Suddenly, Trump Has Three Middle East Crises on His Hands

Suddenly, Trump Has Three Middle East Crises on His Hands


President-elect Trump, a novice in foreign affairs, was destined to confront reality. Who would have guessed that the Middle East is the first place he’ll have to get down to his first serious policy decisions?

Even a week ago it looked like Russia would force Trump to prove his mettle. Will he or won’t he stick to his famously controversial idea of a new détente with Moscow?

All of a sudden, Syria, Iran, and Israel all clamor for Trump’s judgments. Long before his glittery inaugural ball, the new president will have to clarify whether he’s going to stick to his campaign commitments or alter course.

Related: Outlines of Trump Foreign Policy Are Largely Uncharted Territory

In each case, what Trump and his foreign policy team decide could shift the U.S. away from strategies and alliances that have endured for many decades. If Trump does what he has said in the past he will, the Middle East will look very different from Washington.

Trump has been given an imperative any new president would have to address. Since September 24, 2013, when Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s reformist president, spoke at the U.N. and opened the door to negotiations on the nation’s nuclear programs, all the pieces in the Middle East puzzle were bound to be rearranged.

What distinguishes Trump is that he has been willing to say so. President Obama, even in his final days, continues to flinch from the reality his administration has fostered if not created. Here’s what the Middle East has served up in a matter of a single week. Syria, Iran, and Israel have all just gone critical.

Syria. The question of a new détente with Russia has just spilled over into the Syria crisis. Will Trump join forces with Moscow in a concerted campaign to defeat the Islamic State? There’s really nothing new in this idea. Secretary of State Kerry tried several times to find common cause by way of his arduous negotiations with Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart.

Related: Russia's Lavrov Says Marshall Plan Needed for Syria

Kerry failed, at least in part because the Pentagon was reluctant to coordinate with the Russian military at a joint operations center in Jordan, as Kerry and Lavrov proposed. But the deal was on paper: Destroying the Islamic State comes first; then we can think—together—about President Assad and a political transition into a post–Assad era.

That’s Trump’s order of battle—and the reason he has been critical of the Obama administration’s determination to bring down Assad (Kerry’s efforts notwithstanding). “My attitude was, you’re fighting Syria, Syria is fighting ISIS, and you have to get rid of ISIS,” Trump said in an interview last week with The Wall Street Journal.

This strategy is now suddenly suspect—apparently because it is Trump’s. The talk in Washington is that Trump seems willing to enter into an alliance with Damascus and its various backers—principally Russia and Iran.

In an interview with a Portuguese network broadcast Tuesday, Assad asserted that Trump could make “a natural ally” in the fight against ISIS. If he wanted to force Trump back into the Obama administration’s faulty (and failed) strategy, the embattled Syrian president couldn’t have done a better job.

Related: 5 Foreign Policy Challenges President-Elect Trump Faces Before He Unpacks

Advice for the President-elect: Don’t take the bait. Your strategy in Syria is sound and doesn’t imply an alliance of any kind with Assad. Advance the policy for what it is: One case among many wherein Russia and the U.S. share a common goal.

Iran. Trump has gone from unambiguously opposed to the agreement governing Iran’s nuclear activities to ambiguously so. As of this week, he’s going to have to find a lot of determination one way or the other, for a fine old fix awaits him.

On one hand, the difficulty of breaking a multi-sided agreement is increasingly evident. So is the negative fallout of doing so.

Just before meeting President Obama Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel committed herself to a vigorous defense of the nuclear accord as “the right policy”—a pointed warning intended for Trump.

Even Iranians are now confident Trump will have to come around. “We expect to see more rationality on the position that Trump is going to take after becoming president,” Peyman Ghorbani, vice-chair of Iran’s central bank, said at a conference in Frankfurt the same day Merkel addressed the topic elsewhere. 

Related: Iran sees 'more rationality' from Trump once president

A lot of people think similarly—but not everyone. Over Trump’s other shoulder, he has congressional opposition to the Iran accord that grows more vigorous by the day.

On Thursday, the House passed a bill barring Treasury from authorizing aircraft sales to Iran—a blow to Boeing as well as the nuclear accord itself. Lawrence Ward, a Washington attorney, said in a note afterward that Obama would probably veto any such legislation that reaches his desk.

Sounds good. But it will be on Trump’s desk by the time this bill if passed in the Senate, reaches the White House.

Advice to the President-elect: Your critique of the Iran deal was overblown from the first. The agreement is not perfect from either side’s perspective, and it’s time to correct course. Like Nixon in China, you’re in a better position than Obama to take on the Capitol Hill hawks. You’ll never be in a good position—there isn’t one—to tell the rest of the world America’s bailing on this commitment.

Israel. The current fight in Israel over illegal West Bank settlements on privately owned Palestinian land escalated big time this week—just in time to give Trump his third Middle East problem.

Related: In Hats and T-Shirts, Trump Fans Rally in Jerusalem's Old City

On Wednesday the Knesset preliminarily approved a bill that retroactively legalizes these settlements. This was in response to an earlier High Court ruling that one such settlement must be dismantled by December 25.

During his campaign for the Republican nomination, Trump signaled attenuated sympathy for the Palestinian cause and a consequent shift in U.S. policy. Since his election victory last week he has spoken with Prime Minister Netanyahu—apparently offering reassurances that Washington’s support for Israel will not waiver.

Where’s Trump, then, and what’s his move in the face of the Knesset’s bombshell?

While Netanyahu’s attorney general says the bill is against international law, the prime minister’s position is ambiguous at the very least. Given the right wing of his coalition now declares openly, “The era of the Palestinian state is over,” this is hardball. Trump’s going to need a clear mind and a very sophisticated Mideast policy—both very quickly.

Advice to Mr. Trump: You had it right at the start. The Israel–Palestine crisis is in flux, and a new U.S. strategy is in order. Stay with the thought; navigate very carefully and you could get done what urgently needs doing.f