Middle East

The Issue

The Middle East, the world’s most volatile and conflict-ridden region, continues to generate some of the most dangerous threats to the United States. The Trump Administration inherited many problems from the Obama Administration, which failed to formulate effective policies to address the threats posed by the meltdown of Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, the growing threat posed by Islamist extremists throughout the region, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, and the rising power of Iran.


The Trump Administration came into office one year after the Iran nuclear agreement went into effect. As a candidate, Donald Trump criticized the deal as one of the worst deals ever negotiated and promised to tear it up immediately. But as President, he has moved cautiously on the issue, deferring a final decision on the nuclear deal until the completion of his Administration’s Iran policy review, expected by the end of September 2017. The State Department meanwhile certified Iran’s compliance with the terms of the nuclear agreement in April and July, with another certification decision due by October 15.

Under the terms of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, the Administration is required to certify whether Iran has complied with the agreement and whether it is in the vital national security interests of the United States to continue the sanctions relief included in the agreement. President Trump indicated in July 2017 that he did not want to certify the nuclear deal again and asked his staff to come up with more options. It is difficult to see how the Trump Administration can certify Iran’s compliance, in view of Tehran’s public rejection of inspections of its military bases, which would be necessary to ensure that Iran has halted all work related to nuclear weapons.

Iran repeatedly has violated its nuclear commitments and has a long history of concealing its violations of international law. It remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and is rapidly expanding its ballistic-missile force, already the largest in the Middle East. Iran has pocketed roughly $100 billion in sanctions relief under the Obama Administration’s flawed and risky nuclear deal. It will be free to use this bonanza to finance a military buildup, provide greater support of Islamist extremist groups throughout the Middle East, and increase its military efforts to shore up the Assad regime in Syria.

Although the Obama Administration touted the Iran nuclear agreement as a means of moderating Iran’s aggressive foreign policy, Iran’s dictatorship remains implacably hostile to the United States and its allies. Tehran continues to support terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestine Islamic Jihad; to defy U.N. Security Council Resolutions on developing ballistic missiles and exporting arms; and to call for the destruction of Israel and overthrow of Arab governments, particularly in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. The nuclear deal has even made a bad situation worse by boosting Iran’s economy, freeing it from diplomatic isolation, and enabling it to spend more on its military buildup, including the purchase of sophisticated S-300 air defense missile systems from Russia.

Under the nuclear agreement, Iran’s nuclear program will continue, albeit at a slower pace. Although the Obama Administration contended that the nuclear deal blocks all pathways to a nuclear weapon, the agreement, in fact, amounts to little more than a diplomatic speed bump that will delay, but not permanently halt Iran’s push for a nuclear weapon. Once key restrictions on uranium enrichment expire after 15 years, Iran will be free to develop an industrial-scale enrichment program that will make it easier to sprint across the nuclear threshold.

Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is left largely intact. Centrifuges used to enrich uranium will be mothballed but not dismantled. The “anytime, anywhere” inspections promised by the Obama Administration were downgraded to “sometimes, some places.” Tehran maintains that inspectors will be barred from inspecting military bases if their presence undermines Iran’s security. Iran will have up to 24 days to move, hide, or destroy materials sought by the inspectors. This is far from a trustworthy arrangement, given Iran’s long history of cheating on its agreements.


The Trump Administration inherited a precarious and bloody situation in Iraq because of the rise of ISIS, which was partially enabled by the Obama Administration’s disastrous decision to withdraw all U.S. troops, including trainers and advisers, by the end of 2011. The Trump Administration escalated the limited military campaign against ISIS, intensified the bombing of ISIS targets, deployed more advisers to Iraqi military forces and allowed them to move closer to the fighting, and gave American military leaders more latitude in setting the size, composition, strategy, and tactics of U.S. forces deployed to defeat ISIS.

