Last month Donald Trump reset the strategic landscape in the Middle East, withdrawing U.S. troops from a lengthy war in Syria while managing to eliminate ISIS’s top leader.
The killing of the most wanted terrorist in the world, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, came within a few weeks of Trump’s brokering a deal with Turkey that ended months of dead end negotiations on a so-called “safe zone.”
Those events have significantly advanced U.S. interests in the Middle East, a chess play ripped from the pages of Ronald Reagan’s peace-through-strength manual. They also could open the door to several regional deals that return refugees home and enhance stability in the region — including a new, more comprehensive, and tougher nuclear deal with Iran.
But you would have a hard time getting the whole picture from news coverage, which has been preoccupied with the U.S. “sellout” of the Kurds and how Trump’s statement on Baghdadi compared with Obama’s on Osama Bin Laden. Or the differences in the White House photos.
To appreciate the opportunity that has opened up for America in the Middle East, one must first examine the facts and correct the misleading narrative.
Trump did not “sell out” the Syrian Kurds, who have been fantastic partners in the fight against ISIS, and will continue to be. The U.S. never had a formal treaty with the Kurds. Neither President Obama nor Trump ever committed to protect the Kurds against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad. And Congress never approved a formal alliance.
That’s a fact that gets omitted by the neo-conservative policymakers and military industrial complex cheerleaders who have dominated the airwaves the last few weeks.
Second, our partnership with the Syrian Kurds has not been a one-way street: U.S. troops helped the Kurds beat back ISIS from their towns and villages. Even with the US troop withdrawal, cooperation between America and the Kurds continues, as the successful Al Baghdadi raid demonstrated. And the Syrian Kurds, no fools at all, always kept a line to Damascus, which left them able to cut their own deal after Trump withdrew troops.
Third, Turkey is a formal ally of the United States, bound to us by the essential military alliance known as NATO. In fairness, Turkey is a troublesome ally for sure, and one with whom we disagree about the Syrian Kurds. And there is compelling evidence Turkey has not complied with recent ceasefires.
It might be for both sides to ask how U.S. interests are served by sanctioning Turkey, and keeping troops in Syria, because we disagree with Erdogan about the Kurds. But where ever that debate ends, the United States chose to be bound to Turkey in ways it was never to the Kurds.
With those facts in mind, let’s examine the opportunities on the horizon.
Trump currently appears to be testing Russia’s and Turkey’s commitment to degrade and defeat ISIS and other terrorist groups remaining in Syria, while maintaining the new but fragile peace deal with the Kurds.
There are still more than 10,000 jihadists in northwest Syria, where Al Baghdadi was hiding. If Vladimir Putin and Erdogan want to risk their blood and treasure to take them out, that could save America lives and money. Why not put Turkey, Russia and Iraq to the test in battling the rest of the terrorists?
With the territorial defeat of the ‘caliphate’ and the killing of Baghdadi, ISIS and other terrorists in Syria are now orphans. Former backers of various jihadi factions in the Gulf and elsewhere aren’t getting behind these armed thugs any longer. The money is drying up, and the terrorist dead enders are increasingly isolated in the northwest city of Idlib, which is facing an imminent day of reckoning with Syrian and Russian forces.
If Putin and Erdogan fail to defeat these ISIS and Al Qaeda leftovers, Trump still holds the option to re-deploy U.S. troops, positioned nearby in Iraq and elsewhere to finish the job.
The U.S. can also stop Erdogan if he is tempted to usurp some of those battle-tested jihadists for his own sectarian agenda, as some fear.
Second, Trump is watching closely whether Putin delivers a peace deal between Syria and Turkey. This is happening, and barely covered in the press. If Turkey and Syria bury the hatchet, the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey could eventually return to their original homes — while letting Russia foot the bill for needed security. This step, while not a done deal, would be monumental toward ending the war, and should be welcomed by the international community.
Third, many in the U.S. government and outside may see this dynamic as an unacceptable concession to Assad, Iran, and Putin. But the Trump administration quietly has grabbed some powerful leverage by having U.S. troops secure the lucrative but tattered Syrian oil fields.
Syrian oil will only increase in value for future negotiations with Putin. It assures that Assad, and Iran, will continue to be boxed in by U.S. power until there is a Syrian political process that resolves Assad’s future and Iran’s use of Syrian space to threaten Israel.
Fourth, with all these moves Trump has sparked Syria’s neighbors and other regional states to work out their own issues rather than wait for U.S. intervention. Not all of these countries are ones we like, such as Iran and Syria. But the regional shuttles are flying, and Trump set them in motion.
One such deal occurred this week when the Saudi’s brokered a peace deal between Yemen’s official government and rebels fighting in the civil war in that country. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hailed the deal on Twitter.
Fifth, Trump can continue to count on support from Israel, whose regular bombing of Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria also provides a needed stick. The U.S. doesn’t just have the armed Kurdish groups as an asset in Syria, we have Israel, America’s closest regional ally, as our partner too.
Sixth, an even bigger prize looms on the horizon: a better nuclear deal with Iran. This goal is important to Israel, as well as our partners in the region and around the world, and it has gained new urgency with Tehran’s announcement this week it has new advanced centrifuges to accelerate uranium enrichment.
There are other reasons why now is the time to move on Iran. The economic sanctions that Trump imposed on Tehran are having a devastating impact; the IMF projects Iran’s economic growth will contract by a stunning 9.5% this year.
Likewise, events in the region, especially in Lebanon, where a secular, anti-Iran trend is taking hold, opens the door to more comprehensive peace, which could address Israel’s concerns about the missile and terrorist threat from Hezbollah.
A carrot and stick approach that gets at the core issue, disarming Hezbollah and supporting reform minded technocratic leaders, would be best to settle Israel’s security needs long-term. Trump has the rare window to seize the moment with a big deal rather than interim steps like conditioning aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces
Nearby, a new government in Jerusalem, perhaps absent the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu, may be more willing to engage in a fresh approach to Iran. No one doubts Trump’s commitment to Israel. This was not the case with the previous administration, and a key reason why the Iran nuclear deal and its peace plans ultimately failed.
Trump and Israel also have allies willing to help bring Iran to the negotiating table. A weakened Iran is still a proud country, but Putin, who also keeps in contact with Israel, can help. If Russia shows good faith on the Turkey-Syrian front, it could earn that seat at the table with Americans, Europeans, Israelis and Iranians.
French President Emmanuel Macron is already working the back channels, fashioning a credit lifeline of $15 billion for Iran — if it will engage in a better nuclear deal, help end Yemen’s civil war, and support regional and maritime security in the Persian Gulf.
Those are a lot of “ifs” … but none much different than when Reagan boldly dared Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. Few could imagine in June 1987 the Soviet collapse would so soon follow. But it did.
Time will tell if the Trump chess game can yield similar historic dividends in the Middle East and open the door to shrinking America’s war swollen budget deficits.
So far, Trump has maneuvered the complicated pieces — Russia, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Iran – into a place where peace and security may be closer than ever.
Now he needs a team that embraces his bold approach to end endless conflict in the Middle East, rather than undercut it with leaks and tired thinking.
Such a journey begins by eliminating the false narratives that are obscuring the potential breakthroughs in the region.