Dennis Ross doesn’t know what President-elect Donald Trump will do in the Middle East or who will lead his policy efforts there, but he knows Trump will have to deal with the region from the start of his administration.
Ross, who has filled foreign relations roles in five U.S. administrations but said he has not been contacted by the Trump transition team, said every president since Harry Truman has faced at least one conflict and one crisis in the Middle East, and “this president-elect will face a Middle East more challenging than any of them.”
The ambassador spoke Thursday night, Nov. 10, at the East Cobb home of Aviva and Eyal Postelnik during the annual Atlanta donor event for the Birthright Israel Foundation.
He pointed to four immediate concerns for the next president, none of them involving Israel or the Palestinians:
- Syria, where Ross said Trump was wrong to say the United States should support the alliance of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Russia and Iran against Islamic State. Perhaps 10 percent of Russian airstrikes are hitting Islamic State, but the goal of Russian leader Vladimir Putin is to destroy the 160 non-Islamic State militias and turn Syria into a choice between Assad and the terrorist organization.
“That’s not going to happen,” Ross said, adding that the United States and its allies should destroy Assad’s airfields if he keeps using barrel bombs and should prepare to give the opposition forces more firepower if Russia doesn’t rein in Assad.
- Iran, which is using Shia militias across the Middle East to undermine the structure of Arab states and is a bigger threat than Islamic State to the United States. Wherever those militias have joined the fight against Islamic State in Iraq, Ross said, all the young Sunni males have disappeared.
Trump must enter office with an understanding of and plan for Mosul, which will likely be liberated from Islamic State by Jan. 20. Otherwise, Ross said, Iran and its Shia militias will re-create the conditions that led to the rise of the Sunni Islamic State.
- Yemen, which is a humanitarian disaster on a smaller scale than Syria. It’s a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Ross said.
- Egypt, which is in economic chaos and has a shortage of rice and sugar. The International Monetary Fund is preparing an interim $12 billion loan, but that’s just a drop in the bucket. Ross said the United States must form an economic coalition to support Egypt, which has a population of 93 million.
“If you think that a failed state in Syria, a civil war in Syria, where the total population was 23 million, created this tremendous fallout, imagine what would happen if Egypt became a failed state,” Ross said. “The next president has to understand that.”
Ross did offer two underreported developments that offer opportunities for progress.
One is the transformation of Saudi Arabia. Ross said a high-ranking Saudi official told a recent delegation, “Welcome to our revolution disguised as economic reform.”
The changes are affecting the economy, including a planned public sale of 5 percent of the stock in the national oil company, and culture, with the power of the religious police reduced while the Saudis bring in dance groups, rock bands and Six Flags for the enjoyment of coed crowds.
The Saudi plan to modernize and liberalize is important not only for that nation, but for the rest of the Middle East, Ross said. “There’s never been a successful model of development or modernization in the Arab world.”
The second development is the under-the-radar security and intelligence cooperation between Israel and most of the Sunni Arab states. Even though the United States had nothing to do with it, that cooperation could be a U.S. asset against Iran and on the Palestinian issue, Ross said.
A two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians isn’t possible now because of the weakness of the Palestinians, he said, but changes can be made to make a resolution possible. The Sunni cooperation with Israel provides cover for the Palestinians and a carrot for Israel — as long as the United States doesn’t build expectations with publicity.
“In the Middle East, never create a binary choice where if I can’t solve it, I don’t do anything. … You should never limit your choices to only two,” Ross said. “We should be focused on how we can change the realities on the ground. We should be focused on how we can restore a sense of possibility. The greatest threat to a two-state outcome is that the Israelis and the Palestinians today, neither think it’s going to happen.”
Israeli Consul General Judith Varnai Shorer asked whether the Arab nations could serve as mediators to accelerate an Israeli-Palestinian solution, but Ross said it won’t work because the Sunni nations are worried about Iran and Islamic State and aren’t paying attention to the Palestinians.