gave to The Wall Street Journal, Trump indicated he would accommodate Putin by cutting off aid to the armed Syrian opposition paving the way for Russia, its Syrian client, and Iran to finish off the Syrian opposition in Aleppo and the rest of northwest Syria. According to Trump, in exchange for this change in policy, the United States would receive greater cooperation from Russia and the Assad regime to destroy ISIL in eastern Syria and western Iraq.
Iranian cooperation would be a critical component of such an approach. Iranian supported Shia militias in Syria and Iraq represent a significant portion of the ground forces that are and would be doing the fighting. Iran will have to play a constructive role in restraining these militias from committing sectarian violence. And it will have to acquiesce to a government in Baghdad that is inclusive enough to avoid wholesale Sunni alienation that leads to an ISIL rebirth under another name. It is unclear if Iran is willing to take either of those steps.
It is highly questionable whether Trump’s proposed approach could lead to stability in Syria and Iraq. Instead it would likely cement the dangerous trends that are already occurring in Syria. The armed opposition is increasingly cooperating with extremist organizations in the face of intense attacks on Aleppo, and with the withdrawal of American support, any motivation to moderate would disappear. The combination of Assad, Russia, and Iran have not, until now, had the manpower to take and hold northwest Syria and there is no indication that will change. The end result would be Assad in power in most of the country with an Al-Qaeda affiliated safe haven in northwest Syria that is much more firmly entrenched than it is today.
This decision would also be morally reprehensible giving the Assad regime and its allies carte blanche to continue and expand on the atrocities of the past five years, which have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents. But for all its faults, this approach, at a minimum, represents a coherent strategy. But if the Trump administration chooses to combine this Syria strategy with efforts to unilaterally dismantle the Iran nuclear agreement – the situation goes completely haywire. Our European partners, as well as the Saudis and Israelis, have already signaled that they would prefer the United States did not walk away from the deal. The international consensus that was so critical to economically isolating Iran prior to the nuclear agreement would collapse.
Even if Trump did not abrogate the deal on day one, there is still a good chance it could collapse over time. As part of the deal, six months into his administration President Trump would have to sign a waiver to continue to keep U.S. sanctions from being reimposed on Iran. And if small disagreements over implementation of the deal are not handled delicately through diplomatic channels, they could explode into major confrontations that kill the agreement.
In any of these scenarios, a collapse of the deal would likely lead to increasing U.S.-Iran tensions. Iran would likely restart its nuclear program but no longer face a unified international sanctions regime. As Iran got closer to a nuclear weapon, the likelihood would increase of an Israeli strike or a decision by the Trump administration to use military force against Iran’s nuclear program. We would essentially be back in the days of 2009 to 2012.
In that world, Iran’s most effective tools against the United States would be its surrogates and proxies across the Middle East – especially in Iraq and Syria. In recent years, Iran has pushed its proxies to focus on supporting Assad and fighting ISIL. However, if Iran-U.S. tensions start to rise the priority would quickly shift back to using the groups it supports to exact a cost on the United States and deter American military action. Shia militias in Iraq, who since the start of the ISIL campaign have coexisted uneasily with American forces in Iraq, could start launching attacks on U.S. forces. Iran could push for a more sectarian Shia government in Iraq and seek to topple Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Iran may encourage Hizballah to reprioritize forces currently directed at the Syrian civil war to prepare for the possibility of a new conflict with Israel in the aftermath of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear program.
Russian-American relations would also suffer as Moscow would view this escalation and the potential of an American-led attack on Iran as another example of American superpower overreach, which it would try to counter and contain. It is simply inconceivable that in this scenario the United States, Russia, and Iran could successfully coordinate in Syria and Iraq. And Trump’s rapprochement with Russia would likely collapse.
There are alternatives to both of these bad options. The United States could negotiate with Russia and Iran on an acceptable outcome in Syria, but do so from a position of strength instead of pure accommodation. I outlined such an approach along with my colleagues Nicholas Heras and Paul Scharre in a task report released by the Center for a New American Security and three articles for War on the Rocks. This approach would require deepening support for the Syrian opposition, and making clear to the Russians and Iranians that we believe that the only viable option to defeating extremist groups in northwest Syria is by supporting a credible alternative acceptable to the local population – not using airpower to try to pulverize the opposition. Trump could make clear that while we are ready to negotiate with Russia and Iran, we will respond to air strikes on American supported groups in Syria with missile strikes against the Assad regime.
Trump could continue to implement the nuclear agreement with Iran but also make more explicit the threat of military action if Iran were to violate the deal. He could also combine this approach with a tougher posture towards Iran’s behavior in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. And at the same time take a hardline with Iran regarding some of its irresponsible behavior in the Gulf, signaling that keeping the Strait of Hormuz open remains a redline for the United States, and if Iranian small boats did not stop their harassment of American ships, there could be real consequences.
This dual strategy of taking a firm approach to protect American interests of preventing terrorist safe havens in Syria and Iraq, while leaving the door open for negotiations with Iran and Russia, is the one most likely to lead to positive outcomes in the Middle East. It would also fit with President-elect Trump’s mantra of being an effective negotiator and striking deals that allow America to “win.”
If he does not pursue this approach and instead wants to follow through either on abandoning Syria to Putin and Assad or killing the Iran deal, he will have to choose one or the other. If he simultaneously kills the Iran deal and flips sides in Syria, the Middle East will likely experience another destabilizing shock, possibly on par with the Iraq war or the start of the Arab Spring.
Ilan Goldenberg is the Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.