As ISIS faces defeat with the fall of Raqqa, Washington think tanks are looking at the future.
The Monitor Analysis looks at what future American policy will be in the region. We look at what Trump has said in his campaign speeches and try to forecast his new American Middle Eastern policy.
Think Tanks Activity Summary
The Institute for the Study of War looks at American options in Syria. They conclude, “American national security requires that the Trump administration pursue a strategy that helps constrain, contain, and ultimately roll back Russia and Iran; defeat Salafi-jihadists in ways that prevent their reconstitution; defend strategic allies and bolster partners; and facilitate the emergence of independent, representative, and unitary states in Syria and Iraq. The removal of the Assad regime remains a necessary condition to achieve a desirable outcome in Syria. The U.S. must apply meaningful pressure against the Assad-Russia-Iran axis and regain leverage over it rather than accommodate it. The U.S. is now accommodating its adversaries by signing onto various agreements that allow it to consolidate control. This axis not only destabilizes the region and perpetuates conflict, but it also fuels radicalization and strengthens jihadist forces through its policies. It is making it increasingly difficult for the U.S. to protect its own security and interests.”
The Washington Institute warns that the fall of Raqqa doesn’t mean ISIS is totally defeated. It is still active and governs some towns. They note, “The group continues to conduct military operations. On this count, it is worth recalling that between the tactical defeat of ISI following the sahwa movement and troop surge around 2009, and its reemergence as ISIS around 2012-13, Iraq remained the most violent conflict in the world. This reality illustrates the incredible lethal dangers posed by IS even if it does not control territory. Furthermore, the IS of today is stronger than the group’s previous incarnation in 2009-12, with violence in Iraq currently three times more deadly than during the roughly four-year period following the surge. The bureaucratic apparatus might be dormant, but the insurgent capabilities remain formidable.”
The Washington Institute notes a recent poll shows that Egyptians agree with many Trump policies. Some of the results according to the report, “Asked to pick their top priority for U.S. policy in the Middle East, just 13% of Egyptians select “Reduce its interference in the region.” The plurality choice, at 36%, is another area of agreement with Trump’s policy emphasis: “Expand its active role in fighting the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and similar terrorist groups.” Very close behind, at 33%, is one more signature U.S. declaratory policy: “Push harder to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.” In that connection, Egyptians are solidly behind a Trump administration variation on the peacemaking theme: 72% agree that “Arab states should play a new role in Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, offering both sides incentives to take more moderate positions.” Egypt’s own diplomatic efforts to broker new Gaza security arrangements, along with possible Palestinian reconciliation on relatively moderate terms, could fit well into this framework…Yet what is truly surprising about the Egyptian data is the relatively large minority who express agreement with a highly controversial proposition about Israel, even without any peace talks: namely, that “despite their differences, Arab states should work with Israel on other issues like technology, counterterrorism, and containing Iran.”
The German Marshall Fund argues that Trump’s Iran policy is alienating America’s allies. They conclude, “The Iran deal does not only bind the United States to Iran, but also to its other signatories. More broadly, it is enshrined in the UN system and multilateralism. By refusing to certify the deal, the American President is confirming his defiance toward global institutions and conventions, regardless of alliances and friendships of convenience. Without much precaution, he is also scrubbing in one wipe years of constructive discussions with Russia and China. While such a decision might provide some short-term political gains for Washington in Tel Aviv or in Riyadh, it will come at huge costs for relations with other allies, especially those across the Atlantic. Yes, more is still to be done to ensure that Iran does not become a nuclear power, to curb its ballistic missile program, and clarify its role in the region. As such, the question is more whether Iran can be trusted as a credible power that will in the medium to long term contribute to the prosperity and stability of the region. This will take time and, yes, more talks. It will require finesse and patience. It will require the United States to meet Iran in this field that the poet Rumi so dearly spoke of, “out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing.” And you can’t do this without friends you can trust: allies.”
The Washington Institute looks at keeping the armed clashes in and around Kirkuk from escalating. They note, “For instance, Kirkuk city has long been treated as a partially demilitarized area — the police had primacy in urban security, while federal army troops and Kurdish Peshmerga were not allowed to deploy inside the city proper. The entrance of federal Special Forces there has now upended that status quo. Moreover, Kirkuk security was at its best when handled by a joint security headquarters that included Kurdish and federal forces; as of today, however, only the latter are manning the K1 headquarters. Similarly, the ideal model for oil field security was never military garrisons, but a dedicated oil field police force; the same is true for other energy infrastructure and government buildings. In other words, if the pendulum swings too far in the direction of totally excluding Kurdish forces, then security over northern Iraq’s citizens, state institutions, and oil facilities will surely suffer.”
