Next US President’s hands will be tied in Middle East
The next White House resident will encounter a deeply divided region, more defiant leaders among friends and foes
Waiting for the end of the Obama administration has become for many the harbinger for a new era in US policy in the Middle East. A closer look at regional events, however, show a much narrower room for Washington to navigate in order to the move the needle in regional diplomacy and conflict zones.
Whether it’s Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, the next US President will be faced with new realities on the ground in Syria, in Iraq and in Yemen, that make any settlement proposals and promises on the campaign trail sound too ambitious.
The next White House resident will encounter a deeply divided region, more defiant leaders among friends and foes, on top of a full blown counterterrorism nightmare feeding off the chaos and political stagnation.
New realities in conflict areas
While both Clinton and Trump have voiced support for some form of a “safe zone” in Syria (Trump wants the GCC to pay for it), the events on the ground where such a safe zone can take hold have drastically changed since proposing it last year.
Northern Syria is witnessing advances for al-Qaeda’s affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, while Russia’s bombardment of that region has interjected these plans. The Kurds in the North have also made military advances and created a semi-autonomous region.
Turkey itself has been cognizant of that shift, trying to mend fences with Moscow, and scaling back its own regime change ambitions in Syria as it faces an increased ISIS threat, and a more ambitious Kurdish movement.
The level of chaos, the stubborn nature of both the conflicts and regional players, make grand shifts and short-term breakthroughs less likely for President 45 in the Middle EastJoyce Karam
South of Syria could prove to be a more flexible terrain to create a Safe Zone, as the more moderate opposition gains foothold in the area and with less bombardment from Russia. However, Jordan’s consent and cooperation would be crucial to put together such structure and there are no signs that Amman would want to risk a confrontation with an emboldened Assad regime or invest militarily in Syria.
After the latest attack by ISIS on the Jordan-Syria border, Jordan’s position has doubled down on prioritizing the fight against terror and finding a political settlement for the conflict.
It is also unlikely with all the campaign rhetoric about “defeating ISIS” in Iraq that the next US President will have much better chances at achieving this goal. The Iraq that the next President will inherit is a fragmented country, with a weak central government and an army that is growing more dependent on Shiite militias backed by Iran.
The US in 2017 will be as reliant on Shiite and Kurdish militias to fight ISIS in Iraq as it is today. Changing this dynamic requires training and equipping a Sunni tribal force and confronting Iranian influence in Baghdad, while risking a possible blowback on the Iranian nuclear deal and US presence in Iraq.
The only conflict that is showing signs of a potential settlement in the Middle East is Yemen, but that’s irrelevant of the US role and more contingent on Kuwait talks and the future of the Houthis and GCC security.
Washington has neither exerted enough pressure on the parties involved to reach a resolution, nor does it have enough leverage to bring forth a settlement. Fighting al-Qaeda and continuing the drone will likely continue to the define the US policy in Yemen.
Defiant and belligerent actors
The next US President will also inherit a more audacious tier of leaders when it comes to flexing regional muscle and defying US wishes. The events of the last four years from a quasi-military coup in Egypt, to the war in Yemen, to Russia’s intervention in Syria and Turkey’s belligerent behavior, all predict a more tumultuous road ahead for the next White House.
Trump’s own affinity to dictators and strongmen including Vladimir Putin, toppled authoritarians Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi will mean much less pressure on regional actors to change course, and a more accommodating foreign policy to adjust to the big players’ wishes in the Middle East.
Clinton on the other hand knows regional leaders personally and will be faced with similar challenges that Obama encountered while pressuring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or marketing and implementing the Iran nuclear deal.
There is no question that the next US President will have an opportunity to pursue more engagement and display a stronger hand diplomatically and perhaps militarily in the Middle East. Yet, the level of chaos, the stubborn nature of both the conflicts and regional players, make grand shifts and short-term breakthroughs less likely for President 45 in the Middle East.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Bureau Chief for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam