Even before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the two U.S. presidential candidates in New York on Sunday, it was a pretty good bet that neither of them, if elected, would be very eager to jump headfirst into the swamp that defeated each of their predecessors – the Israel-Palestine conflict. But whoever does take up residence in the White House on January 20 will have to be ready from day one to devote a significant portion of their time to other Middle Eastern hotspots.
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Barack Obama (with Clinton as his secretary of state during the first term) may have been eager for America’s foreign policy emphasis to pivot to Asia, but that obviously hasn’t happened. Instead, he will be dropping a pile of Middle Eastern hot potatoes in his successor’s lap. The handling of these issues by the Obama team has been highly controversial, and the new president will have to reach a decision in the early days of the new administration on whether to stay the course or change tack. There are no obvious indicators of how either candidate will act. Clinton as former secretary of state of course has course a track record and can be expected to hit the ground running with a clear understanding of the issues and an experienced team in place. And yet, circumstances have changed since she was last in a position of power, and a serving president does not necessarily reach the same conclusions as a candidate or former state secretary.
Trump’s foreign policy, if such a thing exists, is even more difficult to predict. What little he has said lacks any depth or consistency, and his sparse list of advisers on these issues hardly looks like a national-security team in the making. The first presidential debate on Monday night, which is supposed to address, among other vague topics, “America’s Direction” and “Securing America,” may serve as the first clear indication of how either candidate plans to handle these issues. Here are seven Mideast-related problems the new president will have to address almost as soon as he or she decides which desk to settle into in the Oval Office.
John Kerry has still got over a hundred days to try and achieve a lasting cease-fire in the war that has killed around 400,000 and displaced millions. Nothing we have seen so far suggests he will succeed. Before he replaced Clinton, she was on the “activist” wing of the administration, urging Obama to supply much more support to the rebels fighting Assad during the early years of the war.
Two factors make an American intervention much more difficult now – the emergence of ISIS as a major player in Syria and the deployment of Russian forces there last year. A more forceful policy of support for the rebels in the shape of major military aid, or the protection of Syrian civilians throughout a no-fly zone, will mean a dramatic showdown with Russia. Is that how Clinton would like to begin her term in office?
Trump on the other hand seems to care little for Syrian civilians. He sees them mainly as a horde of Muslim immigrants who must be stopped from arriving at America’s shores. As far as the war there is concerned, he asked in September on CNN whether “we are better of with Assad?” After all, he said, "we have no idea who these people [the rebels] are. We give them weapons, we give them ammunition, we give them everything. I mean, maybe it's worse than Assad. So what are we doing? Why are we involved?" Such an attitude is very much in line with Russia’s pro-Assad policy. The new administration’s policy on Syria will be directly influenced by its relations with Russia.
With its forces already stationed in Syria, as well as eastern Ukraine, and on the borders of NATO members such as the Baltic states and Poland, President Vladimir Putin has a wide range of opportunities to challenge his new colleague/rival in Washington. Syria is the likeliest spot due to the ongoing bloodshed and its relatively low-risk stake, as far as Putin is concerned. Ukraine and the Baltics are part of Russia’s strategic zone of influence; Syria is merely an expendable client-state.
In 2009, Secretary Clinton sought to improve relations with Moscow, handing her counterpart Sergey Lavrov a (mistranslated) “reset” button. But a relatively brief period of thaw was followed by disagreements on human rights and then the Ukraine crisis and Syria. Now, Clinton has grounds to believe that the Kremlin is actively intervening on behalf of her opponent by hacking Democratic Party computers and leaking embarrassing emails. Will that be enough to convince her that a clash with Moscow is inevitable and may as well take place sooner rather than later in Syria?
Trump’s admiration for Putin of course is by now legion, as is his predilection for advisers with ties to the Kremlin. How would that affect his Middle East policy? As far as Syria is concerned, probably very little, but Trump has had some very harsh words for Iran, another current ally of Moscow in the region.
Whether his main motive was to portray the Obama administration as weak or to court the pro-Israel vote, Trump has been relentlessly against the nuclear deal with Iran from the start. Describing it as “ridiculous” and “the highest level of incompetence,” he said he would “renegotiate” the deal. If that’s a real plan, it means the deal will not survive for long. Trump has also said that if Iranian boats come near American warships in the Arabian Gulf, as they have been doing regularly, they would be “shot out of the water.” Would a much more forceful policy on Iran bring a Trump administration into confrontation with Iran’s current backers and Trump’s friends in the Kremlin? Not necessarily. The alliance between Moscow and Tehran is at best a marriage of convenience, and there is still deep mistrust between the two countries. Putin would be very likely to sacrifice Iran’s interests for a president who would allow him to act freely in Ukraine and the Baltics.
Clinton’s policy towards Iran is more of an enigma. She gave the Iran deal a tepid endorsement, though whether this was out of loyalty to Obama (and needing his support on the campaign trail) or from conviction is unclear. She has been much more critical in public of Iran than her successor Kerry and has spoken of “enforcing” the deal in a way that make it sounds as if she doesn’t believe the current administration is holding the Iranians to all its conditions. Whatever her misgivings, however, Clinton would be loath to actively jeopardize the deal, unless faced with blatant Iranian infringements, and maybe not even then. Where she is more likely to differ with the administration’s current policy is in regard to what Obama called “respecting Iran’s equities in Syria.” Any American intervention against the Assad regime would mean harming those equities, which would almost certainly have wider knock-on effects.
While Clinton probably won’t match Trump’s language by saying she would also “bomb the shit out of them,” she will certainly try to match any forcefulness of his in the fight against the Islamic State. But the big dilemma facing the next president is not how many bombs to drop on ISIS positions and headquarters in Syria and Iraq – these have already been pummeled for much of the last two years by an impressive coalition of nations assembled by the administration. ISIS has been pushed back from large territories it controlled. The question is what to do next.
The next stage will have to be capturing the two main cities ISIS holds, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. America does not want any of its troops, with the exception of a few special-forces teams and military advisers, on the ground during the pitched house-to-house battles in store. But the choice of local forces is far from helpful.
America preferred the relatively “moderate” FSA Syrian rebel groups retake Raqqa, while the Russians have recently been supporting the Kurdish YPG who are now in loose alliance with the Assad regime. The Obama administration has been shifting in recent weeks to supporting YPG as well. The identity of the forces fighting in Raqqa could also dictate who ends up controlling eastern Syria and the border with Iraq. This could also draw in Turkey from the north, anxious to prevent the creation of more Kurdish autonomous regions. Clinton is more likely to stick to the current U.S. policy in backing the FSA while Trump naturally would favor Moscow’s position.
The Iraqi army is still far from resilient enough to retake Mosul, from which it retreated in disarray over two years ago. The main strike force will probably be Shia militias, armed by Iran and led by its Republican Guard officers. This raises the issue of de-facto cooperation with Tehran in increasing its influence over Iraq and the major threat of reprisals and counter-reprisals between the Shia fighters and local Sunni fighters, some of whom cooperated with ISIS. The Obama administration has yet to solve these issues and it will probably remain for the next president. The next stages of the war against ISIS will also determine the future of America’s long and bloody involvement in Iraq.
The Iraq war under Obama was supposed to be over, but in addition to carrying out daily air-strikes on ISIS in the country, close to 6,000 American military personnel are now in the country, on various missions, mainly assisting the Iraqi army prepare for the expected battle in Mosul. This week the Pentagon requested an increase of another 500 additional troops. Though they are officially on an “advise-and-assist” mission, they have already come under fire and suffered casualties and it will be difficult for a force this large to totally avoid being caught up in combat. However it is unlikely that American air-strikes alone will be sufficient to aid the recapture of Mosul and prevent a terrible Sunni-Shia bloodbath in the aftermath.
