As the United States prepares for a new administration, The Cipher Brief‘s Leone Lakhani sits down with Ambassador Dennis Ross, Counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former senior Middle East Adviser to three U.S. Presidents.
Ross gave The Cipher Brief his thoughts about the next steps in Syria after the Russian-brokered ceasefire deal in Aleppo, President Barack Obama’s legacy in the Middle East, and the challenges facing the next administration.
The Cipher Brief: What advice would you give the new administration regarding Syria and how to deal with Russia?
Dennis Ross: The advice I would give the new administration is to say [to Russia], “Let’s embrace the principles of the Security Council resolution that we both supported and voted for – 2254 – which calls for an opening of unrestricted humanitarian corridors and called for a transition process of 18 months.”
If you want a political outcome in Syria, you’re going to have to, somehow, create a stake for the opposition in a political process. The only way they’re going to have that stake is if they know at some point Assad’s going to leave. But up until now, regardless of what the Russians have said, Moscow has backed Assad to the hilt. The question is if the Russians themselves want to find a way out of Syria and not face a continuing insurgency.
TCB: If there is a peace, what would a new Syria look like?
DR: [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is quite happy with a partition. Under what circumstances could you forge coherence among 160 different militias, and what would be the ground rules?
Right now it’s hard to know what can work, because the price is so high, and the level of anger in the aftermath of a depopulation of Aleppo will be so great that whether a partition would work, maybe some kind of real decentralized, regime that emerges over time without Assad, is the only way you could produce something.
But the idea that you can actually put Syria completely back together, it seems to me, is a little bit like Humpty Dumpty.
TCB: How do you think Washington’s historic allies in the Middle East see the incoming Trump presidency?
DR: Right now, they don’t know. They were uneasy about President Obama because they felt that – at least our traditional partners in the region – he saw Iran as part of the solution, rather than a source of problems. So, that created unease.
There’s a hope that things will be different with President Trump. Obviously, there’s no certainty at this point. The appointment of [Retired Marine Corps General James] Mattis was probably a source of reassurance to many of them, because many of them know him. Mattis understood, at least from their standpoint, the nature of threat that Iran represented.
But, they’ll have to see what the whole security lineup is going to be. Just as Mattis is a source of some reassurance, every time candidate Trump would talk about partnering with the Russians, there’s a concern about that; the Russians in Syria are abetting the power of Iran.
There is a larger balance of power struggle going on within the region that puts Iran and its use of Shia militias largely against Sunni-led or Sunni-dominated countries and governments. So, to the extent to which Russia seems to be playing an active role in terms of supporting the advancement of Iranian power in the region, that’s a source of great concern.
TCB: Beyond Syria, do you think the Middle East’s players are that concerned about Russia?
DR: There is concern about Russia but there’s also an impulse in the region to adjust to those who exercise power. Unfortunately, power remains the fundamental currency of shaping realities in the Middle East. The Russians, despite being a country without great resources, and even without enormous military wherewithal, with a relatively small application of force, affected the balance of power on the ground in Syria.
The actual military capability the Russians have is dwarfed by what [the U.S. has] in the area. The difference is they’ve been prepared to use it to affect the actual balance of power on the ground in Syria, and to preserve the Assad regime. So, there’s a perception that that Russia is willing to use force to achieve its political ends and a perception that United States is not. So many in the region are drawing the conclusion that they ought to find a way to take the Russians into account in the pursuit of their own interests.
TCB: The Iran nuclear deal was a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. President-elect Donald Trump, however, has been harshly critical of it. Congress recently extended the Iran Sanctions Act by ten years. Is that largely symbolic or does it give the Trump administration new tools to use against the deal?
DR: No, it doesn’t give him new tools. It maintains the tools that existed before. The Trump administration would be wise to focus on those areas where Iran is behaving in a way that justifies us increasing pressure on them. For example, the ballistic missile test. The security council resolution 2241, which replaced the preceding ones on Iran, literally called on the Iranians not to carry out missile tests. They’ve done it anyway. So here’s a place where you could focus increasing pressure. They’re also destabilizing the region in the way they use Shia militias to subvert different Arab regimes.