The American Enterprise Institute argues that Trump is making a mistake concerning Iran. They note, “Mr. Trump has done little to push back on Iranian expansionism. The United States provides cursory support for operations by the Saudis and United Arab Emirates against Iranian-backed forces in Yemen. And for most of this year, the administration has been funneling financial aid to the Lebanese armed forces, which in turn have been working hand in hand with Iran’s most powerful proxy, Hezbollah, on the Lebanon-Syria border. While the administration has offered inconsistent and lackluster support for the Arab nations challenging Qatar’s support for extremists, it has largely ignored Iran’s growing influence in both Qatar and Oman.”
The American Enterprise Institute argues that Kirkuk was a defeat for Iran. They note, “First, it’s not always about us. Iran opposed the Kurdish referendum not because the Kurds are pro-American, but rather because Iran fears the precedent Kurdish independence might have on their own restive Kurds. Those who have embraced the Iraqi Kurdish leaders’ public relations campaign should take care: it’s Middle East 101 to recognize that just because someone feeds you well and whispers sweet nothings into your ear, they’re not automatically your friend. Yes, Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdistan Regional Government representative in Washington (and sister to one of the region’s most “controversial” businessmen) tells American congressmen the correct things, but did they ever wonder what her counterpart in Tehran actually says?”
The CSIS looks at the Muslim Brotherhood and the Gulf Nations. The fault line dividing Gulf Arab states’ views of the Muslim Brotherhood has much more to do with the group’s political rather than its theological content, Sir John Jenkins argued at a recent CSIS Middle East Program roundtable. Jenkins, a former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia with long service in the Middle East, spoke at the CSIS roundtable on “Egos and Ideologies: Islamism in the Gulf” on October 6, 2017.
What Next After the Conquest of Raqqa?
ISIS defeat will require reset of White House strategy
Just nine months after taking office, President Trump might attempt to claim that has done something that Obama couldn’t do in years – defeat ISIS by assisting in the conquest of their capital Raqqa. However, before anyone breaks out the Champaign that doesn’t mean the end of this group. There are still small ISIS strongholds in Iraq and Syria, in addition to cells in Europe, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and throughout the region.
The defeat of ISIS also doesn’t mean the terrorist threat in the West is ended. Although ISIS is no longer as attractive to potential recruits in the West, there remains a strong chance that a suicide terrorist may carry out an attack in order to reenergize ISIS.
The defeat of ISIS also means the end of the fragile coalition that battled ISIS; the US, NATO, the Syrian government, Syrian opposition groups, Russia, Iraq, and Iran and its local allies. Now that the defeat of ISIS doesn’t bind them together, new alliances are expected to form, with new strategic goals.
We can also expect age old rivalries to reappear – the Kurdish independence issue, the Sunni-Shiite feud, Iranian extended influence and the Israel-Palestine issue, amongst others.
In addition to international policy differences, the Trump White House must face disagreements inside the US. The ailing Senator McCain (R-AZ) is committed to the downfall of Syrian President Assad and his statements have become more strident as his brain cancer advances.
So, where will the White House turn next?
During the presidential campaign, Trump made it clear that he had few problems with Syrian President Assad, but he wanted to curb Iranian expansionism. Yet, Trump asserts that Iran and President Assad are allied and Iran, of all the countries in the region have benefitted from the war on ISIS as it has extended its influence across Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
Given Trump’s statements in the past (including last week’s move to gut the Iranian nuclear deal), it would appear that he will want American attention to focus on Iran. This means shifting attention to Yemen and assisting the GCC in countering Iranian moves. He will also continue to push for an international set of sanctions.
One way to counter Iran is to try to drive a wedge between Assad and Iran. The US could agree with Russia that Assad has a future in a post civil war Syria. He could also agree not to oppose Russia’s naval base in Tartus, Syria. This would effectively focus on attempt to divorce Syria and Russia from Iran and its allies and dramatically restrict Iranian influence in both Syria and Lebanon.
