President Obama has bequeathed a security mess in the Middle East.
He hoped that, in return for a U.S. tilt in favor of an expansionist Iran, the Iranian regime would moderate its aggressive behavior.
Instead, Iran is inflaming the Shiite–Sunni civil war. But there’s no reason to exaggerate the threat.
Cautious rather than bold steps are the prudent course, not least because the Democrats and the press will blame the consequences of Obama’s blunders on the new administration.
In Iraq, the ISIS terrorists are being driven out as an overt military power.
However, the central government in Baghdad is controlled by Shiite parties that oppress the minority Sunnis.
Iranian cargo planes fly across Iraq to supply the Hezbollah in Lebanon and Assad in Syria.
Iran has 7,000 troops fighting alongside the Shiite militias, while American troops are advising and providing fire support to the Iraqi army.
Mr. Obama sent in our 5,000 troops without a status-of-forces agreement with the Iraqi parliament; the absence of one is the very reason he gave for withdrawing all our troops in 2011.
Once the situation has stabilized, Iran will lobby the Iraqi parliament to throw out the American forces.
In northern Iraq and Syria, the Kurds have taken care of themselves. They will not submit to the writ of any future central government in Damascus or Baghdad.
Kurdish nationalism is certain to provoke a series of clashes with Turkey. This too requires American diplomatic rather than military pressure.
Syria remains the epicenter of violence and military force. Three years ago, Mr. Obama declared that the Assad regime had to be removed. But he failed to effect that change. Instead, Russia moved in and is bombing ruthlessly to support Assad, while Iran has contributed Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon.
America is bombing ISIS and giving ineffectual support to “moderate” Sunni fighters opposed to Assad. Without a state sponsor and bereft of financing, ISIS is slowly being ground down.
At the same time, the battlefield trends favor Assad keeping a grip on the populous western territories adjacent to the Mediterranean. This is the wrong time to declare, as many advocate, a “safe zone” for refugees inside Syria.
That would require thousands of U.S. troops to defend an enclave in the midst of a raging war. We would become responsible for the next 20 years for millions of Arab refugees. Authorizing our operational commanders to write a clear set of sensible rules of engagement should be done immediately.
But bombing is a tactic, not a substitute for a policy. Syria remains the epicenter of violence and military force. The new administration must choose among three opposing goals.
The first is to endorse the Obama policy of getting rid first of ISIS and then of Assad, ultimately creating a moderate central government with control over Syria’s current geographical boundaries. To do this requires creating a Sunni Syrian army of more than 100,000 soldiers, while providing prodigious monetary and firepower support and forcing Russia to leave.
The second option is to support the emergence of three “statelets”:
1) an Assad/Alawite regime, backed by the Russian military, in the west and along the Mediterranean;
2) a Kurdish state in the north; and
3) an impoverished “Sunnistan” in the barren center.
To eradicate ISIS as an overt military force inside Sunnistan will also require a Sunni army, albeit of less size than required to remove Assad.
The international politics to redraw so radically the political map of Mesopotamia will be of staggering complexity. Either of the above two options will take more than four years to attain.
So the third option is to continue the current drift.
The outcome will then be determined by a chaotic clash of Saudi Arabia and its allies, including Pakistan, against a Shiite onslaught sponsored by Iran and abetted by Russia – with American influence gradually subsiding to the level of, say, Brazil’s.
While I personally incline toward the second option, there is no clear way forward. By inattention America has drifted into shoal waters in the Middle East.
This is not the time for bold, impulsive declarations or decisions. Any abrupt shift in policy direction or military operations will be hazardous.
Serious discussions with our allies and our generals should be undertaken before declaring any new policy.
In terms of process, do not repeat the Obama error by inserting advocates inside the White House who are dedicated to image-preening and to winning political campaigns.
The White House staff should be coordinators, not operators. The authority to implement policy should devolve from the White House back to the cabinet departments. The process should include, fully, the uniformed military.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, brings to the table six years of operational commands in Iraq and Afghanistan.
His enormous skills as a leader have passed without notice because he wisely avoids the press. Let such professionals do the heavy lifting.
To navigate out from among these geopolitical reefs in the Middle East will require patience and prudence over the next decade.
There is no shortcut, which means that President Trump cannot present a “win” before the next election. Figure out a steady strategy and stick to it.