By: Dennis Ross*
Much remains uncertain about the Trump administration and its policies and priorities in national security. For any new administration, it takes time to get a clear picture of where it is headed. With a president who some are calling the “disrupter in chief,” it may take longer—and not simply because he desires to shake things up. This president also likes to be unpredictable. He clearly also likes to show he acts quickly on campaign promises like, for example, his controversial Executive Order on refugees. Amidst the uncertainty and court challenges, decisions are being made and patterns are beginning to form. For those in the Middle East who are watching and wondering, here are some of the questions whose answers will reveal much about the direction of the new administration—at least toward the region.
Are the Secretaries of State and Defense Important Decision-Makers?
Both Rex Tillerson and General James Mattis in their confirmation testimonies were very clear in staking out the importance of our alliance structure. Moreover, General Mattis is his trip to South Korea and Japan was strong in reaffirming our commitments, especially against North Korea but also China. The notion that our commitments might be dependent on whether each contributed sufficiently to their own defense did not hang in the air. It was not apparently part of the discussion—on the contrary, the reliability of the United States as an ally was the main message.
I am not trying to suggest that President Trump does not want allies to pay their fair share; no doubt, he does and the fact that he has made this an issue in public at least during the campaign and the transition may give allies an incentive to show they are doing more to meet their obligations. My point in raising the more traditional postures toward the allies that Tillerson and Mattis have adopted is take note that if they have real weight and authority in the decision-making process, US foreign policy may not appear to diverge as much as some may expect. Indeed, should President Trump choose to delegate much of the day to day responsibility to Mattis and Tillerson—and defer to them as he has already indicated he will do to Mattis on the use of torture—the US priorities in national security may reflect more continuity than change.
Now that does not mean policies will remain unchanged. Clearly, President Obama’s broad priorities in national security fell within the mainstream of the American internationalist traditions. But the way he carried out policy, his perception of the limits of hard power, his reluctance to get embroiled in Middle Eastern conflicts, all had profound effects on the image of the United States. And, it already appears that President Trump wants to convey an image of greater strength. Still, process matters and if one is looking for indicators of how and what the Trump administration will do on national security, it is worth seeing if the president defers to his key cabinet officials.
How Will the Trump Administration Deal with the Russians in Syria?
The President’s clear instinct is to cooperate with Putin in Syria. With Russia and Turkey cooperating that may create an opening for the Trump administration as well. The more Russia cooperates with Turkey, the less it may do so with Iran. However, to date, the Russians have abetted the power of Iran and the Shia militias in Syria. The shortage of Syrian military forces has put a premium on the Shia militias in occupying the territory reclaimed by the Assad regime. And, absent an effective ceasefire, there is no doubt that the Russians will continue to depend heavily on the Iranians and the Shia militias.
But at this point, a durable ceasefire along with a de facto partition in Syria—with different zones of control, probably is in Putin’s interest. The Russians have achieved their main objectives in Syria—Russia is the central arbiter, the Assad regime has been saved and is secure; and Russia now has air and naval base access. Moreover, Russia’s interest is in ending the conflict; not in helping the Assad regime take back “every inch.” And, for a real ceasefire, Russia needs Turkey and the influence it wields over an important part of the Syrian opposition. To be sure, it also needs the Saudis, Qataris, and Emirates given their ability to influence other elements of the opposition—and they are far less likely to go along with anything that seems to strengthen the Iranian position in Syria.
Here is the interesting question for the Trump administration: will it make it clear to the Russians that our willingness to cooperate depends on their distancing from Iran? This becomes an important measure of whether cooperation with the Russians can actually help in the struggle against ISIS. Should the Russians seek to use the Iranians and the Shia militias with the Assad regime in Raqqa or presently al Bab, they are almost certain to deepen the very sectarianism that fueled ISIS’ rise in the first place. The Trump administration has its own questions to sort out with Turkey and the Kurdish Protection Forces (YPG) and whom to be relying on to liberate Raqqa. However, if it opts to work with the Russians to fight ISIS while they use the Iranians, there will be a contradiction in its policies: it is hard to undercut Iranian power in the region if it is being abetted in Syria.
Will the Trump Administration Restore Traditional Partnerships in the Region?
Certainly, the new administration has already sent one signal that is reassuring to the key Arab states and Israel in this regard: it shows little hesitancy in being tough toward the Iranians in public. The Obama administration frequently seemed reluctant to do anything that the Iranians would see as provocative, fearing that it might play into the hands of hard-liners in Iran. The tone now toward Iran is different, with the president and his national security advisor already having “put Iran on notice” in response to its ballistic missile test. To be sure, that also creates a standard by which to measure the administration. Putting the Iranians on notice may not be the equivalent of the Obama red-line, but everyone will be watching to see what it means in practice if the Iranians conduct another ballistic missile test or engage in some other provocative behavior.
As noted earlier, however, the larger issue for America’s traditional friends in the region is whether there will be consistency in the administration’s policy toward Iran. Does it accept there is a larger struggle over the balance of power in the region that pits Iran against its Arab and Israeli partners and is it prepared to work with them to limit the Iran’s reach and threats throughout the area? That requires working to contain the Iranians and the Shia militias in Syria not acquiescing in the strengthening of their hold. It also requires real planning with its partners to develop options for countering the Iranian use of the Shia militias and raising the costs to them for their aggressive behaviors. A good place to start would be a more active interdiction policy for stopping the Iranian shipment of arms throughout the region.
Of course, if the administration is determined to restore traditional partnerships, it needs to focus not just on countering the Iranians. As important as that may be in the eyes of America’s key Arab and Israeli partners, they will also want to see what it is prepared to do with them. How will it work with them bilaterally? Does it see a stake in the success of the Saudi National Transformation Plan? Does it have a strategy for working bilaterally and multilaterally to shore up the Egyptian economy? Can it work with them on improving governance? Will it find ways to translate bilateral security cooperation into more collective and integrative defense mechanisms?
One article is not going to raise every question whose answer will give insight into the direction of the Trump administration. The upcoming Trump-Netanyahu meeting will surely offer insights on the approach to Iran, priorities in the region, and the level of president’s interest on the issue of Israeli-Palestinian peace and preserving a two state outcome. My purpose here was to highlight the importance of the decision-making process—and the role of two key Cabinet officials—and what early decisions on Russia, Syria, and Iran will tell us about the national security priorities of the Trump administration.
*American Middle East envoy Dennis Ross has served in the Administrations of Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, and is counselor and Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington.