What will President-elect Donald Trump’s administration face in the Middle East? U.S. Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross doesn’t have a crystal ball, but he has had decades of experience as a diplomat in the region.
Here are six points gleaned from his talk on Sunday at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia. Ross’ talk was co-sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.
Trump will have a (somewhat) clean slate.
“[Foreign countries] will give a new [American] president the benefit of the doubt,” said Ross, who is the William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “America is too important not to.”
Yet, it will not be simple.
“What he’s going to face in the Middle East is more complicated than what any of his predecessors have faced,” said Ross, whose book “Doomed to Succeed” details the United States’ relationship with Israel from the administration of Harry Truman to that of Barack Obama.
He continued by detailing the devastating civil war in Syria between President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and diverse opposition forces.
“It is not, as [Russian President Vladimir] Putin would like us to believe, a war between Assad and ISIS. There are 160 militias in the opposition, not including ISIS,” he emphasized.
Trump must save Egypt.
Ross said Egypt is about to receive the first installment of a $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. This comes at a time when Egyptians are facing a shortage of sugar and rice. The Trump administration must help Egypt manage its economy or risk it becoming a failed state.
“If you think the outflow [of refugees] from Syria [which had a population of 23 million] was a problem, imagine what would be the case if you saw Egypt [which has a population of 93 million] become a failing state,” he said.
If this was all, it would be dayenu, Ross added, using the Hebrew word meaning “enough for us.” But it’s not; he didn’t even start to discuss Libya.
The Iran deal is here to stay.
Despite Trump’s condemnation of the Iran nuclear deal, Ross said it would be difficult for the United States to walk away from the agreement entirely.
“If it was a bilateral deal, you could walk away from it. [But] it’s a multilateral deal,” he said.
Ross also criticized the Obama administration for being too hesitant to appear provocative, afraid Iran may back out. He said Iran will keep to the agreement because “it wants the sanctions lifted.”
He said that Iran has been complaining about not receiving as much international investment as it was promised, and the Obama administration has been defensive on the issue. Ross said Secretary of State John Kerry urged European banks to invest in Iran.
But Ross said the new administration does not need to be defensive, as the lack of investment is due to Iran failing to meet international standards in banking.
But the Iranians are unlikely to walk away from the deal.
“The deal said for eight years the sanctions regime is suspended — not terminated,” he said. “If they walk away from the deal, they run the risk that we can snap back the whole sanctions regime.”
Ross asserted that, despite the high-stakes situation in the Middle East, Trump’s administration does have advantageous cards to play.
“There is unprecedented cooperation today in real, practical, tangible terms between Israel and all the Sunni Arab states,” he said.
He added that most of cooperation is “below the radar screen,” because the Arab states are hesitant to be forthcoming about their dealings, given the lack of progress on Palestinian self-determination.
“States in the Arabian Peninsula look at Israel as a bulwark against Iran,” Ross said. “It didn’t take place because of the Obama administration. In a lot of ways, it took place in spite of the Obama administration.”
This cooperation is “a tremendous asset to the United States in terms of helping with containment of the Iranians, but also on the Palestinian issue,” Ross said.
Saudi Arabia is undergoing a stealth revolution.
“There is a transformation taking place in Saudi Arabia,” Ross said. “That transformation is unlike any we’ve seen before.”
On a recent visit to Saudi Arabia, one leader said to him: “Welcome to our revolution disguised as economic reform.”
That revolution includes revoking the power of the religious police, which was notorious for enforcing the strict Wahabi Islam that is the national religion.
Saudi Arabia is also diversifying its economy. It created an initial public offering on its largest oil company, which will force it to maintain transparency and accountability.
“We’ve never had a successful model of development or modernization in the Arab world,” Ross said. “The absence of that modernization is why we’ve seen such instability over time and why there’s so much competition and conflict in the region.”