Tag: Iran

Does the White House Have a Syria Strategy?

With the news that the United States has for the second time attacked targets linked to Syria’s Assad regime—in this case a convoy near Western forces in Al Tanf—concerned observers may be worrying that the Trump administration has chosen to make a major change in its Syria strategy. Fear not! As Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters:

“We’re not increasing our role in the Syrian civil war, but we will defend our troops. And that is a coalition element made up of more than just U.S. troops…”

Instead, you should probably just fear the fact that the United States no longer seems to have a Syria strategy.

Certainly, the Obama administration’s strategy towards Syria was inconsistent and vague. From the President’s statements early in the Syrian uprising that “Assad must go,” to his infamous red line comment, the Syrian chemical weapons deal, and the decision to intervene against ISIS, it often seemed as though the Obama administration was unsure whether it was willing to accept the Assad regime as part of a Syrian transition or not.

Nonetheless, throughout Obama’s term, the United States took no direct military action against Assad, and—other than arming a small number of rebels early in the conflict—largely ignored the question of Assad’s future, focusing instead on the campaign against ISIS.

With his disinterest in human rights, and his willingness to cooperate with Russia, the Trump administration was initially expected to be more conciliatory towards Assad than Obama. Yet only days after senior U.S. officials publicly stated that the U.S. priority was not to remove Assad, the President fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base.

Yesterday’s attack marks the second such incident. That they don’t constitute an official policy change is in large part because they were apparently authorized by commanders in the field, reflecting Trump’s desire to delegate key military decisionmaking down the chain of command.

Yet in many ways, this highlights the dangers of such delegation: though the strikes may have been necessary to protect American and British Special Forces based near al-Tanf, they carry risks of retaliation for U.S. troops in Syria and Iraq, as well as the potential for escalation with Syrian regime forces, Iranian-backed militias, or even Russian forces.

Targeting decisions like this, made at the tactical level, are thus deeply worrying. As ISIS continues to decline, military advances will bring both sides closer, raising the potential for conflict that could drag the United States deeper into the Syrian quagmire.

Unfortunately, lack of clarity about the Assad regime and allied forces is only one of the important questions that the Trump administration has so far failed to address in Syria. Though the headlines largely focused on the disgraceful behavior of Turkish President Erdogun’s bodyguards in beating up protestors, his D.C. visit last week also yielded no apparent progress on the brewing Turkish-Kurdish conflict in Northern Syria.

Indeed, the Trump administration recently took the decision to directly arm Syria’s Kurdish rebels, one of the most effective forces against ISIS. This was probably the right decision, but strains relations with Turkey, our NATO ally, which considers these groups as terrorists, and is engaged in bombing them.

At the same time, Trump appears to look more favorably on Russian plans for resolving and ending the Syrian conflict than his predecessor, but has taken an openly hostile attitude towards Iran, one of the other signatories of the de-escalation plan, and a major player on the ground in Syria. These two positions cannot be easily reconciled.

Thanks to a recent boost under the new administration, there are now at least a thousand U.S. troops in Syria training and working with ground forces fighting ISIS. It is these troops—and the larger number of U.S. forces in neighboring Iraq—who are most placed at risk by the new administration’s incoherent approach to Syria.

Whether or not the White House realizes it yet, tactical decisions like the one made yesterday by commanders on the ground in Syria risk dragging the United States even further into this complex war. The only way they can avoid it? Develop a coherent Syria strategy. 

Trump of Arabia

Donald Trump will make his first foreign visit this week, eschewing more typical early presidential destinations like Canada in favor of a photo-op heavy swing through Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican, before attending next week’s NATO summit in Brussels. Of these, perhaps the most interesting will be his time in Riyadh, where he will conduct bilateral meetings and attend two summit gatherings: one a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) meeting, and the other a U.S.-Arab Islamic summit.

Despite Trump’s negative comments about Saudi Arabia during the campaign, he has been more supportive since his inauguration, and likely looks forward to a warm reception in Riyadh. For their part, the Saudis have invested heavily in lobbying the new administration, with whom they believe they can work on issues from counterterrorism to Iran. For a president under fire at home, and whom even foreign allies treat with extreme caution, the open embrace of Saudi leaders is undoubtedly welcome.

