Oh, the Places Obama Wants to Go! (Middle East Policy Edition)
From Syria to ISIS, the president’s plans for the region before he leaves office are a bit too grand to come true.
President Barack Obama has big plans for the Middle East during his final 15 months in office. How do I know? Because the president told me — and you, too.
It came by way of a little-focused on comment made during his July 15 press conference defending the Iran deal, after Obama was asked what kind of Middle East he’d like to hand to his successor. Here’s how he laid out his goals:
“I think my key goal when I turn over the keys to the president — the next president — is that we are on track to defeat [the Islamic State], that they are much more contained and we’re moving in the right direction there; that we have jump-started a process to resolve the civil war in Syria, which is like an open sore in the region and is giving refuge to terrorist organizations, who are taking advantage of that chaos; to make sure that in Iraq, not only have we pushed back [the Islamic State], but we’ve also created an environment in which Sunni, Shia, and [Kurds] are starting to operate and function more effectively together; and to be in a conversation with all our partners in the region about how we have strengthened our security partnerships so that they feel they can address any potential threats that may come, including threats from Iran.”
With barely a year and change left on his presidential clock, facing a region that still looks like a mess of political and diplomatic long shots, migraine headaches, and root canal operations, he has laid out quite an agenda. Indeed, though it was carefully couched in qualifiers and terms of process, this agenda — which calls for a much improved Iraq, a credible and sustainable political process in Syria, and what seems to be a new and more robust formulation on the Islamic State (not to ultimately defeat it but being on track to do so) — is enormously ambitious.
We really can’t know whether the president actually believes in this aspirational wish list or if he’s truly dedicated to getting all of this done before he leaves office. But never mind what he’d like to see happen, will Middle East realities even allow it? Let’s test the following propositions:
Are we “on track” to defeat the Islamic State?
More than a year after the Islamic State proclaimed its self-declared caliphate, this putative terrorist state seems more entrenched than ever. In fact, for a mix of reasons — ideology, weak opponents, Shiite-Sunni sectarian conflict, nonexistent or bad governance — the terrorist group has brought and maintained its cruel and horrific brand of stability and order to large parts of Syria and held its own in Iraq. To be sure, there are some new factors in play that could help keep its rise in check. If Ankara’s new willingness to join the anti-Islamic State fight isn’t undermined by its campaign against Kurds in Iraq and Syria, that will help. So will American access to Turkish air bases, allowing a ramped up air campaign. And there now appears to be a better-coordinated U.S.-Iraqi offensive in Anbar in the offing. And who knows, there’s even the possibility of better cooperation with Iran after the nuclear deal. If it all worked out, it might begin to shift the battlefield balance.
But are we “on track” to defeat the group? And what does that even mean?
Last month, the State Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary Brett McGurk told CNN it would “take years” to defeat the Islamic State. There is simply no regional force or combination of forces that is willing or able to defeat the terrorist group on the ground. The paltry number of forces the United States has trained for the anti-Islamic State Syria campaign speaks for itself. As for a major U.S. role on the ground, Army Chief of Staff Raymond Odierno made clear last month, “I could put 150,000 soldiers on the ground and defeat [the Islamic State]? Yes. But then what? A year later it would be right back to where we are today.”
Indeed, the president has drawn his own red lines — right now, no U.S. ground forces in Syria and limited special forces only in Iraq. How we will be “on track” to defeating the Islamic State is a mystery. Iran may well continue to work indirectly with the United States in checking the Islamic State’s rise. But they’re too busy and bogged down right now in keeping what’s left of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime afloat. Even with more Iranian cooperation, Tehran is no magic bullet for solving the Islamic State problem. Tehran will be reluctant to see Sunni forces in Iraq appreciably strengthened, and there are limits to what Iran can and will do against the Islamic State in Syria as long as Assad is not directly threatened. If we’re talking about defeating the Islamic State, in any conventional sense of the word — let alone destroying it — that would require ending the Syrian civil war and creating a more equitable power distribution and better governance there, as well as in Iraq. Being “on track” to defeat the Islamic State would mean creating a credible process to realize those goals. Is that possible in the next year or so? Not likely.
“Jump-starting” a solution to Syria?
The president’s choice of words here is fascinating. It does not suggest resolution of the civil war in Syria, only initiating a process to reach that goal. And it’s clear that the recent deal to get the Turks to ramp up military action against the Islamic State reflects a significant step toward a more active U.S. policy. But even launching a credible process to produce some kind of stable end state in Syria is a galactic one. Four years on, that conflict has become multidimensional: Islamists, some of who are al-Qaeda affiliates, are fighting Assad; we are combatting the Islamic State from the air, whereas the Islamists are fighting amongst themselves; and the Syrian Kurdish party is trying to stake out its own territory and is now being countered by Turkey.
