As Donald Trump inherits from Barack Obama a groaning in-tray of foreign policy problems, one area where he can achieve rapid results if he follows his instincts is the Middle East.
The combined legacy of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations is that US Middle East policy is a total mess.
Iraq and Libya have been destroyed. ISIS and Al-Qaeda are rampant. Syria is convulsed in war.
In the midst of this chaos US policy makes absolutely no sense. The reason this is so is because it has been driven by a single minded indeed almost maniacal obsession with achieving regime change in Syria.
Every diplomatic initiative to end the Syrian war has foundered on the rock of this obsession, as the US has insisted on Syrian President Assad’s removal as a condition for any settlement.
The result has been to prolong and intensify the war as President Assad’s regional enemies – first and foremost Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but also Turkey and Israel – have used this US insistence on his removal as cover to step up their own efforts to remove him.
Since within Syria President Assad has the loyal support of the army and bureaucracy and – as confirmed by every independent opinion poll and survey – of the majority of Syria’s people, what this has meant is more and more war.
Not only has this been a total disaster for Syria and its people, but it is sowing the dragon’s teeth, as violent extremist and fanatical Jihadi groups – first and foremost Al-Qaeda and ISIS – have been drawn to Syria like a magnet, becoming a hugely powerful force there, and threatening to make it a base for the export of Jihadi terrorism elsewhere.
What has however compounded the disaster to the point of total catastrophe is that instead of drawing back and revising its strategy in light of this, the US has instead doubled down, and joined with President Assad’s regional enemies in their effort to bring him down.
This has created the disastrous situation where the US purports to be fighting Al-Qaeda and ISIS in Iraq and Afghanistan, but is in de facto alliance with them in Syria.
All this this whilst the US continues to blame Al-Qaeda rightly for the 9/11 terrorist attacks – still the greatest single armed attack conducted by foreigners on the territory of the continental United States since the War of 1812.
Worse still, the obsession with regime change in Syria has brought the US into confrontation with Russia. Where the Russians have repeatedly sought to work with the US to combat Jihadi terrorism in Syria and elsewhere, the US has not only spurned their offers, but in October it even found itself in a potentially cataclysmic military stand-off with them, in which it eventually had to back down.
Far from learning lessons from this disaster Hillary Clinton sought to double down.
Whereas the situation urgently calls for a re-think and cooperation with Russia – as a senior retired British military officer has recently pointed out – all the talk coming from Hillary Clinton and her aides was instead of “safe zones” and “no fly zones” and more support for those she calls the “moderate rebels” (actually Jihadis affiliated to Al-Qaeda and ISIS) and of more confrontation with Syria and Russia.
Donald Trump by contrast has at least shown some understanding of the folly of this policy. He has floated the possibility of working with the Russians to fight Al-Qaeda and ISIS, and has expressed skepticism about the maniacal obsession with removing President Assad.
What President Trump now needs to do – and do urgently – is pick up where US Secretary of State Kerry left off in September, and seal the deal with the Russians that is on the table to end the Syrian war so that the US and Russia can come together and fight Al-Qaeda and ISIS together.
That means accepting that President Assad is here to stay, and that it is for the Syrian people – and no-one else – to decide whether or not he remains their leader or goes, in properly supervised elections conducted after the Syrians have themselves come to agreement about a new constitution through a genuine and open negotiation process.
Obviously that will mean facing down the neocon hardliners who currently infest the State Department, the Pentagon, the CIA, and in assorted think-tanks and NGOs, and whose voice has become so powerful in the Western media.
However President Trump has a compelling case to make. President Assad is not a ‘clear and present danger’ to the US. Al-Qaeda and ISIS by contrast are. The American people in the election have shown they understand this, and that they do not share the geopolitical fantasies that hold so much of the US elite in their grip. If President Trump follows this line, he will have the American people behind him.
Trump’s instincts on this issue are sound and right, and they make complete political sense. If the US and Russia do genuinely combine and work together against Jihadi terrorism in Iraq and Syria, then given their enormous power they are bound to prevail, and moreover to do so quickly.
Provided President Trump follows his instincts and does not succumb to the the threats and blandishments of the neocon hardliners – which are bound to come – he will have got his Presidency off to a strong start. It is up to him now to seize the chance.