President Trump's 2017 National Security Strategy statement is a remarkably clear-eyed and realistic document. Trump's realism, however, has nothing to do with the school of "foreign policy realists," which has long viewed Israel's existence as the greatest impediment to peace and tranquility in the Middle East, a fanciful claim the NSS dismisses at length.
Rather the NSS identifies Iran as the primary source of destabilization in the region and beyond. In that respect (and many others, including the insistence on U.S. sovereignty versus international bodies) the NSS is a thorough rejection of the eight preceding years under President Obama. Obama Middle East strategy centered on turning Iran into an American "partner."
The 2015 nuclear deal guaranteeing Iran a clear path to a nuclear bomb in little more than a decade, while permitting it to advance both its enrichment technology and ballistic missile capabilities in the interim, marked the high point of that "partnership." In order to achieve that deal, Obama's Syrian strategy centered on recognition of Syria as part of Iran's sphere of influence, thus allowing Iran and its Shiite ally Hizbullah, together with Russia, to save the Assad regime.
By frontloading the benefits to Iran in the nuclear deal, Obama effectively bound the hands of his successor. European allies eager to do business with an Iranian newly enriched by tens of billions of dollars in unfrozen funds and sanctions relief would bitterly oppose any attempt to reinstitute the sanctions regime thoroughly dismembered by the Obama administration as incentive to Iran's signature on the deal.
Those tens of billions of dollars poured into the Iranian economy have also allowed Iran to pursue an adventurist policy throughout the Middle East from Syria and Lebanon to the north to Yemen to the south. And by recognizing Iran's "equities" in Syria and Lebanon, Obama considerably tightened the noose around Israel's neck.
UNFORTUNATELY, reversing the toehold Iran achieved in Syria since 2012 will test the Trump administration to the maximum. Worse, though the NSS expresses strongly America's determination to resist Iranian expansionism at the expense of the United States' traditional allies – Israel and the oil-rich Sunni states, Trump appears to hold out fanciful hopes that Russia and the U.S. have similar enough interests in Syria to work together. After huddling with Vladimir Putin at the July meeting of the G20 in Hamburg, Trump wrote that the two had agreed on a ceasefire agreement in southern Syria and that "now is the time to move forward in working constructively with Russia!"
The statement made no mention of preventing Iranian or Hizbullah forces from moving into the areas under discussion, and set off a panic in Jerusalem. Both Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman reiterated Israel's determination to prevent Iran from doing so.
Russia and Iran were full partners in preserving the Assad regime, with Russia providing the air power support for Iranian and Hizbullah ground troops. To think that Russia would abandon that partnership unless the United States provides it with concrete incentives – either negative or positive – for doing so is pure fantasy.
Michael Doran and Peter Rouch, two scholars at the Hudson Institute, have outlined an American strategy for confronting Iran in Syria (Mosaic, "What America Should Do Next in the Middle East"). Doran, incidentally, first called attention to how the Obama administration's entire Middle East policy was permeated by pro-Iranian bias.
Despite their strong criticism of the Iranian nuclear deal, Doran and Rough counsel President Trump not to abandon the deal at this time – a step for which there will be no buy-in by allies and which would provide Iran with an excuse to start enriching uranium to weapons level. Rather he should focus on Syria, which stands at the center of Iran's ambitions for regional hegemony.
The crucial step that they advocate, however, goes counter to Trump's instincts and will be very unpopular with his base: They urge him to seek congressional authorization for more American troops in Syria, in particular in the Middle Euphrates River Valley in northern Syria. America played a major role in the area, in conjunction with Syrian Kurdish fighters, in retaking the Syrian city of Raqqa from ISIS. Doran and Rough go so far as to recommend that America build a base in the area.
Were America to withdraw from the area, there are two likely outcomes – neither of them good. One is that the Kurds would be unable to hold the area around the Syrian city of Raqqa, which is ethnically Arab, and would bring back into play the Sunni discontent that lead to the rise of ISIS in the first place. The other is that Turkey, concerned about an autonomous Kurdish region becoming a launching pad for Kurdish attacks in Turkey and the joinder of Syrian and Turkish Kurds, would invade the area.
Either result would likely drive the Kurds into the arms of the Iranians and Syrians. Only a strong American presence can stabilize the region, and serve the dual purpose of preventing an endless series of battles that would lead to a new ISIS and/or further Iranian advances.
The Middle Euphrates River Valley stands in the way of the most direct Iranian arms pipeline from Iran through Iraq to Hizbullah forces in Lebanon. And only a strong American presence stands in Iran's way of further advances in the region. To date, Doran and Rough write, Iran has been able to control a great deal of Syrian territory with a relatively few, ill-trained troops. A show of American determination would send a strong message to both Iran and Russia that they cannot maintain control of Syria on the cheap.
The augmenting of American troop strength in the crucial region where it is currently most firmly entrenched is the linchpin for any viable strategy for rollback Iranian control in Syria. The other steps recommended by Doran and Rough would merely augment that central policy decision and be of little effect without it. For instance, they write that the U.S. should strongly support Israel's demand that Iran and Hizbullah not seek to establish military bases in Syria or move troops close to the Golan border. But without some concrete American commitment, any such warnings are likely to be ignored.
The question is can President Trump make the crucial break not only with the policy of his predecessor, but with his own deepest instincts and those of his base against introducing more American troops into the Middle East. On the answer to that question may depend how soon war breaks out between Israel and Iran and its allies.