However, it is expected that president Assad will require more of Trump and the US than a mere recognition of his place in Syria’s future. He will call for the withdrawal of US Special Forces from Syria, which Trump will likely agree to as the situation calms down.
One reason Trump will agree eventually to pulling US forces out of Syria is the fact that US Special Forces are over stretched. As the recent Special Forces deaths in Niger show, American Special Forces are deployed and fighting in dozens of countries. Since it takes a couple of years to train a Special Forces soldier, the special operations forces of the US military can’t be quickly increased.
The biggest problem with this move will not be international, but domestic. Senator McCain has fought for the downfall of Assad for years and the support of opposition forces.
However, this is more than a mere policy difference. Senator McCain and President Trump have taken verbal shots at each other and appear to dislike each other. Then there is the brain cancer and its treatment that McCain is undergoing.
Doctors know that chemotherapy seriously impacts the mental functions of the patient, including temperament, emotions, mood changes and “mental fogginess.” As McCain is undergoing aggressive chemotherapy, his statements and actions must be suspect. There is also the fact that McCain may be forced to resign or may die in office, which could change the debate in the US.
Eventually Trump’s policy is expected to prevail and Iran will become the major focus for US foreign policy.
The next major concern will be the issue of Kurdish independence. And, again, there will be a difference of opinion within the US as the State Department will oppose an independent Kurdistan, while Trump will likely favor it.
The Kurdish issue will evolve depending on the elimination of ISIS. The Kurds have been America’s most reliable ally in the war against ISIS and their continued help would be appreciated. Yet, their desire for independence is opposed by the other major local players in the war, Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey.
The Kurdish issue will have an impact on negotiations for the end of the civil war in Syria. President Assad has promised more autonomy to Syrian Kurds, but is leery of an independent Kurdistan that may inspire Syrian Kurds to secession.
Iraq clearly wants to conquer the territory controlled by Iraqi Kurds. However, they can’t expect the air support and American advisors that they have now. This means Iraqi gains in Kurdistan may be limited.
Of course, Iraq has its problems as it sits on a knife edge between the US and Iran. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has been stronger than expected, but he isn’t strong enough to eschew US help. He’d like a residual US presence to counterbalance Iran’s influence. But if he opposes Tehran too resolutely, Iran’s supporters and allies will try to defeat him and push him out of power.
Of course, Iran could decide to help crush the Iraqi Kurds, but the Trump policy of limiting Iranian influence would likely push the White House into providing more covert aid to Kurdistan.
Another American policy push will likely be attempting to find some sort of rapprochement between Syria and Israel. Relations between Israel and several Arab countries have warmed in the last few years, and Syria remains the last “front line” Arab country to not have come to an agreement with the Zionist state.
Although President Assad had been very patient and avoiding direct confrontation with Israel during his presidency, relations between the two countries have gone downhill during the last few months as Israeli aircraft have bombed parts of Syria. This includes attacks this week, where there have been reports that a Syrian anti-aircraft missile damaged an Israeli F-35 fighter aircraft.
The major issues separating the two countries are the Golan Heights and Syrian support of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Although they have proven intractable in the past, the end of the Syrian civil war might force Israel to curb its attacks on Syria, and Trump may find this option is one way to try seeking the isolation of Iran. .
The push back of Iran will not be limited to Syria and Kurdistan. The GCC nations can expect more American support in regards to stopping Iranian influence in the Gulf and in Yemen. We can expect Trump to take a look at supporting opposition groups in Iran.
The end of the war on ISIS is fraught with problems and possibilities. The current ISIS coalition will fracture in the next few months as nations and groups look to new alliances that will advance their own agenda. For the US, it means pivoting towards a more aggressive stance against Iran.
Expect the US to realign its Middle Eastern policy to reflect this new reality. With ISIS defeated, president Assad growing power will be a minor issue for Trump and he can be expected to be forced to withdraw US forces over the next year. As a result both Presidents Assad and Putin can solidify their gains in the region.
The Kurdish issue is more complicated and the US has relations with both the Kurds and Iraqis. However, past experience shows that the Iraqi military is less likely to beat the Kurds without serious US assistance and Iran is ready ti fill any US void.
There is also the issue of rebuilding both Iraq and Syria – something that will require US money. And, there is the refugee problem. Can President Assad navigate Syria back with the promise of peace? If not, rebuilding Syria and its economy will be difficult. And, we can expect instability in the refugee laden countries of Jordan and Lebanon.