Now the Trump Administration must press the Iraqi government to prevent ISIS or similar Sunni Islamist extremist groups from making a comeback. This will require undermining the political appeal of ISIS, reaching out to moderate Sunni Arab leaders willing to combat ISIS, fostering reconciliation between the Baghdad government and alienated Sunnis and Kurds, demobilizing radical Shiite militias backed by Iran, and helping to reconstruct Iraq’s infrastructure. In doing so, the Trump Administration should avoid the mistakes of its predecessor.

The Obama Administration came into office determined to “end” the war in Iraq. Despite the fact that it had promised to leave behind a residual military force to train and assist Iraqi security forces, it suddenly reversed course and pulled the plug on the U.S. military presence in the fall of 2011 when the Iraqi parliament dragged its feet on granting U.S. soldiers immunity from legal prosecution. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had offered an executive agreement that would have done so, but the Administration decided this was not enough and used the parliament’s foot-dragging as a pretext to precipitously withdraw.

This not only undermined U.S. influence with the Baghdad government, but also allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq (which later changed its name to ISIS) to resurge in Iraq, where it operated in a much more permissive environment. The abrupt U.S. military departure greatly weakened Iraqi counterterrorism, intelligence gathering, and special-operations capabilities, thus allowing a decimated al-Qaeda to revive and resurge.

From the beginning, the Obama White House misunderstood and underestimated the threat posed by al-Qaeda and its ISIS offshoot in Iraq and Syria. President Obama allowed short-term political considerations to trump long-term national security interests when he abruptly ended the U.S. troop presence in Iraq in December 2011. After al-Qaeda in Iraq made a comeback, the Administration long remained in denial. Even after ISIS rapidly expanded the territory it controlled in western Iraq in early 2014, President Obama downplayed the threat, famously calling ISIS a “JV team.” The Obama Administration never effectively matched ends and means in the struggle against ISIS. It initially barred combat operations by American ground troops, dragged its feet on deploying military advisers, restricted them from being deployed with front-line Iraqi forces, and put tight restrictions on the use of airstrikes to avoid civilian casualties. But the net effect of these policies was to enable ISIS to inflict many more civilian casualties and attract many more fanatic followers.

After coming into office, the Trump Administration eased many of the political restrictions that hampered the effectiveness of the U.S. military effort against ISIS. The White House increased the intensity of the air campaign, deployed much larger special operations forces closer to the front lines, and deployed U.S. artillery batteries to accelerate the defeat of ISIS in Mosul. The Trump Administration delivered much more robust military support to help the Iraqi government and Kurdish militias to defeat ISIS.


As in Iraq, the Trump Administration inherited a situation in Syria in which the campaign against ISIS had been hobbled by the ad hoc micromanagement style of the Obama White House, which set strict limits on the size, composition and rules of engagement of U.S. forces.

President Obama overpromised, failed to deliver a coherent Syria policy, and his Administration never reached a consensus about how to address the growing crisis. After waiting five months to declare in August 2011 that Syrian dictator Assad must relinquish power, President Obama did little to advance that goal. The Administration’s insistence on multilateralism, almost as an end in itself, led it to outsource policy on Syria to the United Nations, where Russia and China exercised their veto power to block effective action.

Although the Administration offered humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees, and later non-lethal aid for the Syrian opposition, it initially balked at providing arms. In 2012, President Obama overruled the advice of CIA Director David Petraeus, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey to provide arms aid. While President Obama engaged in wishful thinking about brokering an illusory political settlement, Russia and Iran showered the Assad regime with arms and economic aid and later deployed their own military forces to prop up Assad.

President Obama compounded the problem by carelessly announcing a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons in Syria without first developing a clear strategy or appropriate course to protect U.S. interests. After slow-walking an investigation of repeated incidents of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime, the Obama Administration announced in June 2013 that it would provide arms to Syria’s opposition. This was too little too late. Islamist extremists backed by powerful Islamist networks already had gained the upper hand within Syria’s fractious opposition coalition, in part due to the absence of meaningful support from the U.S. and other Western powers.

