Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Trump Administration Searches for a MidEast Policy

The Trump Administration Searches for a MidEast Policy

A briefing by Thomas Parker
March 16, 2017
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Thomas Parker teaches security studies at George Washington University. Previously, he served as a policy planner for the Middle East at the State Department and advised the secretary of defense. Mr. Parker briefed the Middle East Forum on March 6, 2017.

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Audio Recording
Summary account by Marilyn Stern, Middle East Forum Communications Coordinator.
After the frustrating Obama years, the conservative Arab states and Israel look forward with cautious optimism to the Trump era. But can the new administration address the numerous problems left by its predecessor? A quick review of the region's main trouble spots offers some clues:
· Iran. While the nuclear agreement seems likely to stand, it remains to be seen whether the administration will sustain its tough approach to Tehran's ballistic missile tests, which were not covered by the agreement. Judging by their cancellation of a new missile test following the American reprimand, the Iranians are likely to adhere to the agreement in the foreseeable future for fear of a U.S. or Israeli strike. The moment of truth will come when the agreement sunsets in seven or eight years, allowing Tehran to develop nuclear weapons virtually undetected.
· Turkey and the Kurds. Given longstanding Turkish-Kurdish tensions, the administration will need to weigh the relative balance of costs and benefits attending the Kurdish contribution to the anti-ISIS campaign and the military bases offered by Turkey. The administration may seek to allay Ankara's fears of the growing Kurdish assertiveness by increasing U.S. military presence in Syria.
An estimated 400 U.S. marines were deployed to Syria early this month.
· Iraq, Syria, and the war against Islamic State (ISIS). In line with President Trump's repeated vows to defeat ISIS, hundreds of U.S. Marines have recently arrived in Syria to expedite the attack on the terror group's capital of Raqqa. A general loosening of the rules of engagement will allow a more proactive approach, which will in turn lead to ISIS's eventual defeat in Syria and Iraq. For its part, the Assad regime will likely remain in power given Moscow's preference for a secular ruler.
· Egypt. After the chilly Obama-Sisi relationship, a significant warming in U.S.-Egyptian ties is likely, and notably the resumption of close military cooperation.
· Israel. The widespread euphoria in right-wing circles over Trump's election has ebbed as the administration adopts a more conventional approach to both the West Bank and moving the embassy to Jerusalem. A consensus seems to be emerging in Washington whereby neighborhoods within the security barrier, comprising some 80 percent of the West Bank's Jewish population, would be allowed to expand but those outside the barrier would not. Thus far, most Israeli discussions with the administration, including in Netanyahu's meeting with Trump, have primarily focused on the Iranian threat rather than the Palestinian issue.
· Russia. Defying widespread predictions of doom, Moscow's Syrian intervention has greatly enhanced its regional prowess, and President Putin shows no intention to relinquish this new gain. President Trump may have thus overrated his ability to translate Russia's goodwill toward his administration to concrete collaboration against ISIS. On the contrary, attributing the ongoing regional mayhem to the 2003 Iraq war and the 2011 Libyan intervention, Moscow seems bent on keeping Washington out of the region and views the persistence of U.S.-Iranian tensions as a useful means to this end.
Whatever President Trump's personal instincts, he has surrounded himself with mainstream advisors like Secretary of State Tillerson and Generals Mattis and McMaster, both military leaders with long experience and familiarity with the Arab world. This may result in a less revolutionary, yet more robust Middle Eastern policy.
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