The Middle East in 2018: A Trump Administration To-Do List

In 2017, the Middle East lurched from one crisis to another—as is often the case. Disasters loomed, receded, then loomed again, and the ground seemed to shift in disconcerting ways. What really happened?

The change in American administrations brought into question seemingly basic verities of US policy, notably whether the United States remains committed to a two-state solution in Palestine. It also raised worry about US commitment to alliances, human rights, and the role the Trump Administration might be expected to play in resolving conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. US leadership was squandered globally, with palpable knock-on effects in the Middle East and North Africa.

Russia’s self-proclaimed victory in Syria reintroduced Moscow as an influential regional player. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) began to crumble around the edges with the destructive Saudi Arabia-United Arab Emirates-Qatar standoff. The Yemen war ground on, spawning a growing humanitarian catastrophe that includes the worst cholera outbreak in modern history.

But not everything turned out badly. On the positive side, the Islamic State, once a threat to destabilize the Middle East state system, was defeated in its Iraqi and Syrian strongholds. At the turn of the new year, political protests in Iran once more challenged the repressive rule of religious authorities. Top-down reforms suggested a new openness to social liberalization in Saudi Arabia. Upcoming elections in Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and Lebanon offer the possibility of change, stacked though the deck might be by authoritarians, militias, and oligarchs. The wheels of democracy grind slowly, but the fact that they grind at all is reason enough for some cheer.

Among all the unfinished business and looming challenges, what priorities might demand early attention by the Trump Administration in the new year?

1. Iran, a number one priority. As a candidate and then as president, Donald Trump made clear his intent to break with an Obama policy toward Iran he considers weak, typified by a nuclear accommodation he has characterized as a “terrible deal.” In the October 2017 speech announcing his decertification of that deal, Trump also highlighted Iran’s destructive regional policies and its abuses of human rights as issues his administration would seek to counter. Yet, the administration has been slow to outline a new, more comprehensive policy to deal with the Iranian challenge in all its facets.

The nuclear deal itself (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) is a prime example. When Trump announced he would no longer certify that the suspension of US sanctions remained in the US national interest, he ostensibly threw the ball to Congress to make a determination on whether to terminate the deal or not. Congress did nothing, focused as it was on major tax legislation and other end-of-term business. While, legally, both the White House and Congress can let this matter remain unresolved, the diplomatic uncertainty may lead Iran to explore alternatives, such as initiating clandestine efforts to advance its nuclear program and raising the diplomatic price of its current adherence to the agreement. And the European Union, which backs the deal and is opposed to any renegotiation, could seek to expand trade and political ties with Iran to “bulletproof” the deal from American unpredictability. Neither of these outcomes is desirable for the Trump Administration.

Rising unrest in Iran linked to economic discontent, corruption, and anger at clerical rule caught the administration and the Washington policy-making community off guard. They also presented two complex choices for the United States: 1) whether to tacitly acknowledge the potential for an internationally unpopular administration to do more harm than good, and remain largely silent, as some have recommended; and 2) reject the Obama Administration’s decision to take the former tack, as it did in 2009, and publicly denounce the Iranian regime for its human rights violations and extol protesters for their efforts to overthrow the government.

The administration has picked option two, thus feeding into the Iranian government’s narrative that foreign hands are behind the protests. It remains to be seen how the administration’s Twitter-driven approach will affect the situation there.

It does, however, raise the question of whether there is an option three: to express unfailing US support for the human rights of all Iranians, especially their right to free and fair elections; for restrictions on the right of the state to imprison and execute; and for guarantees of freedom of expression, assembly, and religion—and to do so without advocating regime change. This would necessarily be accompanied by an effort to lead the international community to hold Iran accountable for its abuses at the United Nations and through multilateral sanctions. To be credible, this tactic also requires a certain consistency thus far lacking in the administration’s approach to human rights, namely a willingness to call out both friendly and unfriendly countries when basic norms are transgressed.

This is not the end of the Iran conundrum. Tehran has extended its reach—in Iraq, through its support of Shia militias credited with helping to liberate the western part of the country from the so-called Islamic State (IS) and to push back Kurdish forces in Mosul; and Syria, by dint of an effective alliance with Russia and Lebanon’s Hezbollah to defend the Assad regime and suppress the Syrian opposition forces. In Iran’s successful interventions, however, lie hints of weakness: the expense of Iran’s foreign adventures is mounting and has become a focus of domestic protests. For the United States, a new policy is needed that addresses the full scope of Iran’s activities in the region and its abysmal record at home. As Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) put it, “You just can’t tweet here. You have to lay out a plan.”

2. The Middle East peace process: managing the collapse of the two-state solution. Even before President Trump announced formal US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, deeply compromising America’s role as an “honest broker” of Palestinian-Israeli peace, the two-state solution was well on its way to demise.