After a massive chemical attack in August 2013 that reportedly killed more than 1,000 Syrians, President Obama publicly threatened to launch a military reprisal against the Assad regime. After having second thoughts, he requested a congressional vote to authorize military action—a vote that he was likely to lose because of his failure to convince Congress that such an attack would advance U.S. national interests. The President then escaped from an embarrassing congressional rebuff by acceding to a risky and problematic Russian diplomatic proposal to dispatch international inspectors to disarm Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, which bolstered the legitimacy of the Assad regime, demoralized the Syrian opposition, and strengthened Moscow’s role in the Middle East.

When the Trump Administration came to office, it discovered that not only had the Assad regime failed to give up its chemical weapons, but it still was using them covertly against the rebels. President Trump immediately ordered an April 6, 2017, cruise missile strike against the Syrian air base from which a chemical attack was launched, warned that the use of chemical weapons was unacceptable, and declared that the United States had a vital national security interest in preventing and deterring the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.

The Trump Administration also ratcheted up air strikes against ISIS in Syria, deployed more special operations forces to work with selected rebel groups, and provided arms to the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia that was fighting ISIS in eastern Syria. Although the YPG forces are the most effective military forces battling ISIS in eastern Syria, they are part of the Democratic Union Party, a Marxist organization linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Kurdish terrorist group that has been fighting to carve out a separatist state from Turkey since 1984. Continued U.S. support for YPG militias will exacerbate bilateral tensions with Turkey, an important NATO ally, and could undermine the broader war against terrorism.


Egypt, the largest Arab country, is a bellwether for the Arab Middle East. The U.S. has a national interest in stabilizing Egypt, helping it make the difficult transition to a stable democracy, and averting the eruption of a full-blown civil war in the heart of the Arab world. To achieve these goals, the Trump Administration rejected the policies of the Obama Administration and boosted strategic cooperation with Cairo.

The Obama Administration mishandled Egypt policy by shunning a long-term ally, President Hosni Mubarak, and eagerly embracing the anti-Western Muslim Brotherhood. After the Arab Spring protest movement hit Egypt in early 2011, the Administration assisted the rise of Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood–dominated government in 2012 and was surprised that Egypt’s people quickly became violently opposed to Islamist rule. The Administration gambled that the practical responsibilities of governing would dilute the hostile anti-Western ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, but once in office, Morsi relentlessly expanded his own power in a winner-take-all manner while neglecting Egypt’s festering economic problems.

The Obama Administration failed to publicly criticize Morsi’s excesses, power grabs, and abuses. This led Egypt’s secular and liberal opposition to turn to Egypt’s army in despair, angry that the Obama Administration uncritically supported the Morsi regime. Many protesters demonstrating against Morsi before the July 3, 2013, coup also carried signs protesting President Obama’s support for the Morsi regime. Morsi, for his part, felt no need to compromise with the opposition or temper his Islamist ambitions because the Administration was reluctant to use the leverage afforded by $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt.

Secular, democratic, and liberal Egyptians opposed to an Islamist takeover should be natural allies of the U.S., not leading a backlash against American policy. The fact that Egyptians resent the Obama Administration’s courting of the Muslim Brotherhood should have been a wake-up call for the White House. On July 3, 2013, a coup led by the Egyptian military gave Egypt a second chance to make the difficult transition to a stable democracy. Washington should support the efforts of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, elected in 2014, to defeat Islamist terrorists, including an affiliate of ISIS operating in the northern Sinai desert.

The incoming Trump Administration quickly recognized Egypt’s strategic importance in fighting Islamist terrorism and stabilizing a chaotic region. President Trump sought to improve relations with Egypt and dropped the Obama Administration’s harsh criticism of the Sisi government and the freeze it put on U.S. arms transfers. President Sisi was the first world leader to congratulate Trump after his election. At the President-elect’s request, Sisi’s government postponed a vote on a U.N. Security Council resolution criticizing Israel for building settlements in the West Bank. President Trump returned the favor by calling Sisi on January 23, 2017, his first working day in the Oval Office, and invited him to meet at the White House. Sisi became one of the first foreign leaders to visit President Trump at the White House on April 3, 2017, when the two leaders welcomed a restored bilateral partnership.

The Israeli–Palestinian Conflict

Like the Obama Administration, the Trump Administration has tried to jump-start the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. But the Trump Administration has done so without making the mistake of myopically focusing on the settlements issue, which is but one of many issues that must be resolved in a final settlement. The new Administration correctly understands that the chief barriers to peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are Palestinian terror attacks, not Israeli settlements. Many Israeli settlements are located in areas that eventually could be folded into Israel in exchange for equal amounts of Israeli territory transferred to Palestinian control if and when borders are agreed upon in a final settlement.

Yet when the Obama Administration sought in 2009 to revive the comatose peace process, which has been on American-supplied life support since the collapse of the 2000 Camp David summit, it made a freeze on Israeli settlements the centerpiece of its strategy. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government agreed to a temporary freeze of West Bank settlements in November 2009 but balked at halting housing construction in east Jerusalem, which is claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians. It was unwise for the Administration to push for a settlement freeze in Jerusalem that no Israeli government could agree to in the absence of rapid movement toward a permanent peace settlement that would include ironclad provisions, ensuring Israel’s security against terrorist attacks.

The Obama Administration’s primary focus on the settlements guaranteed friction with Israel’s center-right government and hardened the Palestinian negotiating position, because Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas could not be seen as less opposed to settlements than the United States. Despite the fact that Palestinians had negotiated for many years without gaining such a settlement freeze, Abbas has made it a condition for resuming talks. The Palestinians then sat back and let Washington attempt to wring major concessions from Israel without feeling any need to reciprocate with concessions of their own. To make matters worse, Abbas also chose to push the U.N. to endorse unilateral Palestinian statehood rather than relying on negotiations with Israel, which is the only genuine path to peace.

President Trump has proclaimed his interest in reaching “the ultimate deal”—a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. He has not endorsed a “two-state solution” but has indicated he could accept whatever the two sides agree upon. His Administration has softened U.S. criticism of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and focused more on terrorism as a threat to peace negotiations. Behind the scenes, the Administration is also working on an “outside-in” strategy of enlisting Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to support the peace negotiations and normalize relations with Israel after a deal is reached. But the two sides remain far apart on final status issues, such as the status of borders, Jerusalem, settlements, and the Palestinian claim of a “right to return” to Israel for refugees.


Put the U.S.–Israel Partnership First. The political instability that has plagued the Arab Middle East in recent years has underscored the fact that Israel is America’s only reliable, stable ally in the region. Congress should support the Trump Administration’s efforts to enhance strategic cooperation with Israel, the Middle East’s only genuine democracy.

Defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Washington should expand the size and role of U.S. ground forces to include combat missions to end the ISIS reign of terror in western Iraq and eastern Syria. Baghdad needs long-term help in defeating ISIS, which could pose a significant threat to the U.S. homeland if it is allowed to consolidate its Islamist totalitarian rule. U.S. military advisers should be embedded in Iraqi military units closer to the front lines. U.S. Special Operations forces should be deployed in greater strength and embedded with Kurdish militias and Sunni Arab tribal militias to enhance their effectiveness and coordinate U.S. airstrikes in Iraq. In Syria, the U.S. must be wary of relying too much on the YPG militia, which is linked to Kurdish terrorists. Washington must coordinate more effectively with Ankara on Syrian issues. A more extensive and intensive application of air power is required in Syria as well as in Iraq. Congress should support the Administration’s budget requests for the war against ISIS, including aid for Iraqi and Syrian groups that actively fight ISIS.

