In an interview with the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Walid Phares, who served as Donald Trump's Middle Eastern affairs advisor during his election campaign and is considered close to President Trump although he has no official role, outlined the new administration's Middle East policy. Calling U.S.-Saudi relations a "partnership" that would be the "cornerstone" of the fight against terrorism and against Iranian expansionism in the region, he stressed that the Trump administration was very concerned with Iranian efforts to establish a presence in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, and would act to thwart them. He added that the U.S. would aim to reach a political solution in Syria that would include the elimination of ISIS, the withdrawal of all foreign troops, both Sunni and Shi'ite, from the country, and the establishment of an entity in eastern Syria to be controlled by "moderate Sunni Arab forces," possibly with the military assistance of the Gulf states.
He also spoke of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, stating that it was President Trump's personal and strategic interest to bring about a just resolution to it.
Following are excerpts from the interview:
Walid Phares (image: Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, London)
On Saudi Arabia: This Is The Dawn Of A Strategic U.S.-Saudi Partnership
Phares said that the March 14 meeting between President Trump and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Emir Muhammad bin Salman was excellent and reflected a turning point in bilateral relations. Under the Trump administration, he said, the U.S. "will renew the partnership with the kingdom on all levels – economic, security, policy, and defense. Saudi Arabia has presented the Trump administration with a plan for a strategic partnership in the region, not with it alone but also with other moderate [Arab] countries. This partnership will be the cornerstone of the struggle against the terrorism of ISIS and its allies, and against the spread of Iranian influence... This partnership began in earnest with this summit [i.e. the meeting]. As for its implementation – we will establish joint teams for the two countries' foreign and defense ministries, and there will be naturally additional joint teams. This partnership will take effect within a short period of time. I believe that there will be coordination first and foremost on the security level. The U.S. requires an Arab and Gulf role in the struggle against ISIS, and on the political level, in solving the Syrian and Iraqi crises. The Gulf needs the U.S. in areas where there is Iranian intervention, particularly Yemen and its environs, including the Red Sea and the Gulf region."
On Iran: The U.S. Is Highly Concerned With The Spread Of Iranian Missile Systems To Other Arab Countries
Phares noted that in light of the strengthening ties between the U.S. and the Gulf states, Iran and its allies are attempting to create facts on the ground before the Trump administration begins operating in the region: "In Iraq, for example, we can see the consolidation of an Iranian role, by means of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC]. Every time the regular Iraqi army forces that are partnered with the U.S. advance [on the ground], they are followed by the [Iran-linked] Popular Mobilization Units [PMU] militias and IRGC forces. This is very concerning for us, because it could in future revive the sectarian conflict, which is something we have warned about. In Syria, attempts are being made to bolster the Assad regime on several fronts and to make it the leading [force in the country] before the Trump administration can begin working towards a political solution. In Lebanon, things are clear – Hizbullah has impoved its military and political capabilities and is working intensively to increase its influence by [taking over] the state institutions. This is of great concern to the Trump administration. The U.S. will act to end all this soon."
He added that the U.S. was concerned about Iran's deployment of missile systems in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and its attempts to deploy them in Yemen, and said: "This problem does not only concern Israel, but rather the entire region. Iran is trying to become the regional Soviet Union, and to spread its radical ideology uner the pretext of fighting Israel. The Iranian regime is fighting the people in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and is oppressing Lebanese, and all this under the banner of 'liberating Jerusalem'...
"The Iranian regime is attempting to deploy a strategic umbrella in the region before the U.S. and its allies can act. Iran can see that the partnership between the U.S. and the Gulf states has become a reality, that the U.S. and Egypt are establishing a partnership by means of the visits that they are holding, and that there is also a possibility of a meeting between the American and Russian presidents. The world is beginning to shut its doors in the face of the Iranian array. The U.S. Congress may decide on new [anti-Iran] sanctions. Iran knows all this, and is therefore trying to create facts on the ground in order to establish a balance of terror. To this end, it is strengthening its grip on Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen; it is attempting to infiltrate Saudi Arabia; and it is threatening the security of Bahrain and perhaps even beyond. It is reaching Africa via [the Strait of] Bab Al-Mandeb. All this is aimed at saying: 'If you want to act against me, you will pay a heavy price.' Therefore, the deployment of these missiles is part of the Iranian deterrence array, but if Iran makes the mistake of employing it, this array might collapse..."