The end of the Syrian conflict will help the US renew its alliances with nations like the GCC and Egypt that frequently supported other sides in the Syrian conflict. The goal of this rapprochement will be a stronger bulwark against Iranian expansionism.
Of course, America isn’t the only player in the game. Other countries will have differing goals. Iran will fight to prevent its influence from being diminished by the US and Iraq will not easily give up Kurdistan. How they will execute their foreign policy will have as much impact on the region as Trump’s policies.
Egos and Ideologies: Islamism in the Gulf
Center for Strategic and International Studies
October 6, 2015
Gulf leaders engaged with the Brotherhood soon after its founding in Egypt in 1928. By the mid-twentieth century, they came to see Islamic revivalists as allies in countering Arab Nationalism, which Gulf rulers viewed as a threatening secular modernist movement. Thousands of Brotherhood members fled political repression in Egypt and the Levant to settle in the Gulf in the early years of statehood. With almost no college graduates among the native population, these immigrants filled educational and other professional roles, and even some high-ranking government positions. Over time, some Gulf leaders grew suspicious that the Brotherhood’s pan-Islamist ambitions might represent a threat to Gulf regimes. The “first hint of trouble” according to Jenkins came with the Muslim Brotherhood’s embrace of the Iranian revolution of 1979. Brotherhood members welcomed the revolution as a harbinger of Islamist power, even if the Brotherhood is avowedly Sunni and Iran is a largely Shi`ite state; Gulf governments loathed it as a harbinger of revolution. Concerns spiked again in 1990 when some Muslim Brotherhood leaders expressed support for the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Following the invasion, Saudi Arabia lashed out at members of the Sahwa, or “Awakening movement,” which was an admixture of Saudi theology and Brotherhood political activism.
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President Trump’s Failing Leadership on Iran
By Danielle Pletka
American Enterprise Institute
October 6, 2017
President Trump has made clear his hostility toward the Iran nuclear deal, labeling it “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has entered into.” He is right: The ill-constructed deal left Iran with an industrial-scale nuclear program which, when the pact’s terms begin to expire, will provide Iran with a clear pathway to nuclear weapons. But true leadership requires Mr. Trump to do more than focus solely on Iran’s nuclear program; he must also address the broader threats that Iran poses to the region. Under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, the bipartisan Senate compromise used by the Obama administration to get Congress to buy into the nuclear deal, the president must certify every 90 days that, among other things, Iran is fully implementing the nuclear pact and has not committed a material breach. The president must also attest that the agreement is vital to the security interests of the United States.
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Take it from me: Kirkuk was not an Iranian defeat of America
By Michael Rubin
American Enterprise Institute
October 18, 2017
Look, I think my credentials as an Iran hawk are pretty strong. When, during the Clinton administration, many American policymakers and academics were enthralled with newly-elected President Mohammad Khatami’s rhetoric of “dialogue of civilizations,” I warned that it was a public relations distraction and that the Iranian behaviors that most concerned the United States remained unchanged. My first monograph, Radical Vigilantes in Khatami’s Iran, focused on how hardline, extra-legal forces moved to constrain meaningful reform of the system. Prior to public revelations about Iran’s covert enrichment program, I called out the Islamic Republic on its secret nuclear, ballistic missile, and biological weapons programs. I advocated for Iranian labor and, while I have consistently opposed military strikes on Iran (because they can never substitute for a more substantive long-term policy), I have not been shy about arguing that the U.S. goal should be regime change. The insincerity of Iranian diplomacy has also been a constant theme and, using Persian sources, I highlighted Iran’s deceitful approach to nuclear negotiations.
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INTELLIGENCE ESTIMATE AND FORECAST: THE SYRIAN THEATER
Institute for the Study of War
September 23, 2017
The United States will continue to risk its vital strategic interests in the Middle East unless it changes its policies in Syria and Iraq. President Donald Trump and his administration inherited a weakened U.S. position, with Russia imposing constraints on American freedom of action and options. The Trump administration has taken initial steps to advance U.S. prestige in the region by reassuring America’s traditional allies and acting more firmly against its enemies and adversaries. The tactical tasks of recapturing Mosul and liberating Raqqa from the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) are complete and nearly complete, respectively. Nevertheless, its efforts to define and execute policies that secure America’s vital interests are moving more slowly than those of America’s enemies, adversaries, and spoilers who are more agile than the U.S. These actors include Russia, Iran and its proxies, Turkey, ISIS, al Qaeda, and some Kurdish elements, which are pursuing goals that threaten American objectives and are exploiting the current situation to make strategic gains as the U.S. champions short-term gains and tactical success.
