President Trump’s first foreign trip is turning out to be a strategic grand show of his worldview. His administration will attempt to shape Middle East policy in accordance with the Trumpian branding of winners and losers. Trump reaffirmed a strong commitment to building on the traditional alliance America has with both Saudi Arabia and Israel, cementing strong ties that he seeks to use for defeating the Islamic State. This message was garnered toward an American audience in order to placate worries about terrorism emanating from the Middle East.
Laced within Trump’s speeches in both Saudi Arabia and Israel was a much more potent message: America is taking sides in the Sunni-Shia divide on a regional scale. Trump has chosen Saudi Arabia to head a Sunni alliance in what he hopes to turn into the “Arab NATO” with the inauguration of the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology. It is important to note that the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al- Sisi, Jordan’s King Abdallah II, and other Persian Gulf leaders were present at the ceremony, all of which are non-Islamist Sunni strongmen.
The messaging was on target. Iran, the Middle East’s only Shia majority theocracy, was branded as the region’s number one destabilizer and exporter of terrorism. By singling out Iran as the only country responsible for exporting jihadist violence, Trump is beginning to clarify his regional policy.
Showcasing Iran as the enemy sends a strong signal to Russia. Russia has remained steadfast in engineering short-term gains in its Middle East ventures by aligning with Iran and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, both Shia dominated regimes. Russia’s straightforward policy of alliance with Shia backed governments has helped Moscow to obtain legitimacy as a powerful actor in the Middle without committing to the costly burden of regime change. Moscow’s goal has been to overburden Washington with multiple sub-issues that disorient strategic goals and disperse resources in order to lessen America’s military advantage.
Dual containment of both Sunni and Shia jihadist actors has proven to be an unrealistic goal, one both the Bush and Obama Administrations have been unable to successfully manage. A policy of admonishing all elements of radical Islamist and jihadist factions has proven to be an idealistic venture, as cherry-picking actors for an alliance structure in the Middle East put Washington in the middle of an old political battle that is shaped by tribe and sect. A steady alliance against jihadism never emerged as both Sunni and Shia rebel forces saw the United States as an unreliable and hostile actor.
Aligning with countries with stable regimes, no matter the unsavory reality of Saudi financing of terrorism, is a fundamental political reality if Washington seeks to stabilize an emerging power vacuum due to years of civil wars and toppled regimes. It is true that the borders of the Middle East have changed, but have yet to attain political recognition or legal legitimacy. This is still years in the making and the reason why Trump’s team has decided to align with Sunni states. At the moment, Syria and Iraq are operating without borders and are internally being reshaped by population changes due to the Islamic State’s attempt at carving out a Sunni Caliphate. The real borders of the Middle East are being operated by rebel units fighting within Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen but political power is still being held by monarchies. The people operate as a nation but Arab leaders operate as individuals. This limits Washington’s ability to align with what it perceives to be the good guys and weed out the bad guys.
Competing factions throughout the Arab and Muslim World cause intractable and myriad problems that reduce American power to tactical advantages of military superiority while thwarting its ability to shape the truly political nature of the battles being fought in the Middle East. Russia’s entry into the Middle East sought to take advantage of America’s inability to stabilize the Middle East with neither Bush’s nation building nor Obama’s democracy promotion. Trump’s plan is heavily geared toward using military might without preconditions. He does not seek pull America’s resources into the costly burden of nation building and views democracy promotion as an ideological impossibility best left for philosophers.
Bombing tactics may produce short-term battle gains but cannot reshape the ideological conquests of the new regional order of the Middle East. We might be well on our way to seeing a confrontation between a Sunni NATO and Shia Iran. By taking sides, the Trump Administration may be seeking to make the battle ground a little bit clearer as to who we are fighting (Iran’s attempt at regional expansion) and what we are fighting for (helping to stabilize Arab monarchies/strongmen in a post-democracy Middle East).
Russia picked sides to give the illusion of having a strategic asset. Moscow steered clear of promoting regime change in Syria as it did not want to be tied down to nation building. Moscow sees values as untenable and difficult to instill in foreign populations, better left for unifying its domestic population. Politics is much easier to maneuver when dealing with foreign adventures because it allows Moscow to continuously change its script as to what are its goals, and thus its successes. For now, Russian intervention in Syria is aimed primarily at subverting American core interests in the Middle East and forcing Washington into a dubious partnership with Moscow in which Putin would have the ability to produce the appearance of having more power than he actually possesses.
Will a Sunni NATO rollback the regional expansion of Iran’s proxy forces? It will remain to be seen if such an experimental military alliance will have the capacity to direct concrete military objectives. For such an entity to accomplish political directives, the states involved will have to merge state based security apparatuses and operate on reliable intelligence gathering methods. This will be a stretch considering Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan (Israel will have a large role to play as well) all have competing goals for a regional reset. Iran and the Islamic State have been lumped together as regional destabilizers despite Saudi Arabia sharing a similar theological disposition as the group and having links to multiple offshoots of al Qaeda affiliated rebel groups that operate throughout the region.
If containing Iranian influence is the prescribed goal, it is also important to look at the role of Iraq. Iraq may be acting as a state but is operating like a borderless namesake. Iran has been steadily gaining influence in the Shia dominated Iraq government where some Shia factions directly fall in line with Iran, such as the Badr Organization and Popular Mobilization Forces. The Kurds in Northern Iraq operate as an unofficial semi-state laced with its own complexities of proxy funders and shifting loyalties. Iran has also made a steady gain here by aligning with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). To add to the variability, the old guard of Saddam’s Ba’athist regime is noted to have a working relationship with the Islamic State.
Sunni NATO will have to contend with the further disintegration of Iraq while having to pursue actors it seeks to reconstitute as a legitimate organ of an operational Iraqi state. Local actors of the Middle East have never attempted such a venture and it is easy to conceive of all the ways in which it can fall apart. But Trump needs the appearance of a policy where other countries pursue fighting for their own regional interests and Iran is well suited to take the role as regional menace. An open check book and a blind eye will sound like a cohesive policy but will eventually murky the road for quelling regional turmoil. Bomb squad politics is a grandstanding venture and will yield haphazard effects especially when not paired with the right diplomatic staff or a sufficient budget for administering development aid.
In the world of power politics, unchangeable forces and factors limit choices. Iran and America can be natural allies but are pursuing brinksmanship instead of partnership. Iran’s current regime has an ideological bent that makes it hostile to American interests, investing in Shia proxy groups that broaden the regime’s power throughout the Arab world. An American-Iranian alliance would be a politically powerful geopolitical accord that has the possibility of pushing back on Russian interests in the Middle East, where Moscow sows instability by procuring arms deals and trade deals to keep the Caspian Sea region under its control.
The Trump Administration’s decision to take sides in a discordant regional battlefield is a big gamble. By doing so, Washington has branded the fight as shaped by two competing Islamic denominations, Sunni vs. Shia, ushering in a new phase in the era of Islamist revolutions. Washington realizes it can’t control the Islamist revisionism spreading throughout the Middle East, as secular Arab states are part of a bygone age. The Trump Administration can only try to produce one thing: branding the right enemy in order to make short-term tactics look like long-term security strategy.