In her July 28, 2017 column in the London-based daily Al-Hayat, senior Lebanese-American journalist Raghida Dergham wrote that U.S. President Donald Trump is essentially continuing the Middle East policy of his predecessors Barak Obama and George W. Bush, a policy whose essence is fighting terror in the Middle East itself so as not to fight them in his own country. This policy, she said – which is essentially shared by many other countries, including Iran, Russia and Turkey – results in stoking Sunni-Shi'ite conflict and sowing death and destruction throughout the Arab world.
Dergham added that the difference between Obama and Trump is which side they chose to back. Whereas Obama pursued a policy that deliberately exacerbated Sunni-Shi'ite conflict while betting on the Iranian side, Trump seems to view the Sunnis, rather than the Shi'ites, as the best partners for fighting terror. She warned, however, that the Sunni willingness to combat terror is sure to wane if the U.S. does not deliver on its promises to contain Iran's violations and aspirations in Arab countries. She noted that, despite Trump's promises to curb Iran, his administration does not seem to be taking any tangible action to halt the expansion of Iran and its proxies in Iraq and Syria. In fact, statements by administration officials suggest that America's goal in Syria is confined to defeating ISIS, including by cooperating with Iran. Beyond this, she said, the U.S. seems to lack any clear strategy for dealing with this country.
Dergham stressed that if no steps are taken against Iran's increasing influence in Syria and Iraq, the victories against ISIS there will be hollow, and will only produce more frustration, yielding new and even worse terror. She therefore warned the Gulf countries to be cautious and not gamble too heavily on the U.S. support.
The following are excerpts from an English translation of her article that appeared July 30, 2017 on the Saudi Arab News website.
Raghida Dergham (image: twitter.com/raghidadergham)
"Declaring victory against Daesh, Al-Nusra Front, or other Al-Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups is ultimately meaningless, as long as the fate of their fighters remains shrouded in the same kind of mystery that surrounded their groups’ inception and rise.
"Men do not spontaneously spawn or disappear. People need some kind of closure. They need confirmation of the militants’ fates — whether that be their demise, their capture, their rehabilitation, or even their escape to the breeding grounds from which they arrived in Syria and Iraq. It requires published images of their captured equipment and propaganda devices.
"In the name of 'The War on Terror' and George W. Bush’s mantra, 'Fight them there, so we don’t have to fight them here' (in reference to American cities), Iraq was destroyed and became a magnet for extremist groups and terrorists. Under that same banner of fighting terror, Syria grew from an arena of a civil war into a muster point for terrorists from all around the world...
"The Sunni-Shi'ite conflict has extended from the Gulf to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Under President Donald Trump, it is taking on an American dimension, a shift in the direction seen under former President Barack Obama. Both have played themselves off against each other as a reliable counter-terror partner. Obama was persuaded by Iran and consequently adopted a policy that deliberately stoked Sunni-Shi'ite conflict. However, this is nothing new in US long-term strategy on the Sunni-Shiite question from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Iran and Saudi Arabia. In the eyes of American administrations, terrorism has alternately taken on Sunni and Shi'ite forms. Once, the US partnered up with Sunni Saddam Hussein in his war with Iran, and then teamed up with the Shi'ites in Iraq and in Syria."
"Sunni Preparedness To Fight In The Front Row Of The Battle Will Lose Momentum If The US Does Not Deliver On Its Quid-Pro-Quo To Contain Shi'ite Iran’s Violations And Aspirations In The Region"
"For his part, Trump seems more convinced that a partnership with the Sunni powers is the best path to fight terrorism. However, US actions on the ground in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen are not convincing. At the Riyadh Summit with Sunni leaders, Trump obtained promises, financial pledges and manpower commitments against Sunni terror groups. However, this Sunni preparedness to fight in the front row of the battle will lose momentum if the US does not deliver on its quid-pro-quo to contain Shi'ite Iran’s violations and aspirations in the region.