During the visit, Trump is expected to make two announcements. The first is a massive arms sale worth as much as $300 billion over a decade. The package includes a number of advanced systems, most notably a THAAD missile defense system, and is intended to improve Saudi Arabia’s military capabilities. The second rumored announcement – the creation of an “Arab NATO” – is more unexpected. Though such an idea has been suggested before, regional realities have typically prevented it from advancing past the idea stage.

Indeed, though the U.S. has long sought to build up military cooperation and interoperability between regional states, policy differences and long-running disputes have torpedoed similar initiatives in the past. From military cooperation within the GCC to 2015’s Saudi-led announcement of an “Islamic coalition to fight terrorism“ these efforts have yielded few concrete results. Even at the height of the Cold War, the Baghdad Pact (CENTO) was rendered ineffectual by regional disputes.

In reality, the likelihood of failure may not worry either Trump or the Saudi leadership, both of whom have shown a propensity for policy characterized by big, flashy announcements that are rarely followed through with concrete steps.

Of greater concern are other areas of likely discussion at the summit, particularly the prospect of greater U.S.-Saudi cooperation against Iran. Though Trump has thus far proven unwilling to “rip up” the Iranian nuclear deal, he has initiated new sanctions on Iran, and repeatedly promised a more assertive U.S. policy to deal with Iran’s “destabilizing” regional behaviors.  Unfortunately, this approach carries risks, including the prospect of undermining the nuclear deal or of creating a wider regional conflict.

And while the President and Saudi leaders may agree on many policy issues, the summit does present several areas of potential conflict. For one thing, the hosts have extended an invitation to Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, currently under indictment by the ICC for war crimes and genocide, a choice which has upset many in Washington, if not necessarily the President himself. Trump is likely to accidentally provide support to one side in the ongoing influence struggle between Mohammed bin Nayef, the Saudi Crown Prince, and Mohammed bin Salman, the King’s son and second-in-line to the throne.

Trump’s scheduled speech on Islam also promises a variety of opportunities for misunderstanding and misstatements; in addition to the President’s habit of deviating from prepared remarks, the speech itself is reportedly being written by advisor Stephen Miller. Miller is not only the author of the Trump administration’s controversial travel ban on various Muslim countries, but also waged a campaign during his college years to create awareness of the dangers of “Islamofascism.”

In short, though Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia offers little in the way of policy disagreements – and presents a valuable opportunity for the new administration to distance itself from turmoil at home – it also offers plenty of potential pitfalls for the new President and his staff. And that’s before he even makes it to stop number two. 

Can the Iran Deal Survive?

The Iran deal is working as advertised by containing Iran’s nuclear weapons program. That non-proliferation success creates a greater one: it vastly lowers the odds of a U.S. attack on Iran and pacifies relations. That’s what makes the deal anathema to those on both sides who would preserve enmity to gain in domestic political fights.

The deal’s fate may be sealed in the coming weeks. A presidential election Friday in Iran will either re-elect Hassan Rouhani, who pushed for the deal and now defends it, or replace him with a hardliner. The Trump administration recently launched a review of Iran policy and the deal, which could yield a decision to try to undermine the agreement or to truly stay in it.

Under the 2015 deal, officially the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran agreed to limit its nuclear program in various ways and allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspections in exchange for relief from some of the sanctions that the United States, the European Union, and the UN Security Council had imposed and the release of frozen funds. The deal leaves in place sanctions on Iran for human rights violations, ballistic missile development, and support for terrorist organizations. The Obama administration also dropped charges against a number of Iranian sanctions violators in exchange for Iran’s release of four American prisoners.

Last fall’s elections put the deal in peril. They matched a Republican Senate majority that had openly tried to undermine the deal’s negotiation with a militaristic president who opposed it as a candidate. Trump made typically contradictory statements about the deal in campaigning but mostly voiced hostility typical of GOP hawks. For example, he told the AIPAC convention, “My number-one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” Trump’s top foreign policy appointees seemed to share a particular hostility to Iran. Even Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who many saw as a lone voice of foreign policy caution, had notably belligerent views on Iran, even bizarrely suggesting that it had created ISIS, despite Iran’s aide for ISIS’s opponents in Iraq and Syria.

Despite this rhetoric, neither Congress nor the administration has raced to dismantle the deal. Congressional leaders have suggested they expect to abide by it. Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee did join the panel’s ranking member Robert Menendez (D-NJ) to introduce a bill that would heighten sanctions on Iran for missile development, support for terrorist organizations, and human rights abuses. Though adopting the bill would antagonize Iran and make it more difficult for the United States to hold up its end of the bargain, it would not directly violate its terms.

