Grappling with unstable, unruly, and reprobate Middle Eastern nations, and by extension North African ones, has constantly been and will continue to be a major challenge for Trump's administration. Attempts by Iran and Saudi Arabia to expand their regional influences by interfering in the internal affairs and ethno-sectarian tensions of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen have worsened instability in Middle East.
Now Riyadh and Tehran have been drawn into the region’s bloody civil wars—directly with Iranian forces in Syria and Iraq and with Saudi troops in Bahrain and Yemen to bolster client regimes, or through surrogates such as Sunni rebels in Syria and Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza.
What should be Trump's strategy?
These are just some of the problems that Trump's administration must confront. Trump must try to end civil wars and tamp down interstate rivalries. Attention must simultaneously be focused on other challenges arising from faltering economies, increasing terrorism, rising numbers of displaced persons, development of weapons of mass destruction, and leaders willing to trigger regional confrontations as a way of distracting their citizenry from domestic woes.
Of course all the other problems confronting Trump's administration will pale in comparison with terrorism—a constant concern in the West and a constant reality in the Middle East.
Since 1979, Sunni Islamists, including Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, offshoots, and rivals such as the Taliban, Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Shabaab, Islamic State (IS, also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS and as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or ISIL), and its own affiliates such as Ansar al-Shari’a, Boko Haram, and others, have carried out approximately 1,279 terror attacks, 428 suicide bombings, and thirty-four mass murders of at least one hundred victims.
Their plots have been uncovered on every continent except Antarctica. At least seven attacks have occurred within the United States since 9/11. The European Union (EU) has witnessed carnage in Madrid, London, Paris, and Brussels. These groups have been central players in wars and civil wars within Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Chechnya among other places—causing thousands of casualties, millions of displacements, and billions of dollars in losses and expenses.
The Islamic State now holds significant territory in Syria and Iraq, and has operatives, strongholds, and support networks in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, South and Southeast Asia, and southeast Europe. Although not making such territorial claims, Al-Qaeda is represented in Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia plus further east in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.
IS, Al-Qaeda, and others expand their reach in ways quite similar to one another, typically by flooding the Internet with perverted calls to duty and service and by dispatching charismatic representatives to set up regional command posts and to identify and recruit local insurrectionists. They establish sources of local revenue to supplement now-diminishing external sources to fund their operations. IS’s smuggling in Syria and Iraq includes oil, natural gas, human organs, and antiquities. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda are active in narcotics and human trafficking. Boko Haram generates revenue through systematic kidnapping and ransoms.
A coalition of thirty-four Muslim nations was established in December 2015 to combat these Sunni terrorist organizations. But its power players—Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf Emirates, Turkey, and Egypt—are busy quashing Muslims like the Houthis who do not follow Sunnism, thwarting separatists like the Kurds, and subduing internal dissidents ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to democracy activists instead of focusing fully on the real threat.
Although the ideas may come from extreme interpretations of Islam, especially those of the Wahhabi sect in Saudi Arabia, terrorism feeds on despondency, alienation, sectarianism, and subsequent conflicts that arise from governance inadequacies and economic disparities. Trump must find a way to persuade Middle Eastern leaders—allies and foes alike—to mitigate those root causes of religio-political violence.
Regional Sunni versus Shiite power-plays between Saudi Arabia and Iran also fuel terrorism and impede effective counterterrorism. Trump must exert his administration’s diplomatic energies to persuade Middle East rivals to resist the temptation to inflame sectarian tensions in the pursuit of their religio-political goals because it is ultimately detrimental to themselves, the region, and the global community.
Trump will also have to convince them and others in that region to work actively with the West in snuffing terrorism’s ideology and resources. The president must also endeavor through diplomacy and sanctions to moderate the fundamentalist tendencies not only of the Sunni elites in Saudi Arabia but also the Shiite clerics in Iran.
Trump's strategy should seek victory not mere containment. To succeed in the long term, the overall strategy will have to be holistic because the Islamist terror phenomenon shares common funding sources, extremist religious views, ideologues, fighters, and financiers. Ending Sunni terrorism requires eliminating not only established groups but nascent ones too. It will also involve convincing Sunni and Shiite regimes to scale back state support for the majority faith and to grant greater freedom of worship and tolerance to non-Muslims.
In meeting all these challenges, Trump must acknowledge that the Middle East’s problems have dire implications for the United States and the rest of the world. It is no secret that solving them is a long-term endeavor. U.S. policy toward the Middle East should be comprehensive and proactive. It must be forward-looking, forward planning, and multidimensional.
The United States will need to provide reassurance and resources where and when needed, while taking effective actions against troublemakers. To gain legitimacy in the region, U.S. policy must address not just American and European concerns but those of Middle Easterners too. And, above all, the United States must remain constantly engaged in the region.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
International Affairs Expert