To have any hope of changing the reality on the ground you’d need to ease Assad out of power and create a legitimate transition to a yet-to-be-defined stable end state. No single power is capable of governing Syria, let alone controlling their respective proxies, who themselves are in conflict and even divided internally. To even launch this enterprise, you would need a high-level conversation among Iran, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and an organizing lead force to make this happen. Perhaps this will be U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s next project. But this will take time and more important, leverage. And Washington doesn’t appear to have much of either. And so whatever the president’s aspirations and however determined he may be to produce a sustainable process “to end Syria’s civil war,” the chances of doing so are — not to put too fine a point on it — slim to none. To produce such an outcome, you’d need a major commitment of American military power to weaken both Assad and the Islamic State and Iran in Syria, too; and then a grand diplomatic deal involving Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey that would give them some, but not all, of what they want in Syria. And don’t think you’re done yet. Syria would require billions in international assistance, Syrians on the ground who would agree to cooperate, and some kind on peacekeeping force, too.
Reassuring the allies?
The president may be concerned about how to reassure traditional U.S. partners (see Israel and Saudi Arabia) that the United States will stand with them in confronting Iran. But how much and what he can or really wants to do about it is another matter. Unless the administration is prepared to really get tough with Tehran, neither Jerusalem nor Riyadh will take his commitments seriously. The fact is that after nearly 40 years of containing Iran, the administration’s nuclear deal has changed the paradigm to possible cooperation as the new goal. Not only do the Israelis and Saudis hate what is in the agreement, but they also fear a rising Iran and resent an administration that’s prepared to acquiesce to it. Obama would need to do things he’s simply not willing to do: For the Saudis, use U.S. military power to weaken Assad, Hezbollah in Syria, and the Islamic State, too.
As for the Israelis, short of rewriting the nuclear agreement or providing the Israelis with an offensive capability to attack Iranian nuclear sites and pledging military action if Iran violates the agreement, I’m not sure reassurance is possible.
The U.S. relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may well be irredeemable. And if the president tries to do something on the Palestinian issue early next year, either by working with the French on a U.N. Security Council resolution or putting out his own parameters on a two-state solution, including language on Jerusalem as the capital of two states, tensions with the prime minister are going to rise — and fast.
And what about the much too Promised Land?
Quite rightly, Obama didn’t mention the challenge of securing some kind of breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as part of his list of Middle East priorities. Frankly, he has got enough to do without compounding his problems. The odds of a real breakthrough are very low. But that doesn’t mean that the president — once the Iran deal is through Congress, one way or another, and off to implementation — won’t allow his erstwhile secretary of state to try to leave some legacy on that issue. And the most likely course is to secure some sort of international consensus on the elements of what constitutes an equitable two-state solution (e.g., 1967 borders with land swaps, security for Israelis, etc.) and enshrine it in a U.N. Security Council resolution. You’ve recently seen a prequel to this movie in the Iran deal. And more than likely, you’re about to see the sequel. The Israelis will hate this, so will Congress, and it’s far from certain the Palestinians can be brought along. Nor is there any assurance that as part of the deal, the Palestinians will be dissuaded from their campaign at the International Criminal Court and other bodies. This might actually encourage the campaign in the international arena to gain recognition. And there’s no correlation whatsoever between such a U.N. resolution and a negotiation to actually produce two states. But never mind. This problem can’t be solved now, anyway. It will be the next guy’s, or gal’s, headache.
Time’s no longer an ally
The painful fact is that the sands of time are running through Obama’s presidential hourglass and quickly. The Iran deal won’t be launched until year’s end when the International Atomic Energy Agency makes its certifications and sanctions relief begins. Iranian and U.S. politics will make major moves in the region, cautious at best. Indeed, right now it seems doubtful that Iran will want to be seen — anytime soon — as abandoning its regional allies. Indeed, under crushing sanctions, Tehran was able to sustain its clients and expand its influence. Imagine what might be possible by devoting even a fraction of its sanctions windfall to its regional friends.
During the July 15 press conference, in which the president laid out his ambitious goals, he also said this: “Ultimately, it’s not the job of the president of the United States to solve every problem in the Middle East.” Indeed, even on the Iranian nuclear issue, Obama has defused and delayed, rather than resolved the problem of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Much to the dismay of his critics, that realization has underscored this president’s Middle East policy from the beginning. Obama is a self-described fan of Reinhold Niebuhr, the great Protestant theologian whose “proximate solutions to insoluble problems” approach the president has taken to heart. If he could get that in the Middle East, he’d be remembered as a veritable genius.
But more than likely he cannot. The Middle East is an angry, broken, and dysfunctional mess. And the United States is stuck there unable to transform or leave it. Under these circumstances, the president is shackled with managing, not resolving matters. And perhaps he can improve things somewhat before he departs. And keeping his nuclear deal with Iran viable will be tough enough. But as he leaves the White House in 2017, chances are the Middle East is still going to look pretty bad, Iran deal or not. And he will likely leave to the next Democrat or Republican in the White House, a region in turmoil and the still elusive challenge of finding a set of effective policies that funds a better balance between doing too much on one hand — and not enough on the other.
Andrew Harnik/Pool/Getty Images
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