The administration shouldn’t walk away from the agreement because then it makes itself the issue – not Iran’s bad behavior. This wasn’t a bilateral understanding; this was a multi-lateral understanding. The Russians, Chinese, British, French and Germans have made it clear they’re not going to walk away from it. So if we walk away from it, it makes it look like we’re the ones who are the odd ones out. We should make Iran’s behavior the issue, not us.
TCB: Earlier this month, President Obama laid out his legacy on counterterrorism, saying the U.S. has made huge strides in the fight against ISIS and Al-Qaeda. But some argue that affiliates of each group have spread around the world. What’s your view?
DR: I think he certainly made strides in some areas of counterterrorism. I think the greatest weakness of the Obama legacy has much more to do with Syria than anything else. That obviously was a contributor to ISIS emerging.
If you evaluate him on a narrow counterterrorism approach, I think the marks that he gets are quite high. If you evaluate him on the approach to Syria and its contribution to the emergence of a group like ISIS, obviously the marks are not as good.
TCB: Critics of the Obama administration say a continued U.S. troop presence in Iraq could have stopped the spread of ISIS. President Obama says that wasn’t an option. He says the Iraqis wanted the U.S. military presence to end. Do you agree?
DR: I think he’s right on that. There’s a lot of historical revisionism. He was prepared to accept a continued American presence – it wasn’t as large as the original proposals from the [Joint Chiefs of Staff], but it was still a meaningful military presence.
The fact is, people tend to forget during the time of the Arab Spring there was nobody within Iraq who wanted to look as if they were inviting a continuation of American military occupation. That’s the way the continuing presence was being portrayed. They weren’t prepared to do what we required, which was to provide legal protection for military members that were there. So this is not a failure that you can fairly attribute to the President.
TCB: In Iraq, what mistakes do you think were made on a diplomatic level?
DR: The biggest failings on the diplomatic level had more to do with the management of how we dealt with [Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri] Al-Maliki, what the choices were, whether we did the right thing in the aftermath of the Iraqi election.
That’s where legitimate questions could be raised. Maliki is the one who is more responsible than anybody else for a deepening of sectarianism, and creating the conditions that produced ISIS in the first place.
TCB: How does Washington help to rectify that now going forward?
DR: I think the challenge now is once Mosul is liberated, what’s the aftermath? Is there going to be reconstruction? Is there going to be Sunni governance? Is there going to be exclusion of Sunnis? What’s the role of the Shia militia? Even though they’re not playing a central role in the city itself right now, they’re all around it. They’re pressing for legislation to finance and give legal recognition to the popular militias.
The more Sunnis feel alienated and excluded, the more they feel a continuing oppression and denial of their rights. The more they don’t seem to play any role in governance, the more you’re going to re-create the very circumstances that helped to produce ISIS in the first place.
TCB: Is there a way to classify, in a few words, President Obama’s legacy in the Middle East?
DR: It’s probably not the legacy that he wanted. When he came in, his main priority for the region was Israeli-Palestinian peace. Obviously, the administration leaves with that as far away as it’s ever been.
There is a multiplicity of conflicts – you have Syria, you have Iraq, you have Yemen, and still have Libya. This is obviously not the way he would have preferred to leave the region.
Now you can ask the question: “Could anybody have shaped things differently, ultimately?” There’s always been a tendency to want to hold us responsible for what goes on in the region. The problem with that is, it relieves the parties themselves of their responsibility. Ultimately, it’s their responsibility. The need for change in the region is not something that can be done from the outside. It needs to come from within.
TCB: What advice would you give the new administration about the mistakes that were made in the past eight years, and how to address them?
DR: You can’t look at every issue in the Middle East through the prism of Iraq. Understand the key lesson here is: there are costs of action, but there are also cost of inaction. For the Obama administration, the cost of action always trumped the cost of inaction. I think the next administration needs to weigh things from the standpoint of recognizing cost of action and not looking to do things that don’t make sense. But that isn’t an argument for sitting aside and allowing vacuums to occur.
We can’t presume that there won’t be any American intervention. We can’t have a presumption that you can never have boots on the ground. It may be small numbers of boots on the ground to help ensure you don’t face major calamities. Make judgments on a case by case basis. And don’t think that one size fits all.
For more on Ambassador Dennis Ross’s views on the Obama administration’s legacy in the Middle East, you can listen to his special 15 Minutes podcast with The Cipher Brief here.