A Failure of Strategic Thinking in the Middle East
A coherent strategy requires three basic elements: ends - or goals, ways - methods to accomplish them, and means - allocated resources sufficient to apply the specified means. Although current American Middle East strategy may contain all three, the substantial disparity between the stated ends and the means by which the U.S. is asserting national power has rendered whatever strategy there may be ineffective. In fact, the United States has increased strategic risk to a dangerous level, first though this imbalance between U.S. ends, ways, and means, and second through a complete misunderstanding of adversaries’ goals, and the actions taken by these adversaries to achieve those ends. Most notably, the U.S. has failed to appreciate this strategic risk in regards to the Syrian Civil War and the role of Iranian influence in the region.
As early as the Summer of 2011, and as recently as September of this year, President Obama has stated that the removal of Bashar Assad as president of Syria is an American goal and a required condition to bring resolution to the Syrian Civil War. In addition to calling for Assad’s ouster, President Obama said that the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons would be “a red line for us, and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front, or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations significantly.” After multiple reported chemical attacks against the Syrian people in 2013, the U.S. considered both kinetic and diplomatic options which were scoped down to focus exclusively on the Syrian chemical capability. Ultimately, Assad surrendered many of his declared chemical weapons through an international agreement brokered by Russia to avoid U.S. action in Syria. However, American tunnel vision on the chemical weapons seemed divorced from a larger context within the Syrian Civil War. If Assad’s endstate is to remain in power, and a way by which he will pursue that end is to conduct attacks against populations supportive of the Syrian Opposition, then this brokered surrender of chemical weapons merely removed one of many means from Assad’s range of options to achieve his endstate. In fact, Assad has continued this method of attacking populations aligned with the Opposition on a far greater scale using conventional explosives (and is some cases alleged to have continued chemical attacks with chlorine and mustard gas), all without answer from the United States. While the removal of WMD from a malign actor is an inherent good, in this case the U.S. must recognize that the removal of one capability from Assad has done nothing to either advance the American goal of his departure, nor to deny him the means to achieve his ends.
Where the U.S. has equivocated, Russia has taken a more direct role in the Syrian war in the form of increased military aid, air strikes, and advisers. Public statements by the President, Secretary of State, and Secretary of Defense about Russia’s involvement attempt to discredit Russian efforts as strategic folly or as actions that “aren’t helpful.” The latter claim begs the question, not helpful to whom? To the Assad regime, trying to hold on to power, and to the Iranians attempting to ensure their continued influence in the Levant through a Shia ally, these actions are incredibly helpful. Further, to Russian strategic interests – namely preserving and extending Russian influence in the Middle East and the Mediterranean – President Putin’s actions are neither unhelpful nor strategically flawed; rather, they represent the logical rebalancing of ways and means when realities change to threaten Russian ability to preserve their influence merely by providing aid to Assad. The President and Secretaries of State and Defense seem to suggest they expect Russia to take actions “helpful” to our goal of ending the Syrian war through Assad’s removal despite the fact that this runs counter to their own interests.
In addition to the Syrian conflict, U.S. efforts regarding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) represent a failure to understand and counter adversarial efforts to advance their ends across the region. While denying the Iranian regime access to nuclear weapons is an obvious American goal, it is yet to be determined whether this agreement and inspection regime will result in a permanently non-nuclear Iran, an Iran which breaks out and achieves a nuclear weapons threshold shortly after many of the provisions of the JCPOA expire in 10-15 years, or whether the agreement will fail in total based on Iranian behavior (recent Iranian intransigence, even during the current “honeymoon period,” does not necessarily bode well). What is missing from the discussion is why Iran created a nuclear weapons program in the first place and if the ends they were pursuing through nuclear arms are still being pursued.
Much of the discussion of the Iranian program has focused on two “nightmare scenarios” in which Iran would conduct a nuclear strike against the state of Israel or in which they provide nuclear material to terrorist allies. While both of these possibilities are of obvious concern, they represent what could be referred to as examples of a most dangerous course of action. What seems more likely, what would represent a most likely course of action, is that Iran would use their nuclear weapons the way current existing nuclear powers use them – as a preventative guarantee against conventional attack by adversary states. This is of particular interest to a regime that would enjoy a freer hand to conduct expanded activities throughout the Middle East - often to disrupt U.S. allies – without fear of military retaliation from the Saudis, GCC states, Israel, or the U.S. In this light, if the acquisition of nuclear weapons is a means to support the Iranian strategic end of increasing influence and expanding hegemony into the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula, did the JCPOA assist U.S. goals of regional stability or Iranian goals? It seems likely that Iran will continue the disruptive efforts it pursued in a resource-constrained environment now that they have received an influx of cash. Additionally, it seems some of the Iranian money that will be unfrozen as part of the JCPOA will go to purchase integrated air defense systems, including the advanced Russian S-300. In other words, Iran may still accomplish some of their ability to prevent attacks from Israel and Saudi Arabia in response to Iranian operations throughout the region.
It is worth noting that the U.S. has at times viewed Russia as a partner - in terms of dealing with Assad, negotiating the surrender of many of his chemical weapons, and as a member of the P5+1 which negotiated the terms of the JCPOA - to achieve stability in the region and, thus, advance American interests at a time when Russia’s interests nested far more closely with those of Iran and Syria, and when Russia appears to be one of the direct beneficiaries of the JCPOA (through military sales to Iran). This assumption that Russia is anything other than an adversary actor in the region seems deeply flawed.
There is a two-fold danger in not getting this strategy right, and getting it right sooner rather than later. Most obviously, there is the inherent danger in adversary actors continuing progress towards their strategic goals- endstates that run counter to U.S. interests. Much has been written about whether Russian and Iranian adventurism will turn out to be a good move for them. Only time will tell. However, what is known is that these operations, whether or not they achieve Russian or Iranian objectives, absolutely interfere with the progress of U.S. goals, whether that is Assad’s removal in specific or stability across the Middle East in general.
The second danger is that friendly actors, who have long counted on U.S. leadership in terms of regional security, will see this disconnect between American endstates and the application of American power and begin to change their calculus. The goals of many of these actors are often similar, but not necessarily identical to American interests. Saudi and Gulf State operations in Yemen, and Gulf State and Turkish support to Syrian Opposition groups with extremist ties are examples of regional friendly actors becoming doubtful of U.S. leadership. Instead, aligning their own ways and means to achieve security interests they no longer feel the U.S. will protect, further complicating the Gordian Knot that is Middle Eastern geopolitics. Continued eroded trust in U.S. resolve could easily lead to greater regional uncertainty and a willingness to resort to kinetic activities by allies (those listed above as well as Israel) who feel they are on their own to push back against growing Iranian influence.
If the United States has any hope of regaining control of its Middle East strategy, there must be an honest reassessment about what American endstates are, the endstates of adversaries, and what ways and means America is willing to commit to achieve U.S. goals. The current plan, with valid but ambitious endstates – and incredibly limited methods and resources to accomplish them – will merely continue or exacerbate the current circumstances in which America is at the mercy of events and actions by adversary actors. Without this correction, the United States may spend years trying to recover from the effects of a failed strategy.