February 08, 2017
"American Conservative" - If you
were betting on an unpredictable Donald J. Trump to transform America’s
bankrupt Mideast policy scene, these next ten words will burst your bubble.
“As of today, we are officially putting
Iran on notice,” National Security Advisor Michael Flynn told reporters a mere
thirteen days into the new administration.
If you recall, Trump came roaring off the
campaign trail with the foreign policy priority of defeating ISIS, so why the
sudden confrontation with the Islamic Republic of Iran? Though Flynn apparently
thinks otherwise, ISIS and Iran are not the same thing at all—they are the
exact antithesis of each other.
Iran is a natural regional hegemon by
virtue of its size, population, and development indicators. The Shia-majority
nation has not initiated war in centuries, forges state-to-state relations
using soft power tools, and prides itself on its diversifying knowledge-based
economy, rich cultural heritage, and respect for diversity.
ISIS is a non-state actor driven by a
radical, Wahhabi-infused interpretation of Islam that uses violent terror
tactics to seize territory and subjugate populations. ISIS’s reign of terror
has been marked by extreme intolerance for other views, the destruction of
cultural and historic sites, and the wholesale massacre of people it considers
infidels—the Shia in particular.
And now Trump looks set to ignore the
foundational truth that scuppered both Obama and Clinton efforts in the
Mideast: you cannot pick fights with both ISIS and Iran and expect to win
anything. You have to pick one—or prepare to hunker down for endless conflict.
Terror groups like ISIS, al-Qaeda, and
other Salafist militants in their strongholds of Syria and Iraq view Iran as
their core regional adversary. The Islamic Republic of Iran, after all, is
allied with both Damascus and Baghdad. Iran trains, arms, or guides the armies
and militias now successfully mowing down jihadists.
Every time the U.S. intervenes to isolate
or diminish Iran’s role, it only undermines the regional ground forces that do
the heavy lifting against ISIS and al-Qaeda.
Washington’s Iran hawks panic over Tehran’s
recent ascendance from the Levant to the Persian Gulf, but Iran’s improved
regional stature comes courtesy of the rise of ISIS and al-Qaeda in these
areas. All this is fuelled directly by the U.S. and its NATO and Arab allies,
who backed the extremist rebels who drew in Iran.
You can’t have your cake and eat it too.
Regional states view the fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda as an existential one
and will fight them to the death. The stakes are not nearly as bleak for the
U.S., many miles away from the gory battlefields. But the consequences of
unleashing Jihadi terror—in part, to contain Iran and its allies—have now
seeped onto western shores and made security a national priority.
Is Washington prepared to break from its
failed policy trajectory and make the crucial choice between Iran and ISIS?
Because if Trump is willing to do that, a plan to defeat ISIS and al-Qaeda is
in easy reach—and it will barely cost the deal-making businessman a dime.
Bang, Small Bucks
All the military components necessary to
defeat ISIS and al-Qaeda currently exist inside Syria and Iraq. There are the
armed forces of both states, accompanied by large volunteer-based militias
operating under a central command structure. They are assisted by the Russian
air force in Syria and the U.S.-led coalition air forces in Iraq, and flanked
by secure western borders in Lebanon and eastern ones in Iran.
But what’s missing is a commitment by all
external parties to coordinate their mission around a singular goal—the
destruction of ISIS and al-Qaeda, to the exclusion of all other ambitions or
That means Washington will have to cast
aside its long-held claim that the only force available to fight ISIS is a
Kurdish and Sunni Arab one. The multi-sect and multi-ethnic Syrian and Iraqi
national armies and their allied militias would beg to disagree, and they now
wield the evidence of many victories against ISIS and al-Qaeda.
Mainstream U.S. media frequently dismisses
or ignores these advances, mainly because traditional American foes (and
Shiites) are the driving forces behind them. But it’s silly to exclude the Shia
from a security solution. Today, they form a majority demographic from the
Levant to the Persian Gulf, and are the obvious local source of manpower to
fight the existential ISIS and al-Qaeda threat directed at their own
Other interventions that will not address
this central threat—like defeating or weakening Syrian President Bashar
al-Assad, partitioning states, establishing Kurdish federations, and backing
militant groups—must stop. The U.S. and its allies must instead focus on the
collective task of securing borders, sharing intelligence, thwarting financiers
of terrorism, and coordinating sensitive military operations under a command
sanctioned by Russia and Syria.
When Trump sits down with Russian President
Vladimir Putin at their as yet-unannounced first meeting, there is ample
opportunity for the two leaders to cast their weight behind a joint singular
At his inauguration, Trump promised: “We
will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world—but we do so
with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own
From this must come the recognition that
Russia, Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon also want to pursue their own interests,
in their own regions.
A joint U.S.-Russian deal to focus
primarily on defeating ISIS and al-Qaeda may result in a Syria with Assad and a
stronger, more secure Iran, but the upside is huge—and globally significant.
The “war on terror” will be won, an
important notch on Trump’s belt for both domestic constituents and international
audiences. He will have managed this feat at minimal cost and with no American
boots on the ground. Washington’s positive collaboration in defeating terror
will open up Mideast markets that were not previously accessible because of
politics or security. The sources of inspiration and funding for worldwide
jihad will be culled. And Trump can take credit for an extraordinary,
Nixon-like rapprochement with the Russian Federation, yanking the two states
away from the brink of confrontation and ushering in a new era of bilateral
While Washington may have to downsize some
traditional relationships in the process, the damage can be contained.
Abandoning the Obama administration’s Kurdish projects will ensure that
U.S.-Turkish relations can get back on track, and that Arab-Iranian-Turkish
mistrust of American and Kurdish intentions will fade.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other major
financiers of ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Salafist militias will have to be brought to
heel, but their interest in the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields have lessened
anyway as contracting economies, domestic restiveness, and conflict in Yemen
have intensified. Their security infrastructures are so intertwined with the
U.S. military that they cannot afford to clash with Trump on a subject as
universally reviled as terror financing.
As for the Israelis and their Iran
fixation, Americans can’t be expected to sideline vital national security
interests to perpetually babysit that state. Trump can take credit for making
Israel safer, and that’s that.
But none of this can be achieved if the
Trump administration continues to confront Iran simultaneously. There are no
Kurdish or Sunni Arab troops able to defeat ISIS and al-Qaeda alone. If the
U.S. had been able to amass and train enough of them, Washington would have
already done it in Iraq, circa 2003.
As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
points out, “Iran has never been complicit in any links to IS or Al-Nusra Front
whatsoever. Moreover, Iran contributes to combatting IS. We have long advocated
the idea of creating a unified anti-terrorist front. I am convinced that Iran
must be part of our common effort if we evaluate potential contributors to such
an alliance objectively.”
Can Trump slice through the conventional
Beltway mindset on Iran, particularly given the Iran hawks he has gathered
around him? Will the efficiency of an alternative plan appeal to him enough to
break free? Will the decisive CEO in him emerge, or are we stuck with an
insecure, inexperienced politician who cleaves to the guidance of trusted old
hands who lack new ideas?
Because here’s the rub. The Syrians,
Iranians, Iraqis, Lebanese, and Russians are defeating ISIS and al-Qaeda
anyway, with or without the United States.
Let’s see what happens when Trump meets
Narwani is a commentator and analyst of Mideast geopolitics, based in Beirut.