Outsiders alone won’t be able to fix the multiple messes in the Middle East.
by Abraham D. Sofaer
The Middle East is a mess. The obvious, multiple catastrophes make any remedy seem hopelessly inadequate. What, after all, is the future of Syria? Can anything be done to establish effective government in Iraq? Will Yemen be destroyed, and to what end? When will the Sunni and Shia end their 1,200-year war? How long before Lebanon is once again victimized by an officially empowered terrorist group? What will happen in Afghanistan when the U.S. withdraws? How many more wars and intifadas must rejectionist countries launch and lose before joining Egypt and Jordan in accepting a Jewish state?
These obvious realities are accompanied by equally demoralizing underlying data. Since 2000, virtually every state in the Middle East has lost ground on the principal measures of government performance. According to World Bank indicators, stability has declined precipitously for all but two states, Afghanistan and Israel; the rule of law has held less sway in all but six states (Afghanistan, Bahrain, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen—which is now a disaster zone for other reasons). Corruption has increased virtually everywhere from already high levels. Israel and to a lesser extent Jordan are exceptions; a few states are doing well on individual issues (Tunisia on political rights but with a growing terror threat), and some, like Saudi Arabia, are relatively rich. Five percent of the world’s population suffer roughly 50 percent of all terrorist acts and 70 percent of its war deaths.
What this means, above all, is that it will take much more than “destroying” ISIS to have a significant effect on the condition and overall trends in the region. It will take much more, in fact, than any of the ideas typically proposed as U.S. policy objectives. Even the best ideas will be difficult to implement and will have limited effects. The most meaningful changes will depend not on U.S. or other international intervention but on local initiative and revolutionary cultural change.
President Donald Trump is committed to destroying ISIS. What he means is that the U.S. will step up its involvement (and ally with Russia, Iran or anyone else) in defeating the ISIS forces that hold territory in Iraq and Syria. This is an essential objective. President Barack Obama’s defense secretary Ashton Carter had the process underway by the time he left office, and his successor, Gen. James Mattis, will carry it forward effectively. But no major change in strategy is involved. The U.S. will use increased air power but restrict the number of U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq and limit them to supporting roles; in Syria, the U.S. will have no troops on the ground. In both states, the fighting against ISIS will largely be done by Shia forces (including the Iraqi Army) and Kurds.
Driving ISIS out of the territory it controls will reduce the suffering and disruption it causes and will undermine its capacity and influence. That outcome is a lot better than allowing ISIS to become a Sunni version of Hezbollah or Hamas or of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard—all terrorist organizations that control territory. But ISIS without territory will still remain as dangerous as such groups as the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda, and its ideology will still draw followers.
More fundamentally, driving ISIS out of power will expose the conflicts among those forces having little or nothing in common beyond a desire to destroy it. In Syria alone, Russia, Iran, Turkey, the Kurds, some 1,000 rebel gangs and even Al Qaeda will compete with President Bashar al-Assad for territory and influence. In Iraq, the government will be faced with the demands of Shiite militias, Sunni patriots, Kurds, Turkmens and Turkey itself, among others. And removing ISIS from power in those states will do little to solve the crises and festering problems in Yemen, Libya, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Egypt or generally between Shiites and Sunni.
Numerous “solutions” for the Middle East mess have been advanced. But none would have more than limited effects:
• Peace proposals for Syria are nothing more than pleas to stop a war that Assad needs to win and is finally winning, and it is probably too late for a no-fly zone given Russia’s presence.
• Supporting a Kurdish state might help undermine the theocracy in Iran, but it would cause Turkey to go to war and is unnecessary in Iraq, where Kurdish autonomy already exists.
• Repudiating the Iran nuclear deal makes no sense, since Iran has already received its benefits, though sanctions and tough responses to reckless actions by the Revolutionary Guard would help.
• Supporting the Sunnis against Iran will prevent the fall of Yemen to Iranian allies and send a warning on Bahrain; but this effort has created a growing humanitarian disaster.
• Efforts to create democracies have ended, but supporting strongman rule is no substitute for responsible government.
• Making peace between Israel and a Palestinian state would be welcome but would have no bearing whatever on any major Middle East problem.
So what can be done to improve prospects in the Middle East? Plenty—but not by the U.S. or any outside force. Increased religious tolerance among Muslims and between Muslims and non-Muslims is an essential step, but one only Muslims can take. Giving women equal rights would literally double economic well-being. But here again, each state crippled by this ancient discrimination would have to revise its laws.
Can the U.S. help at all? A resolute attack on Islamic fundamentalist violence could be part of a process that delegitimizes extremism. But President Trump should not be under any illusion that outsiders will be able to provide real solutions.
Abraham D. Sofaer is the George P. Shultz Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He was legal adviser to the U.S . State Department from 1985 to 1990.