The Trump administration, thus far, has stuck with the deal, while huffing and puffing. Officials say they’ll honor its terms pending a review run by National Security Advisor General H.R. McMaster, who, notably, isn’t a strident proponent of confrontation with Iran, like his predecessor, General Michael Flynn. The State Department recently certified Iran’s compliance but, in the same press release, proclaimed Iran’s continued support for terrorism. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson knocked the deal for failing “to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear Iran,” seemingly referring to its retention of enrichment facilities. President Trump then claimed that Iran is “not living up to the spirit of the agreement” and called it “terrible.”

These statements are a boon to Iran’s hardliners, who call the deal a capitulation to the United States, which they see as irredeemably hostile. Evidence of that hostility also comes in U.S. policy: the Corker-Menendez bill, Iran’s inclusion in the Trump administration’s legally-fraught travel ban, potentially-heightened U.S. military aid for their rival Saudi Arabia in its brutal bombing campaign in Yemen, and a likely massive arms sale to the Saudis.

Takeaways from Trump’s First 100 Days

For foreign policy wonks, Trump’s first hundred days have been a bit like a roller coaster ride. In just over three months, the new administration has veered from one crisis to another, from Syria to North Korea, China to Canada. Sudden Trumpian reversals on various foreign policy issues have been sharp enough to produce whiplash. Meanwhile, a dizzying barrage of strange foreign policy choices and statements makes it difficult to guess what’s coming next.

Nevertheless, amid all the confusion, there are a couple of big takeaways from these first 100 days that may help us better understand where Trump’s foreign policy approach is headed:

1. There really is no such thing as the Trump Doctrine

Trump’s reversals on issues like NATO have been hailed by some as bringing him closer to a “normal” presidency. Indeed, it is not always obvious from a President’s campaign what his broad foreign policy approach will end up being, or the obstacles and inertia that he will face in trying to alter American foreign policy. Yet even by these standards, Trump’s approach to the world remains unclear. A recent attempt by White House Chief of Staff Reince Preibus to outline what he sees as the Trump Doctrine merely adds to this confusion:

Trump is “reshaping our position in the world,” Priebus said, and “really establishing, I think, a Trump Doctrine in setting some certain lines of where we’re not going to allow people like [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] to go, but at the same time making it clear that we’re not interested in long-term, you know, ground wars in the Middle East, but obviously focusing in on ISIS and what we’re doing in the Middle East to protect us here in the United States, working with China on ongoing issues with North Korea that are very real and are serious issues that takes cooperation within the region to handle appropriately.”

Another official “added that Trump’s status as ‘an incredible negotiator’ is also central to the doctrine.” As these statements suggest, Trump’s foreign policy so far has been highly reactive – responding to crises – but with no indication of an overarching strategy. 

2. Trump is escalating the War on Terror

Though the most visible indicator of this escalation was the use of a MOAB (Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb), affectionately known as the ‘Mother of all Bombs,’ in Afghanistan, the new administration has chosen to escalate conflicts in a number of countries. More troops are being sent to the greater Middle East, in particular to join the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and U.S. Special Operations Forces are now engaging in ground actions against Al Qaeda in Yemen.

The administration has also loosened the rules of engagement in Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere, and has increased the number of bombing raids and drone strikes. According to at least one watchdog group, Trump’s choice to give his generals a free hand in these conflicts has resulted in a massive increase in civilian casualties in these areas.

3. Brinksmanship may be back  

The new president appears to have a gift for raising tensions around the world. Though his administration did certify that Iran is complying with the Obama-era nuclear deal, they also announced a 90-day review of the deal. Various officials are using increasingly tough rhetoric towards Iran. The administration has also indicated that it intends to step up support for the GCC campaign in Yemen against the Houthis, a group often described as an Iranian proxy.

Trump is also taking an increasingly hard line towards North Korea, with Vice President Mike Pence warning the DPRK that “all options are on the table” in the case of further missile or nuclear tests. Tensions around the peninsula are high, with joint U.S.-South Korean drills, and a North Korean live fire exercise taking place this week. Whether the new administration’s statements are accurate indicators of their position, or merely heated rhetoric, such statements can easily raise the potential for conflict.