Events of the last two weeks have made this clearer than ever. In the wake of Trump’s announcement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party has demanded the annexation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank as well as the extension of Israeli law to these areas, thus making any handover of territory to the Palestinians in a potential peace deal more difficult.

These latest developments seriously complicate the administration’s anticipated peace plan, the brainchild of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and special envoy Jason Greenblatt, long discussed but not yet revealed publicly. Perhaps it does not matter: as reported, the draft plan appears to endorse Israeli maximalist positions and rule out a two-state solution.

No meaningful Israeli-Palestinian talks are on the table for now, and in fact, they seem farther away than ever before. White House threats to slash aid to the Palestinians make an already fraught situation more difficult. Whatever peace plan the US administration is cooking up appears to be dead on arrival, unless the administration’s apparent conclusion that the Palestinians will have to accept whatever the United States serves up proves true.

Barring that, President Trump and his foreign policy team will soon have to reckon with the real possibility that a two-state solution is no longer viable and to deal with the many facets of anti-American fallout as this reality sinks in. Worse, from an Israeli perspective, is what happens if Palestinians pivot toward massive South Africa-style civil disobedience and international mobilization or, worse yet, demand a one-state solution that grants full civil and political rights in Israel to West Bank Palestinians.

3. Ongoing turmoil in the GCC. As the GCC’s internal crisis enters its eighth month, with no end in sight, the Trump Administration is faced with a dilemma. Should Washington follow the Saudi lead and pursue a vendetta against Qatar, a country Trump first extolled as a “crucial strategic partner” on May 21, 2017, before denouncing it as a leading funder of terrorism two weeks later? Or would it be more advisable to launch an intensive diplomatic effort to mend the conflict before it causes irreparable harm to GCC unity?

The stakes here are not minimal. The GCC is at risk of a breakup. In the best-case scenario, this would prove a diplomatic inconvenience with abundant work-arounds to enable the US to conduct business as usual. In the worst case—the more likely scenario—the collapse of GCC political unity will lead to escalating tensions that could result in military clashes between Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. It might also provide an opening for Tehran to expand its already-close relations with Doha and perhaps embolden the clerical regime to make more mischief in predominantly Shia areas—such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s own eastern province—as a way to fan the flames of internal discontent. This would send Riyadh an unmistakable signal that if Iran faces popular dissent, cheered on by Riyadh, then the Saudis could confront similar challenges, too.

In the end-of-times drama that marks what many people believe are Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s last months in office, the issue has largely disappeared from the US policy screen. This is unfortunate, for Tillerson has previously taken a pragmatic stand and made earnest attempts to mediate the issue, despite the White House’s casual undermining of the State Department’s’ sensible position. There is no guarantee that Mike Pompeo, Tillerson’s presumed replacement at State, will take a similar course, given his hard-line reputation and reported closeness to Trump.

The administration had better act fast. The potential for confrontation with Iran, the rolling disaster in Yemen, and the ever-present threat of terrorist violence all demand a certain political unity and shared sense of purpose on the Arabian Peninsula. The Trump Administration would do well to assert itself by brokering high-level talks to end the blockade of Qatar and to encourage a semblance of unity within the GCC—and while they’re at it, they might consider working toward major improvements in joint military planning and purchases, which to date have been conducted bilaterally with the United States and generally not with a regional plan in mind.

4. Iraq and Syria: New thinking for old conflicts. American intervention in the Iraq and Syria conflicts played a critical role in the rout of the Islamic State in 2017, but it has left key questions unanswered. Now that the IS “caliphate” has been smashed, the United States must decide on a military posture in both countries.

The United States faces difficult choices. Drawing down troop levels would be one option, consistent with the administration’s skepticism of open-ended military commitments. In Iraq, this would reduce the United States’ ability to provide a political counterweight to Iran and the militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, many backed by Iran and some of which are seeking to participate in the 2018 Iraqi national elections. In Syria, the Assad-led government, Russia, and Iran hold the preponderance of power, and the ragtag rebel forces now facing them have been frozen in place by various international agreements and military setbacks. Phasing out the US presence entirely would further limit US influence on resolving the civil war.

Alternative courses of action may be more productive from the standpoint of defending US interests and influence. Regarding Iraq, the United States should negotiate terms to ensure a robust military presence for the foreseeable future, a possibility that has reportedly been under consideration for some time. Troop numbers per se are not important; the political commitment is. An American presence can play a vital role in training, equipping, and enabling Iraqi security forces to meet future challenges to the country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. Above all, it would serve as a visible symbol of America’s commitment to a free and independent Iraq.

Washington would also do well to play an active role in mediating the differences between Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government. The persistence of such disagreements weakens Iraq as well as the US interest in a strong and unified country.

