Turkey’s efforts to cultivate regional influence have had mixed success. Its hopes of swaying power in Egypt, Libya, and Syria, were dashed early on, but President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Ottoman ambitions remain strong. Whereas America’s Arab allies have largely shunned direct military involvement in Iraq and Syria, Turkey has sought a greater role in operations to push ISIS out of its strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa. Its primary focus is to contain Kurdish nationalism, but it also sees itself as protector of Sunni interests in Iraq and Syria.
Iran is an even more important factor in the region’s future. It has long sown regional instability, while also doing much of the fighting against ISIS, emerging as the sole regional power wielding influence in Baghdad, Damascus, and Sanaa. It is in Washington’s best interests that Iran use that influence constructively.
Throughout the campaign, Trump depicted America’s military adventures in the Middle East as wasteful fool’s errands. Yet he also vowed to defeat ISIS, which implies that unless he reverses course and embraces costly interventions, he’ll have to work with Arab allies, Turkey, and Iran. Similarly, any tenuous peace to be achieved in the region will require regional actors’ support for, and enforcement of, political settlements in Iraq and Syria, given the role of their respective clients in the conflict.
Russia is already following this strategy, engaging both Iran and Turkey in planning for the endgame in Syria. If the United States cooperated closely with Putin over Syria, it would have to join his framework. It would be better if the United States, rather than Russia, were the architect of such a framework. The United States could extend it to include Iraq as well, but also gain the support of the Arab world. In so doing, it could limit Russia’s ability to maneuver in the region, and leverage those gains in Europe. Yet from the perspective of America’s own objectives, it would be better if the United States, rather than Russia, outlined and worked toward its own vision of a settlement—one that included Iraq as well, and could garner broader support in the Arab world. Doing so could limit Russia’s ability to maneuver in the region.
Turkey is a NATO ally Washington can work with. But relations between Ankara and Washington have been frayed. Trump would have to repair the damage. Turkey’s domestic politics will be a point of contention, but greater investment in diplomacy and trust-building could facilitate an agreement over the future status of Syria’s Kurdish region, paving the way for closer collaboration in launching operations against ISIS. That would be the basis for a broader agreement over the final status of Syria.
Iran is unlikely to emerge as a working partner for the United States any time soon. Still, the two nations have reduced tensions through the nuclear deal, which has served as the basis for tacit cooperation in rolling back ISIS in Iraq. Scrapping the deal will not help build on those gains in the pursuit of regional stability. Rather, it would further destabilize the Middle East. U.S. gains in Iraq could unravel, the Syria war would continue to fester, and the specter of greater instability would spread everywhere that Iran has influence, from Afghanistan, to Yemen, to Lebanon. Washington would be faced with fighting Iranian influence, while contending with Sunni extremism without Iran’s help.