Iraq, Iran, the Gulf, Turkey, and the Future: The Meaningless Debate over the Trump Strategy in Syria

By Anthony H. Cordesman

There is nothing new about the U.S. redoubling its efforts in the Middle East after it has lost sight of its objectives. There is even less new about the U.S. going on with the same efforts year-after-year without having any effective strategy. The U.S. has claimed to be fighting a "war" against terrorism since 2001, and has been fighting real wars in the Gulf region since 2003. It has also been blundering in Syria since 2011.

This is why the current debate over President Trump's uncertain statement that he would suddenly withdraw from Syria needs to be put in a strategic perspective. It is no more silly or meaningless than the past focus of far too many debates over US policy towards Syria. It also is no more lacking in relevance than virtually all of the previous U.S. debates over strategy in the Middle East and the Gulf since 2001. It is a debate over levels of effort in one country that have no clear strategic purpose, and that fails to come to grips with any of the many issues that should shape U.S. strategy in the region.

The Real Strategic Issues in Syria Have Almost Nothing to Do with the Current Debate

For all the pro and con debates over President Trump's withdrawal statement, the level of U.S. forces in Syria is not a critical issue even in that one country. Syria has now been plunged into a civil war for more than half a decade. The latest UN estimates indicate that Syria has over 13 million people in need, 5.6 million refugees outside the country (most impacting on neighboring states), and 6.6 million internally displaced people. The CIA estimates that Syria's economy is only about one-third the size it was in 2011, and that its GDP now ranks only 194th out of 228 countries in the world.

The future of Syria's Kurds is a serious humanitarian concern. The U.S. does need to focus on breaking up the remnants of the ISIS caliphate, and getting some kind of full ceasefire in the fighting. But, the real strategic issues for Syria are very different. They are:

  • How can the U.S. try to create some form of a stable and effective governance when most of Syria's vast Sunni majority have reason to fear and hate Assad, and when there are so many non-ISIS extremist elements?
  • How to bring broader stability to Syria when no one can now even implement a fully effective humanitarian aid program, and when there are no credible plans or prospects for rebuilding Syria as a nation and for putting Syria on a stable path towards development that could unify the country and provide a stable counter to extremism?
  • How to deal with Syria when there are no credible U.S. strategies for dealing with the growth of Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah influence in Syria, with the Turkish role in Idlib, and with the destabilizing impact of Syrian refugees on Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey?

What exactly is the importance of leaving in 30 days vs. four months vs. staying indefinitely? What is the importance of deploying any figure from zero to 2,000 U.S. troops when the U.S. has no strategy to deal with every meaningful aspect of strategy? More importantly, why so much focus on Syria? It is now one of the less important grand strategic problems in the region – ranking close to the internal stability of Lebanon in overall priority to the U.S.

The Gulf, and an Iraq that has Far More Strategic Importance than Syria

What are the higher strategic priorities? Israel now faces new problems on its northern border, no Trump peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians has emerged after two years, and there seems to be a nearly zero chance that any proposed peace plan can succeed. The stability and development of key U.S allies like Egypt and Jordan seem more important, as do U.S. relations with Turkey.

It is the Gulf as whole, however, which is the most immediate challenge to U.S. policy, and where the lack of a credible mix of U.S. strategies in dealing with other countries is most important. Take Iraq. It is far more critical to the U.S. than Syria in terms of its stability and development, its role in deterring and containing Iran, its role in defeating ISIS and the rise of new extremist threats, and its role in shaping the secure flow of petroleum out of the Gulf and its resulting impact on the global economy and U.S trade.

Recent World Bank studies show that Iraq is now effectively bankrupt, and is rated as having one of the worst levels of governance in the world. Iraq is rated the 11th most corrupt government in the world by Transparency International, and it is suffering badly from its second deeply divisive national election in a row. So far the Iraqi government is failing to either meet the needs of its Sunnis in recovering from the fight against ISIS and in finding a solution to uniting its Arabs. Iraq is effectively bankrupt, is spending some 10% or more of its GDP on military forces and security, and will need hundreds of billions of dollars to move back towards a stable path towards development.

U.S. intelligence estimates indicate that Iraq has more remaining ISIS fighters in western Iraq than are in Syria. More broadly, it is clear that Western Iraq cannot be secured if Eastern Syria is insecure. It is clear that Iraq's total economic strength, unity, and military forces will be critical in deterring and containing Iran and stabilizing the Gulf. But, it is equally clear that Iraq requires a major development effort to unite it’s divided factions, that its state sector is a massive source of inefficient economic waste, and that its agricultural sector and use of water require massive reform.

It is also clear that Iraq is a truly bipartisan failure. The fact that that the U.S. has blundered so badly in Iraq since 2003 is a powerful indictment of the Bush, Obama, and Trump Administrations. So is the fact that the U.S. now has no clear strategy or aid plan to deal with the key issues that affect Iraq stability and role in securing the Gulf against Iran. At the same time, it is an equal indictment of the ongoing flood of Op Eds, columns, and articles attacking President Trump's short-term policies in Syria that they fail so dismally to address America's real strategic priorities in Iraq– not to mention the importance of dealing with Iranian, Turkish, Russian, and Chinese roles in that country.