"Leaving the fate of the PMUs in Iraq to the discretion of Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi is to kick the can down the road, because Al-Abadi cannot stand up to the Iranian-led paramilitary force. In truth, this is a prime example of the fundamental flaw in the current fight against Daesh and similar groups. For one thing, Daesh was born out of the disbanding of the Iraqi army following the US occupation of the country under Bush. Daesh was able to grow and expand because its fuel was Iranian violations and the arrogance of Shi'ite political factions under Iraq’s former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, who deliberately marginalized the Sunnis of the country. In other words, if no radical solution is found to the Sunni-Shi'ite problem in Iraq following the liberation of Mosul — one which addresses the future of the PMUs and Iran’s influence in the country — even a victorious eradication of Daesh will leave seeds for a new, perhaps even worse, version to respawn.
"In Syria too, the Trump administration seems scattered in its approach, from its dealings with Iran and its militias in the attempt to defeat Daesh, to arrangements on the ground to contain Al-Nusra Front and Daesh, to the abandonment of moderate Syrian rebels.
"US Defense Secretary James Mattis — who until recently was one of the loudest critics of Iran’s militias, and against Iran’s regional project — speaks today in a tone that does not suggest objection to the expansion of the IRGC, Hezbollah and other Iranian militias into the Syrian territories recaptured from Daesh. This contradicts not only his own previous stances, but also the declared position of his president.
"The same applies to H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, who has long attacked Iran’s policies. In early July, he said those policies feed 'this cycle of sectarian conflict to keep the Arab world perpetually weak.' McMaster has since said that the US would not intervene in Syria or Iraq to stop Iran’s project, saying: 'We have to be very clear that the reason we are in Syria is to destroy (Daesh),' and nothing else.
"In the past few days — in an indication of further disarray in the positions of the Trump administration — CIA Director Mike Pompeo said from the Aspen Security Forum: 'When we have our strategy in place (on Iran), I’m confident you will see a fundamental shift in policy.' In other words, the Trump administration does not have an Iran strategy.
"This contradicts everything Trump said at the Riyadh Summit and subsequent threats he made against Iran and Hezbollah. The 'Axis of Adults,' which includes Mattis, McMaster, Pompeo and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is now on a break, has backed down on its previous positions and pledges, awaiting this new American strategy."
"The Words Of The US President Differ Significantly From His Administration’s Actions On The Ground"
"Thus, it seems worthwhile for the Gulf countries to adopt caution. Relying on US promises is a big gamble. The Riyadh Summit obtained promises from Trump and mobilized support from countries that have wagered on Saudi leadership to guarantee the delivery of those promises. However, the facts on the ground suggest the Trump administration is only implementing Obama’s policies, at least in Syria and Iraq.
"The words of the US president differ significantly from his administration’s actions on the ground. Congress has assisted the president by imposing and studying further sanctions on Iran and Hezbollah, but his Cabinet is focusing on a different priority: Trump’s desire to claim victory against Daesh even if that requires partnering up with the devil. This is short-termism.
"One issue is that it will likely create a rush to declare a victory that does not address the root causes that led to the emergence of Sunni extremist terror groups, either in terms of their ideology or in terms of their response to Iran’s regional encroachment. This will lead to the re-emergence of those groups, either in the form of new factions or sleeper cells that could seek revenge on the international community.
Another issue is that endorsing Iran’s arrogance and overconfidence will enable its Persian Crescent project, which seeks to establish an Iranian link to Israel’s borders through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, to proceed. And that will undermine the tacit willingness among Sunni powers to coexist and reconcile with Israel on new foundations, different from those laid out in the Arab Peace Initiative rejected by Israel.
"If the Trump administration regains its equilibrium and ends its contradictory policies, it may once again be possible to rely on a constructive strategy where the US abandons its traditional policy of stoking sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shi'ites. Then it would be possible to trust in America’s determination to eliminate terrorism of any kind. But in the absence of this development, it seems the many stakeholders who invest in war, from the military-industrial complex to Big Oil and the intelligence community, are not yet sated."
 Arabnews.com, July 30, 2017.