Get Tougher on Iran. The Trump Administration has ordered an Iran policy review, which is due to be completed in September 2017. It will assess Iran’s compliance with the nuclear agreement, as well as its behavior in sponsoring terrorism, subverting nearby governments, and attacking U.S. allies. Any evidence that Iran is cheating on the agreement (which is likely, given Iran’s past behavior), or continuing hostile acts against the U.S. and its allies, should justify the abrogation of the nuclear agreement. Regrettably, Tehran has already pocketed up to $100 billion in sanctions relief because of the frontloading of sanctions relief in the early months of the misconceived deal.

In place of the flawed nuclear agreement, which boosts Iran’s long-term military and nuclear threat potential, strengthens Iran’s regional influence, strains ties with U.S. allies, and diminishes U.S. influence in the region, Congress should support expanded sanctions on Iran, focusing on Iran’s nuclear program; support of terrorism; ballistic-missile program; interventions in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen; human rights violations; and holding of American hostages.

Congress should designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization and apply sanctions to any non-Iranian companies that do business with the IRGC’s extensive economic empire. This measure would help reduce the IRGC’s ability to exploit sanctions relief for its own hostile purposes. Congress should also block the sale of commercial airliners to Iran. Tehran has used such aircraft to support military and terrorist operations.

The Trump Administration also should work with Congress to tighten sanctions on Iran’s terrorist surrogates, particularly Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestine Islamic Jihad. The Administration should cooperate with allies to intercept the flow of Iranian arms to these terrorist groups and crack down on their illicit criminal activities, which help fund their terrorist campaigns. Stepping up sanctions to hold Iran and its surrogates accountable for their malign policies will help to undermine their power and reduce the threat they pose to the United States and its allies.

Strengthen U.S. Military Forces in Order to Provide Greater Deterrence Against an Iranian Nuclear Breakout. Ultimately, no piece of paper will block an Iranian nuclear breakout. The chief deterrent to Iran’s attaining a nuclear capability is the prospect of a U.S. preventive military attack. It is no coincidence that Iran halted many aspects of its nuclear weapons program in 2003 after the U.S. invasion and overthrow of hostile regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi, motivated by a similar apprehension about the Bush Administration, also chose to give up his chemical and nuclear weapons programs. To strengthen deterrence of an Iranian nuclear breakout, it is necessary to rebuild U.S. military strength, which has been sapped in by devastating budget cuts. The Obama Administration’s failure to provide adequate funding for national defense has contributed to a decline in U.S. military readiness that will undermine the ability of the Pentagon to defend against and deter regional threats unless the defense budget is bolstered.

Strengthen U.S. Alliances, Especially with Israel. The nuclear agreement has had a corrosive effect on bilateral relationships with important U.S. allies in the Middle East, particularly those countries that are most threatened by Iran, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. Rather than sacrificing the interests of allies in a rush to embrace Iran as the Obama Administration has done, Congress and the Trump Administration should give priority to safeguarding the vital security interests of the U.S. and its allies by maintaining a favorable balance of power in the region to deter and contain Iran. Washington should help rebuild security ties by boosting arms sales to Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that are threatened by Tehran, taking care that arms sales to Arab states do not threaten Israel’s qualitative military edge in the event of renewed Arab attacks on Israel.

The U.S. and its European allies also should strengthen military, intelligence, and security cooperation with Israel and the members of the GCC, an alliance of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, founded in 1981 to provide collective security for Arab states threatened by Iran. Such a coalition could help both to contain the expansion of Iranian power and to facilitate military action (if necessary) against Iran.

Place a High Priority on Missile Defense. Iran’s ballistic missile force, the largest in the Middle East, poses a growing threat to its neighbors. Washington should help Israel to strengthen its missile defenses and help the GCC countries to build an integrated and layered missile defense architecture to blunt the Iranian missile threat. The U.S. Navy should be prepared to deploy warships equipped with Aegis ballistic missile defense systems to appropriate locations to help defend Israel and the GCC allies against potential Iranian missile attacks as circumstances demand. This will require coordinating missile defense activities among the various U.S. and allied missile defense systems through a joint communications system. The U.S. should also field missile defense interceptors in space for intercepting Iranian missiles in the boost phase, which would add a valuable additional layer to missile defenses.