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How to Lose Friends and Alienate Allies: Trump’s New Strategy on Iran
By Guillaume Xavier-Bender
German Marshall Fund
October 19, 2017
There is a thorn in the Rose Garden. When in 2015, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, joined by Germany, reached an agreement with Iran on the future of its nuclear weapon, diplomacy had demonstrated yet again that compromise and trust are the building blocks of peace. Then President Obama, speaking from the White House gardens, underscored that “the issues at stake here are bigger than politics,” and that if Congress killed the deal “it’s the United States that will be blamed for the failure of diplomacy. International unity will collapse, and the path to conflict will widen.” President Trump brought many reasons forward on October 13 to refuse to certify that Iran is complying with the agreement, despite repeated assurances from the International Atomic Energy Agency — guardian of the deal — and Washington’s partners that it is. The flurries of comments and statements following the announcement of this New Strategy on Iran have shown that if those reasons are hardly justified, they are simply not true. “Inexplicable.” “Irrational.” “Dangerous.” But let’s leave those at that, and the disheartening contemplation of a strategy that is not one.
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How to Keep Armed Clashes in Kirkuk from Escalating
By Michael Knights
October 16, 2017
In the early hours of October 16, the federal Iraqi military forced its way into many parts of Kirkuk city and adjacent military and energy facilities. The Counter-Terrorism Service, supported by army tanks, the Federal Police, and special forces (though not by Popular Mobilization Forces), took over the K1 military base, the governor’s palace, the Kirkuk Provincial Council headquarters, the North Oil Company and North Gas Company headquarters, the Kirkuk Regional Air Base, and key road junctions. Local Kurdish forces offered only token resistance, seemingly because the political faction in charge of them — the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) — was not fully resolved to resist the move. Thus far, no international body or state has opposed the move either, with President Trump noting today that the United States would not be “taking sides” in the dispute.
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Interpreting the Fall of Islamic State Governance
By Aaron Y. Zelin
October 16, 2017
According to a field commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the last Islamic State (IS) holdouts will lose control of Raqqa, the group’s self-proclaimed capital, by sometime in the third week of October. Alongside the fall of Mosul, the IS stronghold in Iraq, this development marks a second collapse of governance for the jihadists. Reflecting this failure, for the first time since IS began systematizing its governance capabilities in late 2013 and early 2014, the group’s media apparatus has not, for roughly a month, released any material related to governing, social services, or dawa (proselytizing and outreach activities). The most sophisticated system of jihadist governance ever established thus appears to be dwindling to nothing. All the same, it is worth noting that the media silence may not indicate the absolute cessation of IS governance — indeed, the group is likely engaging in basic governance in certain areas along the Iraq-Syria border — but instead the further erosion of its media apparatus.
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Egyptians Surprisingly Open to Key Trump Policies, New Poll Shows
By David Pollock
October 12, 2017
As President Trump rolls out his plan for confronting Iran, a credible new poll in Egypt reveals that this posture enjoys a remarkable degree of public support in the most populous Arab country. A mere 1% of Egyptians rate Iran’s regional policies favorably, and in the ongoing intra-Arab dispute with Qatar, two-thirds agree that “the most important issue” is “to find the maximum degree of Arab cooperation against Iran.” Tehran’s regional allies, likewise the target of new U.S. sanctions, receive overwhelmingly bad reviews as well, with 91% of Egyptians voicing disapproval of Hezbollah — a stunning reversal of the group’s glorious image right after its 2006 war with Israel. The same high proportion express a negative view of the Houthis, Iran’s favored party in the continuing Yemeni civil war. Moreover, a mere 14% say that it is even “somewhat important” for Egypt to have good relations with Iran, while 56% call good ties with the United States “important.” This stark contrast helps put Egypt’s fabled anti-American sentiment in proper perspective. While the public mostly disapproves of U.S. policy overall, they also clearly value satisfactory official ties with Washington.
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