US Military Planning in the Middle East: Increasing Challenges, Vague Strategies

President Donald Trump entered office ten months ago with a long list of priorities for America’s military. Policy statements, such as the summary document “Making Our Military Strong Again,” promised to rebuild the US Armed Forces to ensure that no other nation would ever “surpass our military capability.” The White House pledged to enact policies centered on “peace through strength” that would comprise a vast expansion of the US Navy, improve missile defenses, and develop more robust cyber warfare and defense capabilities. The administration’s budget request, which originally proposed $603 billion in total defense spending, a year-on-year increase of $54 billion, was bumped up to $700 billion in the final compromise defense spending bill sent to Trump in November. The president has accompanied his successful push for greater military spending with bellicose rhetoric, threatening to destroy “Islamic terrorism” and rain “fire, fury and frankly power” down on North Korea.

The bluster and massive military buildup, however, represent something of a contradiction, given Trump’s well-known doubts about open-ended military commitments, the value of US alliances, American involvement in wars in Libya and Iraq, and “nation-building” efforts in general. In practice, with occasional exceptions such as the Tomahawk missile attack in Syria intended to punish regime use of chemical weapons, the administration has appeared to align itself rather closely with the “Obama Doctrine”: a narrow definition of threats deemed worthy of a US military response, limits on direct involvement of US ground forces wherever possible, and full use of stand-off strike capabilities presented by cruise missiles and armed drones. The new national defense strategy now in preparation is expected to shed more light on the White House’s priorities and plans, but for now, there are more questions than answers.

Nowhere is this more true than in the Middle East, especially in the key focal points of Iraq, Syria, and Iran. There, uncertainties about US military policy, intentions, and ambitions have combined with a rapidly shifting array of challenges and political developments on the ground to spell confusion for friend and foe alike.

US Goals and Assets in the Region

The US military posture in the Middle East has been constant for a number of years. As the US Central Command has stated, US goals are to defeat the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda; continue support for Afghanistan; counter Iran’s “malign activities” and deter Iranian military aggression; prevent Yemen from becoming an ungoverned space that allows violent extremist organizations to flourish; counter proliferation, use, and development of weapons of mass destruction; secure and protect lines of communication and commerce; build and maintain flexible regional coalitions; and implement security cooperation programs, partnerships, and capacities. The Trump Administration has elevated two of these in particular: the fight against IS in Iraq and Syria, and laying the groundwork for a looming confrontation with Iran.

The Trump Administration inherited a vast network of US military bases, capabilities, and interlocking defense relationships in the region with which to pursue its ambitious aims. Approximately 40,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines are stationed in the Arabian Gulf and Jordan, plus an unspecified number of special forces and troops on temporary assignment. Qatar hosts US CENTCOM’s forward headquarters at Al Udeid Air Base, supported by four component combatant commands in Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait. In coordination with its partners, the United States participates in and helps organize regional military activities including exercises, a naval task force, and logistical aid to the US-led mission in Afghanistan.

There have been short-term successes. In Iraq, US troops, air support, arms, intelligence, and training helped the government in Baghdad turn the tide against the Islamic State. The Iraqi military recently retook the last remaining IS stronghold, the town of Rawah in the Euphrates valley, enabling the Iraqi interior minister to declare the “end” of IS presence in Iraq on November 18, leaving only smaller-scale mop-up operations in Anbar. In Syria, US forces, officially numbering about 500 but which may comprise as many as 4,000 troops, are fighting alongside the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), consisting of Syrian Kurds and allied Syrian Arab fighters, to bring about the defeat of IS there. In October, the SDF announced the fall of Raqqa, the capital of IS’s “caliphate” in Syria. As in Iraq, attention is now expected to shift toward extensive counterterrorism operations to eliminate remnants of the group and prevent their reconstitution as a potent insurgent force.

In both Iraq and Syria, however, important questions remain about the future of US planning and strategy. The US national security team has so far failed to detail how it sees the endgame in Syria and Iraq or to show signs of shifting strategies to plan for it.

Iraq and Syria: Where Do We Go from Here?

The future of the US military’s posture in Iraq is unclear. While quiet talks about a permanent American presence have reportedly taken place, little progress has occurred. This will strongly affect the future of US plans to confront Iran’s hostile activities in the region as well as to keep up pressure on the remnants of IS and al-Qaeda.

More broadly, future strategy in Iraq is not primarily military, but political and diplomatic. While the United States is well-equipped to assist in counterterrorism operations, it faces other challenges that are more important. Helping to manage current territorial and political tensions between the Kurds and the central government is one; whether the United States can play an effective role in so doing will have a major impact on Iraq’s internal stability and, therefore, US force requirements and remaining anti-IS operations. Likewise, relations with pro-Iranian militias, de facto allies of the United States against IS, may well become more fraught, especially as the administration seeks to curb Iran’s regional influence. Both situations will be heavily impacted by the trajectory of Iraq’s internal politics, which remain contentious and are likely to become more so in the run-up to national and provincial elections next year.