Adopt an Agenda to Bring Freedom to Iran. The Obama Administration made a grave error in muting its criticism of the Iranian regime’s 2009 crackdown on the opposition Green Movement and the regime’s chronic abuses of human rights. In the long run, a free Iran is the best hope for peace and security in the volatile Middle East. Congress should make it clear that the U.S. stands with the Iranian people, not with the repressive regime of the ayatollahs. It should hold hearings to publicize and condemn Tehran’s human rights violations, expose the corruption of regime officials, publicize the activities of opposition groups, and help them communicate with the Iranian people.

Work with Allies to Defeat ISIS. President Trump has correctly identified the defeat of ISIS as a U.S. priority in Syria and Iraq. Washington has few reliable allies inside Syria. Syrian Kurdish militias tied to the PKK are an effective military force, but close cooperation with them complicates relations with Turkey. Ankara has been fighting the PKK, which has been designated as a terrorist group by both the U.S. and the European Union, off and on since 1984. The Trump Administration should end U.S. support for Syrian Kurdish militias linked to the PKK. To stabilize Syria in the long run, Washington and Ankara must agree on which groups to support, and cooperate closely in providing that support. The U.S. should also work with Jordan, Iraq, and GCC allies to coordinate more robust Arab efforts to defeat ISIS.

Contain and Mitigate the Destabilizing Spillover Effects of Syria’s Civil War. Washington must focus on preventing the fighting from spilling over Syria’s borders to threaten U.S. allies, limiting the flow of refugees to Europe and helping to take care of them closer to their homes, and preventing Syria from becoming a sanctuary for Islamist terrorists. The U.S. should work closely with allies to staunch the flow of foreign fighters into Syria and Iraq and to monitor and disrupt the flow of Islamist extremists out of Syria and Iraq. This requires a sustained, multi-pronged, global effort to dismantle the foreign-fighter pipeline and counter the radical Islamist ideology that motivates new recruits.

Provide Humanitarian Aid to Refugees Without Committing to “Safe Zones” Inside Syria. President Trump has proposed the establishment of vaguely defined “safe zones” to protect refugees in Syria and the surrounding region. Refugee sanctuaries already exist in Jordan, Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Washington should offer more humanitarian aid to support refugees there and lighten the burden on the host countries, but it should rule out the deployment of U.S. forces inside Syria to maintain safe zones. This would be a costly, risky, open-ended military mission that would make the U.S. a party to the conflict. The best contribution that Washington can make to protecting Syrian refugees is to focus on defeating ISIS and support a political settlement that ends the fighting and allows the refugees to return home.

Encourage Arab Allies to Play a More Responsible Military, Diplomatic, and Humanitarian Role in Syria. Some of America’s Arab allies have supported Sunni extremist groups against the Assad regime and Iran, which they view as their greatest enemy. Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia continue to turn a blind eye to the activities of fundraisers for Islamist extremist groups seeking donations from private individuals in their kingdoms. The U.S. should press all its allies to crack down on the flow of such funds, and insist that rebel groups they support break all ties to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Organization for the Liberation of the Levant), al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria formerly known as al-Nusra Front. Washington also should ask its allies to deploy more military forces to attack ISIS and provide greater aid for Syrian refugees.

Support Egypt’s Efforts to Make the Transition to a Stable Democracy. The U.S. should support freedom in Egypt in order to advance its own interests as well as those of the Egyptian people. President Sisi’s government has a much better chance of laying the groundwork for a stable democracy than the Muslim Brotherhood regime that it overthrew, which was headed for dictatorship. The U.S. should leverage aid to Egypt to ensure that Cairo adheres to the terms of its peace treaty with Israel and respects the freedom and human rights of its own citizens.

Reinvigorate Counterterrorism Cooperation with Egypt. Egypt is a valued partner in the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, a broad U.S.-led international coalition assembled to defeat ISIS and its affiliates. ISIS has flourished in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, where it has spearheaded an insurgency since the 2013 overthrow of President Morsi’s Islamist government. Although ISIS has not grown as strong in Egypt as in Iraq, Libya, or Syria, it remains a potent terrorist threat that targets Egyptian security forces and launches missiles at Israel.