The Iran Question

The U.S. is equally lacking in its failure to develop a coherent strategy to deal with Iran. As is the case with North Korea, it is not enough to identify Iran as a potential threat. The U.S. needs a coherent approach to dealing with this threat over time. It needs a strategy that address the political and economic dimensions of Iran as well as all the security dimensions, and a strategy that has some chance of actually being implemented.

At present, the Trump Administration's actions have largely succeeded in alienating America's European allies through the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement with Iran. They also seem to be undermining popular Iranian support for what pass as Iranian moderates – along with potentially arousing Iranian popular nationalist hostility to the U.S.

It is still too early to predict what the reimposition of U.S. sanctions on Iran will do, and how much new anger it will provide towards the Khamenei regime versus the U.S. At the same time, the current U.S. policy towards Iran is all sticks and no carrots. The U.S. has made no attempt to show that if Iran does put a firm end to its nuclear weapons and nuclear-armed missile programs, it will offer serious incentives that could provide real economic progress and development to a more moderate Iran.

On a more bipartisan level, legitimate U.S. criticism of a very Iranian actions has tended to focus far too much on a nuclear weapons program that has been brought partially under control, on the potential nuclear capability of missiles that Iran uses to compensate for its lack of modern air power, and the expansion of Iranian influence as if it were some kind of plot rather than a natural opportunistic exploitation of the incredibly self-destructive behavior of Iran's Arab neighbors.

Iran's build-up of an asymmetric naval-air-missile threat in the Gulf gets far too little attention, as does its steadily growing efforts to use arms transfers, cash payments, volunteers, military training efforts, and trade as substitutes for conventional military force. Real Iranian acts of terrorism and covert operations are reported without any context as to the Iran-Iraq War and the build-up of the Arab threat to Iran since 1988.

The Trump Administration attitude towards regime change in Iran is divided and sometimes seems to fluctuate between hoping sanctions will create a massive popular upheaval and planning for military action that might drive the current regime out of power – strategies that seem to be based far more on hope than expertise. Regime collapse in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen – the hopeless ineptitude of the MEK and Shah's son – do deserve the attention of even the most hardline opponents of the current regime.

Yet, all these issues get remarkably little popular media, and credible Congressional and think tank attention, from the Trump Administration's critics. The attention they do get also tends to simply reverse the direction of the Administration's hopes for the triumph of hope over expertise. Bad as the history of regime collapse may be, the historical benefits of internal regime evolution that has lacked outside support and direction have been no better

The Need for an Effective U.S. Strategy to Deal with Its Arab Strategic Partners in the Gulf

Finally, there are all too many parallels to this lack of a focus on strategic priorities amd the current topical focus on the Khashoggi murder and war in Yemen. Both provide a further demonstration of a lack of attention to a credible U.S. strategy for the region, and proper sense of key U.S. strategic priorities.

The issues that now dominate the debates over U.S. policy in dealing with its strategic partners in the Gulf are all too important in terms of human rights, the rule of law, and basic humanitarian needs. They do not, however, dominate key U.S. strategic interests in bringing security and stability to the region. They do not address the need to deter Iran without creating serious conflicts, to reduce the medium- and long-term threat of extremism and terrorism, to build up effective Arab strategic military partners, and to ensure the energy supplies of America's key Asian trading partners. The U.S. must also live with the fact that it must deal with the countries and regimes that actually exist. Strategy based on fantasy regimes is no more realistic than creating fantasy teams in football.

The Trump Administration has made real mistakes. It has paid too little attention to the civil economic development problems its Gulf Arab partners face, the impact of population growth, and the need for new jobs for native youth. It has treated extremism and terrorism as if creating new hollow Arab institutions actually mattered, and as if there was no reason to address the civil causes of terrorism and extremism.

The Administration has not helped by downplaying the Khashoggi case and impact of the U.S. role in Yemen. It initially badly mishandled the Saudi-UAE-Bahrain boycott of Qatar and has so far failed to take a strong stand to push the Arab Gulf states back together. It has failed dismally to create effective plans for better U.S. and Arab strategic and military cooperation even in obvious areas like missile defense and meeting the asymmetric Iranian threat in the Gulf.

As is the case with NATO and Asia, the Administration's emphasis on "burdensharing" without caring about what added military spending buys, what new military forces and capabilities are needed, and what combined U.S. and partner capabilities are really need is absurd. So is the emphasis on arms sales regardless of their strategic value, and on percentages of GDP spent on defense regardless of what they buy. (Although here, in fairness, it was President Obama who first began criticizing Arab Gulf strategic partners for a lack of effort when several were spending more than three times the percentage of GDP the U.S. was, and almost all were already spending close to three times the 2% of GDP the U.S. was asking of its NATO allies.)

But once again, how much attention have the Administration's critics given to these issues? How much does focusing on Khashoggi alone, and not the broader need to reduce repression as a cause of terrorisms and extremism, accomplish? What does focusing almost solely on the campaign against the Houthis, and immediate humanitarian needs in Yemen, accomplish in bringing long-term stability and security for its population? What meaningful strategic advice does this criticism offer to the President or to Secretary Pompeo on his coming visit to the region?

Former Secretary of Defense Mattis has been quoted as describing Washington as a "strategy free zone." There seems to be a matching – and all too bipartisan and expert effort – to turn the Middle East and the Gulf into a strategy free region.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of State.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy