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 fueled 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.
Big 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 interests.
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 populations.
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 mission.
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 interests first.”
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 cooperation.
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 Putin.
Sharmine Narwani is a commentator and analyst of Mideast geopolitics, based in Beirut.