Syria, of course, is another story. Having played a key role in defeating IS, the United States acknowledges that it has 2,000 troops in the country (a number the Pentagon has variously reported as a maximum of 4,000 and a minimum of 500, but these figures may not include all support personnel and special operations forces). While troop totals have been declining for some months, the United States will soon have to decide whether to maintain a military presence in Syria, and if so, what their mission would be. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has said the United States is “not just going to walk away,” adding that some US troops might remain to help establish “de-escalation zones” in step with diplomatic efforts to end the conflict. Mattis added that no decisions have been made yet. But Washington will need to develop its political-military strategy soon, as Russia and Iran are helping to push the Assad government toward the finish line in its efforts to crush the rebels and consolidate the influence of Moscow and Tehran in the country.

5. The curse of the wild card. A number of issues lurk in the background as potential headline crises in the new year, and it is difficult to pick one among the many possibilities that might ruin 2018. Nevertheless, here are a few.

  • Could the Arab Spring rise again? As conventional wisdom would have it, the initial rootlets were crushed—except, of course, in those countries where dictators were overthrown (Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen) and, in the case of Tunisia, were replaced with an electoral democracy. Authoritarian regimes since then have become more skilled in outlawing and persecuting dissent—physically, legally, and online. Yet demands for change have not ceased, even if they have become more cautious. The Saudi Arabian crown prince’s moves to liberalize society and Iran’s recent decision to cease enforcing Islamic dress codes for women are small examples of regime responses to increasing public pressure. These demands will not go away. Citizens might very well refuse to be mollified by cosmetic steps, and protests may erupt in unexpected ways and places in 2018 and beyond. The rulers in Tehran are getting a taste of this now, and Arab leaders, despite their undoubted joy at seeing the Shia clerics in a fix, must worry about what all this portends for their own political stability.

    But as two cases of an Arab Spring gone awry, Yemen and Libya pose serious challenges for the administration. While Yemen sinks deeper in internal strife and experiences overt external intervention, Libya teeters on potential partition between an east ruled by a strongman, General Khalifa Haftar, and a west governed by a weak UN-supported government. The Trump Administration would be unwise to let the two deteriorate even further into instability and chaos.

    Finally, Egypt points in a worrying direction that the administration would do well to heed. Its regime has become dramatically more repressive, leading to doubts about its stability, especially as it fights an ongoing insurgency in the Sinai and elsewhere in the country and its economy experiences some wrenching trends. The Trump Administration, which in 2017 was on occasion surprisingly critical of the Egyptian government’s human rights record, would do well to continue to challenge Egypt’s record under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and help the country address some serious economic realities in 2018.

  • There never has been a war in the Middle East primarily over water rights, despite dire predictions to the contrary. Until now, maybe. Egyptian concern over Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is mounting and reports of a new Egyptian base in Eritrea have added fuel to the fire. Negotiations over water flow have continued, on and off, but serious worries remain for Cairo. A military dustup between Egypt and Ethiopia would be a sideshow for the United States, but it would act as a magnet for intervention by other interested parties and as a headache for the administration and its scattered priorities.
  • What will Russia do with its newfound clout in the region? Basing rights in Syria and potentially Egypt, and arms deals with Cairo, Riyadh, and Tehran, all argue for a 2018 challenge to the Pax Americana in the Middle East. Russia remains fundamentally weak compared to the United States; it lacks the vast network of arms relationships, basing deals, defense compacts, and close diplomatic relations the United States has enjoyed in the Arab world for decades. Moscow has no new ideas to mediate the many conflicts in the region and, on the contrary, has made them worse. Still, for a disruptive power seeking to complicate life for Washington and profit where it may, Moscow is in a good position to make 2018 tougher for the United States in the Middle East.
  • As a political entity that once controlled large swaths of territory and projected power, IS is no more. But its remnants are likely to regroup and mount insurgent campaigns in countries where it has held (and in some cases, still holds) territory, and execute harassing attacks against regional powers and their foreign supporters, especially the United States. Overseas terrorist attacks by IS and those it inspired will continue, too. The ongoing threat demonstrates the versatility and adaptability of the international jihadi movement, and it is likely to compel important US policy decisions in the coming year.

A Time for Seriousness

As always, the wild card not thought of will be the one to erupt with a vengeance in 2018, making life more exciting than any policymaker would wish. So, the American administration must prepare for many eventualities, most of which it is manifestly ignoring at the moment. Fully staffing the State Department and empowering its leadership would be a good way to start meeting the challenges ahead. Minimizing the number of tweets that substitute for foreign policy-making would be helpful, too. But whatever else happens, 2018 is bound to be an interesting year.

Charles Dunne is a Non-resident Analyst at Arab Center Washington DC