If The Iranian People Revolt, The U.S. Will Support Them, Not The Regime
"The Iranian propaganda apparatus is smart and powerful, and during the Obama administration it had a number of achievements. We must recognize this. [Iran] successfully orchestrated global media pressure against the takfiris [meaning Sunni Salafi-jihadi fighters] and diverted pressure away from organizations tied to it – so much so that at one point, it claimed that its militias – Hizbullah and others – were actually defending minorities, including Christians and Yazidis. The Obama administration's failure to take an aggressive stance against these Iran-affiliated organizations because it had drawn up the Iranian nuclear agreement helped Iran do this.
"In effect, Iran gained a lot on the political and other levels during the Obama era, since it was constantly threatening to cancel the nuclear agreement and not sign it. It bought time so that its propaganda apparatus could publish articles in The New York Times, Washington Post, and Le Monde focusing on the so-called takfiris, and was greatly successful... Since signing [the JCPOA], it has purchased new, high-quality weapons that it never had before, such as an anti-aircraft missile array, intercontinental ballistic missiles [ICBMs], new tanks, and the list goes on."
Asked what position the U.S. would take if the Iranians revolted as they did in 2009, Phares said: "I believe that if the Iranian people, with all its Persian, Arab, Kurd, and Azari elements, revolts, then the U.S. will support the Iranian people, not the regime there."
On Syria: Control In Areas Liberated From ISIS Should Go To Moderate Sunni Arab Forces
As for Syria, Phares said: "It is completely clear that the Trump administration will prevent the [Syrian] regime from advancing towards eastern Syria – towards Al-Hasakah or areas of fighting with ISIS. For this purpose, we have sent additional units of Marines to northeast Syria. Washington wants to be the backbone of the support for forces that advance and liberate ISIS-controlled areas – areas that the U.S. will not allow the regime to take over."
He continued: "There is almost a consensus that the solution for Syria passes through a withdrawal from Syria of all armed foreign forces, particularly the forces of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and all those who came to Syria to fight for a religious or extremist state. They must withdraw. At the same time, all forces of Hizbullah, the Iraqi militias, and the IRGC, and all those who arrived by means of the Iranian regime, must withdraw from Syria. This is the only way to arrive at a political solution."
He said further: "There are actions that need to happen prior to a [Trump-Putin] meeting and prior to resolving [the Syrian crisis]. First, the [international] U.S.-led coalition must eliminate ISIS, since Russia is far [from ISIS-controlled territory] on the Syrian coast, while the U.S. and its various allies – Kurds, Christians, Muslims, and others – are on the ground. The U.S. guarantees that after attacking and dismantling ISIS... the control of the areas that were held by ISIS must go to moderate Sunni Arab forces, because if the ISIS militias leave but are replaced by Syrian regime forces, as happened in Iraq, or by another ethnic force, this will create a problem in the future. Therefore, it is vital to prepare Syrian Sunni Arab forces that control the area using local councils, police forces, and municipalities. If possible, some Arab countries will assist in this, since there is a need for a coalition on the ground. The U.S. will not deploy large-scale military forces, so we expect the Gulf states [to dispatch forces], especially Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Jordan, and perhaps Egypt as well. Not all of these countries should be present on the ground, but they should make the political decision, and then it will be possible to use some military units from those countries to assist. These units will withdraw once a complete political solution is achieved."
On Hizbullah: If Hizbullah Threatens International Security, The U.S. Will Act Against It
Phares warned Hizbullah against striking Israel's nuclear reactor, clarifying: "Any terrorist actions by anyone anywhere in the world against any nuclear reactor, or any action that causes a radiation leak that damages the region and the world, will be considered international terrorist acts requiring an appropriate response. If Hizbullah wishes to anger the international community, including Arab and Muslim countries, and other countries, chiefly the U.S., this would be unprecedentedly reckless. Hizbullah knows this, and [nevertheless] threatens such attacks. The results [of these attacks] would be devastating, mostly for Hizbullah itself. I am not saying they would be devastating for Lebanon. Perhaps the Lebanese are worried and fear the response of Israel and the international community, or of [Arab] countries in the Middle East. No. There is a clear understanding, at least here in Washington, that if this happens, the response will specifically target Hizbullah and its institutions if it threatens international security."
On The Palestinians: Trump Seeks To Settle Israeli-Palestinian Conflict With The Help Of Moderate Arabs
Phares said: "The president told me personally, when we met in late 2015... 'I want to settle the conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis peacefully. I want the moderate Arabs to help us, meaning that they talk to the moderate Palestinians while I talk to Israel.' That is why I believe it is his personal and strategic goal to solve this matter in a just way."
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 22, 2017.