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Does Trump have any clue what he’s doing in the Middle East?

Let’s hope someone in the Trump administration has a more sophisticated approach than bashing Iran, cozying up to Netanyahu and sending in Jared. We’re gonna need it.

People inspecting missile remains in the besieged town of Douma, in eastern Ghouta, on Friday.
REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

Let’s hope someone in the Trump administration has a more sophisticated approach to the Middle East than simply bashing Iran, cozying up to Benjamin Netanyahu and sending Jared Kushner in to negotiate the ultimate peace deal.

Recent events show just how badly we’re going to need it.

The Syrian government bombardment of rebel-held Eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus this week is a humanitarian catastrophe, even by standards of a seven-year civil war that has left half a million people dead. But it also helps illustrate how the conflict has evolved. The Islamic State has been largely defeated and President Bashar al-Assad’s government is seemingly secure. But instead of winding down, the fighting is becoming more difficult to contain. 

Iran, its ally Hezbollah, and Russia are now entrenched in Syria. Besides helping Assad extend his grip, they can pursue their own interests. Russian mercenaries are dying in Syria, most recently in an attack on a base where U.S. troops are stationed. Turkey feels free to attack U.S.-backed Kurdish militias. Meanwhile, Trump seems no clearer than President Obama was about what he wants — or how to achieve it.

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The BBC’s Sebastian Usher says of Syria in this comprehensive primer: “The increasing international commitment on its various battlefields runs the risk of shifting it from a war between proxies to one directly between the powers pulling the strings. And that is a highly dangerous development.”

Iran and Hezbollah can focus more attention on Israel. Iran sent a drone across the border earlier this month. Israel shot it down and attacked the launch site. When Syrian forces brought down an Israeli F-16, Israel responded with a massive bombardment. 

Mara Karlin, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says a new war between Hezbollah and Israel is now inevitable. When it happens, it will be bigger than their last conflict in 2006, she says. Neither side might want it now, but it’s only a question of when, where and how it starts. 

Hezbollah has suffered heavy losses supporting Assad in Syria, but it has gained valuable experience as a fighting force and built alliances with other militias it might be able to use against Israel.

There’s also another variable. While there’s no reason to doubt Israel is as resolute and militarily powerful as ever, it is suddenly faced with the prospect of long-term political uncertainty. Netanyahu, its prime minister, has been engulfed in multiple corruption scandals. Confidants are turning against him. And prominent commentators are openly declaring this to be the end of the line.

Netanyahu isn’t going down without a fight, and he might actually survive. Polls indicate many Israelis regard Netanyahu as corrupt. But if elections were held today, those same polls show his movement might actually gain seats in the Knesset. In a rough neighborhood with no obvious successor, Israelis could opt to stick with a leader they know.

In any case, Israeli politics will be dominated for the foreseeable future by questions of Netanyahu’s future. 

Perhaps in the age of “America First,” the U.S. no longer cares about the Middle East. But that’s not how Trump is acting. As opposed to his disdain for Obama, Netanyahu’s relationship with Trump could hardly be better. Trump rails against Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, which Netanyahu detests. He also recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — a move Israel has long sought — without extracting any concessions. 

The U.S. relationship with Israel will remain close, no matter who is prime minister. But something more is at work. While Trump took office saying he would pursue the “ultimate deal” between the Israelis and Palestinians, he has forfeited the traditional U.S. role as the indispensible broker in the Palestinian territories and beyond. Kushner apparently can’t even be trusted with a high-level security clearance.

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If you’re making policy in Israel, you expect U.S. support. You need Washington to pressure, buy off or punish potential foes. And you may not like it, but you need someone who will tell to you plainly when it’s time to back off. That last part appears to be missing in the current approach. 

As Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues here, Trump’s policy is mostly a crude iteration of U.S. policy before George W. Bush and Obama. That means fighting terrorism, supporting Israel and opposing Iran. 

Obama may have been too willing to believe in the possibility of democratic transformation in the Middle East. His approach to Syria was a mess, but he got a one thing right: the U.S. did not have much of a chance to shape an acceptable outcome. His policy toward Iran wouldn’t have kept it out of Syria, but it might have offered a line of communication.

This is a new, even more volatile Middle East. Even ace negotiators like James Baker would be struggling. The Trump administration so far is relying on the junior varsity, equipped with little more than bombast and a clutch of shopworn ideas.