Trump has, untruthfully, claimed he was never in support of the war in Iraq. He will almost certainly be against increasing the American forces there just to save Iraqi lives. Clinton on the other hand voted in favor of war in the Senate and will face a major dilemma if the Pentagon presents her with the only option to both beating ISIS and averting total catastrophe – sending thousands more troops back in to Iraq. And of course, Iraq is not the only war-zone she may feel responsible for.
As State Secretary, Clinton not only supported, despite Obama’s misgivings, the U.S. getting involved in 2011 in the international coalition to protect civilians in Libya and ultimately ensure Colonel Qadaffi’s downfall – she was also accused of having not done enough to protect and save Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in the Benghazi attacks in 2012. Whatever the level of her involvement, Clinton’s responsibility didn’t warrant the fury of the feeding-frenzy fed by her Republican enemies. But Libya remains, for this reason and for many others, the war the U.S. and the rest of the west would prefer to forget. But they won’t be able to ignore Libya for long.
As they are pushed back in Syria and Iraq, the power vacuums in Libya are already becoming new havens for ISIS and other Islamist groups and potentially new bases to launch and inspire terror attacks in Europe and America. Would the new administration step in? President Trump would be tempted just to blame Hillary for the mess while if she were president, the last thing she would want is to be sucked back into another round of Benghazi recriminations.
But they may have little choice but to at least support international action there. Chaos in Libya could cause new waves of refugees crossing the Mediterranean, further fueling political instability and extremism in Europe, and threaten to draw in its neighbors, including America’s key regional ally, Egypt, a country that both candidates have recently been eager to court.
Aside from Netanyahu, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was the only leader attending the UN General Assembly who both candidates met. For both of them it was mainly an exercise in appearing states(wo)manlike. Trump obviously needed this more, and in his meeting with Sisi he went out of his way to praise Egypt, its people and culture, trying to prove to gullible voters that he can get along fine with Muslim leaders.
For Clinton of course it comes much more naturally (she met the leaders of Japan and Ukraine as well last week) and she could allow herself to mention during the meeting human rights issues, very gently of course. Both however will have to pay a much steeper price, should they become president.
General al-Sisi may seem to have stabilized the situation in Egypt, but to remain in power, he will need to continue constant military and economic aid; he will also need Washington to turn a blind eye to the worsening human rights situation under the military regime. Trump should have no problem with that. Clinton won’t like it, but will have very little choice. Unless the price of silence becomes unbearable.
The list could go on
And the list of potential minefields in the Middle East for the next president just goes on and on.
During the Obama years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan went from being a valued ally and an example, so Obama hoped, for a more moderate form of Islamic politics, to an embarrassment as Erdogan’s rule became steadily more authoritarian and Turkey, at first at least, tolerated ISIS building strongholds across the border in Syria. Things have only gotten more difficult following the failed coup with Turkey’s demand that the U.S. hand over Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, currently living in Philadelphia, accused by Ankara of orchestrating the coup. Another headache awaiting the next administration.
Then there’s the question of how to deal with America’s Saudi allies – how to deal with the majority in Congress demanding to publish Saudi involvement in 9/11 and how hard the U.S can press Riyadh to both improve its human rights record and stop funding for Islamic radicalism around the world. The Saudis are also an active party in the civil war raging in Yemen, which, while it lacks the death tolls of Syria, matches it in ferocity. The Obama administration has continued to supply the Saudis with arms while turning a blind eye to events in Yemen. The next president will probably hope to do the same.
And the Saudis have other clients as well. Such as the Sudanese regime, which it has recently succeeded in prizing away from Iran’s influence through a combination of financial support and covert pressure. On these merits, Riyadh (along with Jerusalem) is now trying to get the U.S. to help with re-admitting Sudan to the international community, despite his being indicted by the International Criminal Court seven years ago for war crimes.
Obama’s pivot and Clinton’s reset both failed miserably and the president who arrived in the White House promising to end two wars is leaving his successor with half a dozen potential new ones. And we are still no wiser about how either Clinton or Trump plan to contend with them.