4. Advisors really matter

Political science research has shown that even experienced advisors cannot substitute for an inexperienced president. Unfortunately, Trump is anything but experienced on foreign policy. And while some of his appointments have been reassuringly experienced (such as James Mattis, now Secretary of Defense), others are either inexperienced (such as Jared Kushner) or have disturbing worldviews (i.e., Steve Bannon).

Infighting between advisors inside the administration has been notable during these first hundred days, and Trump’s policies seem to vary depending on which individuals he is listening to on any given day. If you are interested in the internal dynamics of the Trump administration, you can check out my recent article at War on the Rocks, which explores the civil war in the White House. The Cliffs Notes version? Advisors really matter, and it’s still unclear which faction – if any – will triumph in the struggle for influence between Trump’s teams of rivals.

5. Competence is key

Some of Trump’s foreign policy decisions appear to be trending closer to a traditionally hawkish Republican line, while some of the problems that he faces – such as Turkish-Kurdish tensions in Northern Syria, or the intractable conflict in Afghanistan – have been around for far longer than this administration. Yet it is worth noting that the new administration’s response to various crises has often been less than competent. Some of this is the result of inexperience and a lack of appointed officials in key positions at the Departments of State and Defense, but others are self-inflicted wounds. The administration’s immigration bans and TPP withdrawal are cases in point.

Other foreign policy incidents have been frankly bizarre. Trump’s first National Security Advisor, Mike Flynn, was forced to resign after only 25 days for misleading the administration on his lobbying and ties to Turkey and Russia. In an oval office meeting, Trump refused to shake Angela Merkel’s hand, later claiming that he didn’t hear the request. He phoned Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogun to congratulate him on a questionable referendum victory that consolidated his dictatorial power. Moreover, the administration misplaced an aircraft carrier, announcing that the USS Carl Vinson was heading for the Korean Peninsula as a show of force, when in fact, it was near Australia, moving in the other direction.

Taken alone, these incidents are concerning. But when considered in the broader context of Trump’s tendency to bluster and saber-rattle, his support for escalating the war on terror, and his inability to articulate any coherent strategy for U.S. foreign policy, they raise even bigger questions. If Trump’s first hundred days are truly representative of his foreign policy approach, it’s going to be a bumpy four years.

Pettifogging the Iran Nuclear Deal

A post at The American Interest, vaguely attributed to “Walter Russell Mead and staff” criticizes the Iran nuclear deal as “worse than we knew.” That judgement is based on a Politico article discussing the seven individuals that the Obama administration agreed to release from U.S. custody, and another fourteen fugitives for whom they agreed to drop charges, as part of a “one-time gesture” to sweeten the deal for the Iranians.

Politico reports on some of the charges these individuals were accused of: three of them “allegedly sought to lease Boeing aircraft for an Iranian airline that authorities say had supported Hezbollah”; another tried to “buy thousands of U.S.-made assault rifles and illegally import them into Iran”; another “was charged with smuggling U.S. military antennas to Hong Kong and Singapore for use in Iran,” and so on.

The American Interest claims these are “far more serious threats to national security than was previously disclosed.”  But what the Politico article reveals is more detail about the allegations made of men already revealed to be smugglers. To describe them as “serious threats to national security” is an exaggeration. It’s not clear, for example, what exactly is threatening about an Iranian airline with some vague association with Hezbollah leasing a Boeing aircraft, or whether Iran importing more assault rifles meaningfully aids its military capability. Moreover, the fourteen people that saw their indictments dropped weren’t in U.S. custody and thus weren’t about to have their smuggling efforts stopped, though indictment limited their ability to travel. Letting them slide did not obviously increase their threat.

More importantly, neither Politico nor The American Interest directly confronts the Obama administration’s evident judgement that the nuclear freeze it got from Iran was worth letting some shady people off the hook. Does the risk from the releases hold a candle to the problem of nuclear proliferation? How about the danger posed by U.S. hawks ever-eager to use Iran’s nuclear program as a justification for launching another war in the Middle East? Surely, those menacing scenarios are worse than any the released smugglers posed.

Trump Administration Begins Threat Inflation on Iran

In an op-ed for the Boston Herald last week urging the Trump administration to uphold the Iran nuclear deal, I noted that the precise posture that the Trump White House will have toward Iran is not yet known. Today, we got our first insight into just how confrontational that posture will be. And it doesn’t look good.

Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn said in a White House briefing that, “As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice.” According to Flynn, Iran’s recent test of ballistic missiles, which he said is “in defiance of UN Security Council Resolution 2231,” along with an alleged attack on a Saudi naval vessel “conducted by Iran-supported Houthi militants” in Yemen, serve as evidence of “Iran’s destabilizing behavior across the entire Middle East” and make clear that the nuclear agreement signed by Iran and the P5+1 has “emboldened” Iran to act nefariously in the region, “plac[ing] American lives at risk.”

Flynn’s statement amounts to heated, combative rhetoric over rather trivial issues. Only one of the incidents cited by Flynn was an Iranian action. While it’s true that Iran supports the Houthi rebels in Yemen, it has never been clear exactly how much support they give and it is doubtful Iran has the kind of leverage over the militants that make them qualify as strategic proxies. At the end of the day, whatever instability is caused by Iranian support for the Houthis, it doesn’t hold a candle to the regional instability caused by Sunni jihadists, like al-Qaeda-linked groups and ISIS, that have been supported with funds coming out of Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states. Rather than berate the Saudis with threatening bombast in a White House briefing, though, Washington continues to aid the Saudi military as it relentlessly bombs Yemen, killing thousands of civilians, putting millions at risk of starvation, and committing acts that a United Nations panel said could amount to crimes against humanity

With regard to Iran’s ballistic missile test, the reality is far less alarming than Flynn’s words suggest. The nuclear deal itself doesn’t prohibit these missile tests. And as Dan Joyner, professor of international law at the University of Alabama School of Law, explains, “the assertion that Iran’s ballistic missile tests…violate UN Security Council resolutions is incorrect because, as of Implementation Day, all UNSCR’s adopted prior to that date regarding Iran are terminated except for Resolution 2231. And the language that Resolution 2231 employs in addressing Iran’s ballistic missile activity is legally nonbinding language…[T]here can thus be no violation of a legal obligation that doesn’t exist.”

As The Wall Street Journal reports, “UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the deal, ‘called upon’ Iran to avoid any activity related to missiles designed to be capable of carrying nuclear warheads.” It’s hard to confirm one way or the other, but for what it’s worth Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told the Journal that none of Iran’s missiles are designed to carry a nuclear warhead and the tests involved “conventional warheads that are within the legitimate defense domain.” Given that Iran has verifiably rolled back its nuclear enrichment program over the past year, it makes sense that they would have little interest in designing missiles that can carry nuclear warheads, especially given the added international scrutiny it would needlessly attract.

Flynn’s statement indicates an eagerness to stir up tensions with Iran over relatively innocuous issues. This will undoubtedly be perceived in Tehran as threatening, thereby bolstering the more hawkish voices in Iran and undermining the future viability of the Iran nuclear deal, despite the fact that, as the International Crisis Group recently reiterated, “It has delivered so far on its narrow objective: effectively and verifiably blocking all potential pathways for Iran to race toward nuclear weapons.” 

President Trump and the Iran Nuclear Deal; Or, How I Learned to Start Worrying and Fear the Bomb

During the Republican primary season, most candidates railed against the Iranian nuclear deal promising to rip it up. Indeed, Donald Trump, our new President-elect, described the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the JCPoA) as “one of the worst deals I’ve ever seen.” With Trump’s unexpected success in yesterday’s election, the future of the Iran deal—one of the major diplomatic successes of Barack Obama’s presidency—has become murky.

Over the last year, Trump’s campaign was impressively inconsistent on the question of the Iran deal. Various Trump surrogates—including Rudy Giuliani in his speech at the Republican National Convention—suggested that Trump would “rip up” the deal on day one in office. Trump himself strongly criticized the deal, promising in a speech to AIPAC in March that dismantling the deal would be his number one priority. Yet later statements focused instead on the idea that he would “fix” the deal, by going back to the negotiating table with Tehran, a line later adopted by many of his campaign advisors.

Unfortunately, though this might indicate that Trump’s stance was more rhetoric than reality, he is likely to face strong pressure from the GOP-dominated congress to upend the deal. The pressure is liable to come from inside his administration too: not only did Mike Pence, Trump’s VP pick, take a hard line on the Iran deal in debates, but several of Trump’s potential advisors have similarly argued that the deal should be destroyed. It’s hard to imagine an administration featuring Bob Corker, John Bolton or Michael Flynn taking a conciliatory approach to Iran on any issue.

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