In Syria, progress against IS has left open the real possibility of the group’s strategic defeat within the next few months, although lingering counterterrorism operations will continue, as in Iraq. The United States, however, has made little progress in defining and implementing a political/military strategy for the post-IS phase in Syria, leaving US policy and troops badly exposed to the inherent flash points that have been papered over by the anti-IS fight. Among these are how and whether to deconflict continuing US operations with Syrian government forces and their Russian and Iranian allies, all of whom are likely to seek to disrupt, directly or indirectly, Washington’s efforts to help its allies consolidate control over liberated areas. Conflicting interests with US ally Turkey and the People’s Protection Units (YPG)—the Syrian Kurdish militia also allied with the United States—will also have impact on US operations.

In addition, the United States must develop a strategy to ensure that neither IS nor al-Qaeda, which has not been a focus of US counterterrorism efforts in Syria, can reconstitute themselves as thriving insurgencies that do not necessarily control territory but nevertheless could continue to inflict terror, violence, and instability on “liberated” areas. This will likely necessitate organizing local Sunni Arab forces to take the lead in the fight, and may require longer-term basing in Syria for US forces, safe areas for local populations, and even no-fly zones. All of these factors will complicate US military planning in Syria.

At the moment, no decisions appear to have been made except for maintaining an American troop presence for an indeterminate period of time. “This has been a tactical campaign masquerading as a strategy from the beginning,” a retired Marine Corps intelligence officer has said.

Iran: The Biggest Question

The Trump Administration has assumed a significantly more bellicose posture toward Iran during the last year. Trump’s October 13 announcement that he would no longer certify the Iran nuclear deal for US sanctions purposes placed the United States on a verbal and political collision course with Tehran, in addition to increasing pressure to confront Iran’s support for terrorism and its aggressive regional policies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and elsewhere. Initially, Trump announced, this would take the form of new sanctions on Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), legislation to make existing sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program permanent under US law, and encouragement of multilateral sanctions targeting Iran’s missile program, support for terrorism, and other “destructive activities.”

Although the president did not say so publicly, the new strategy has significant, if vaguely defined, military dimensions as well. Immediately after Trump’s speech, a Pentagon spokesman announced that the US military had launched a review of its entire security cooperation activities, force posture, and military plans in the region, and was “identifying new areas where we will work with allies to put pressure on the Iranian regime.”

Defense Secretary James Mattis noted that the United States would initially consult with allies to develop a common picture of Iran’s activities, but emphasized that “we intend to dissuade [Iran] from shipping arms into places like Yemen and explosives into Bahrain and the other things they do with their surrogates, like Lebanese Hezbollah.” This could include stepped-up naval patrols to interdict Iranian arms shipments to Yemen, Gaza, and Sinai, and might involve more aggressive responses to IRGC naval harassment of US warships in the Gulf, which Washington has considered dangerous and provocative. The United States will also continue to build up anti-mine defenses to counter potential Iranian moves to close the Strait of Hormuz should hostilities erupt.

The United States is also aiming to bolster Gulf allies’ defenses, primarily through high-dollar arms sales that buttress the Trump Administration’s goal of promoting US business abroad. In October, the administration approved a $15 billion sale to Saudi Arabia of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, aimed mainly at strengthening defenses against missile strikes by Iran and its Houthi allies in Yemen (the group launched a ballistic missile that was intercepted near the Riyadh international airport in early November). Additional arms sales to Saudi Arabia amounting to $110 billion were announced during Trump’s visit to Riyadh in May, although the deals in question consisted mainly of “letters of intent” or interest that were first broached during the Obama Administration.

While there is little new about US and allied planning for potential hostilities with Iran—US officials have touted the American military commitment to Gulf security for many years—the administration’s latest moves suggest it is broadly reevaluating whether the largely deterrent strategy that has characterized the US military posture in the Gulf up to now may be shifting. A picture is emerging of a sequenced strategy in which the United States will work to solidify gains against IS and then turn to a more confrontational political and military plan to roll back Iranian gains in the region. Such a strategy significantly raises the possibility of direct military clashes with Iran.

Backing Intentions with Planning and Diplomacy

The adoption of more aggressive policies in the Middle East by the Trump Administration is problematic enough, but it is made more so in the absence of a strategy designed to plan for increasingly complex military contingencies. Potential difficulties for the administration are complicated by the lack of a commitment to diplomacy that is intended to defuse possible military confrontation. The ongoing dismantling of the State Department impedes effective actions to support US regional goals and strengthen existing alliances, not to mention traditional “soft power” approaches to boost American military planning. A case in point is the department’s efforts to mitigate the ongoing crisis pitting Saudi Arabia and its allies against Qatar, which has benefited Iran while harming US security strategies in the Gulf. Disconnects between the White House and the State Department, which are seen by the key Gulf actors as lacking influence, have so far aborted American attempts to stem the crisis.

The lack of a well-considered diplomatic context for US military planning threatens to make victories unsustainable and renders achieving these victories more difficult still. The administration must move quickly to translate its rhetoric into appropriately resourced strategies before a new crisis forces a reckoning for which the United States is not prepared.

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