Washington should help Egypt’s army and security forces to conduct a population-centric counterinsurgency campaign against ISIS and its supporters, rather than the narrowly focused and militarized counterterrorism efforts that Cairo currently maintains. Part of the strategy should be enhanced political outreach to disaffected Bedouin tribes in the Sinai, which have chafed against what they regarded as discrimination and neglect by Egypt’s central government.

Washington should also provide technical assistance for finding and destroying tunnels burrowed under the Egyptian–Gazan border by Hamas and other Islamist terrorist groups. These tunnels are used to smuggle arms, terrorists, and contraband into and out of Gaza. President Trump should also propose closer counterterrorism, intelligence, and military cooperation to combat ISIS in neighboring Libya.

Adopt a Realistic and Effective Policy on Syria. The U.S. should work with its European, Turkish, and Arab friends to increase international support, military aid, and economic aid for moderate non-Islamist groups within Syria’s loose opposition coalition. Although the Obama Administration initially rejected and later botched providing military support for Syrian rebels, aid is needed to offset the growing Russian and Iranian military interventions in Syria. Aid should be stepped up for the Syrian Arab militias that are supported by Jordan in southern Syria, and which have a good record of fighting ISIS. After the defeat of ISIS, the long-term diplomatic goal should be a political settlement in which the Assad regime is replaced by a transitional government acceptable to the Syrian people that limits the influence of Islamist extremists, including Iran and Hezbollah.

Push for Incremental Steps, Not a Comprehensive Settlement, in Israeli–Palestinian Peace Negotiations. Washington should continue its efforts to revive the stalled Israeli–Palestinian peace talks, but should refocus its diplomacy by abandoning the Obama Administration’s counterproductive campaign for an immediate freeze on Israeli settlements, which only encouraged the Palestinian Authority to hold back from negotiations. Instead of an all-out push for a comprehensive settlement, which is impossible as long as Hamas controls Gaza and remains committed to Israel’s destruction, Washington should press for incremental progress on security arrangements, confidence-building measures, and bolstering the welfare of Palestinians on the West Bank. This would help to shore up support for the Palestinian Authority at the expense of Hamas, which has transformed Gaza into a base for terrorism. Washington also should insist that the Palestinian Authority end its incitement of terrorist attacks and halt the roughly $300 million in annual subsidies it pays to jailed terrorists and the families of “martyrs” killed in attacks on Israelis. A government that incentivizes terrorism is not an acceptable partner for peace negotiations.

Penalize Palestinian Terrorism. Congress should support the Trump Administration’s efforts to hold Hamas accountable for its terrorist atrocities, human rights violations, and acceptance of illegal Iranian arms shipments. Congress should call on the Administration to veto any Palestinian efforts to attain unilateral statehood via the United Nations, and withdraw U.S. financial support for any U.N. agency that facilitates such Palestinian efforts. Congress should encourage the development of a practical working relationship between Israel and Sunni Arab states that face a rising threat from Iran. Over time, those Arab states could also help weaken and isolate Hamas, and encourage the emergence of a moderate Palestinian leadership willing and able to negotiate a peace treaty with Israel.

Facts and Figures

FACT: Iran’s radical Islamist regime is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.

  • Iran has close ties to the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, which it organized and continues to finance, arm, and train.
  • Tehran also supports a wide variety of Palestinian terrorist groups including Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine–General Command.
  • Iran also supports Iraqi Shiite militias that killed hundreds of American soldiers in Iraq and now are fighting in Syria.

FACT: Iran has the largest ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East.

  • Iran has the capability to strike U.S. bases in the region, as well as Israel, Egypt, Turkey, and a growing number of other U.S. allies, using a medium-range ballistic missile.
  • On June 18, 2017, Iran launched six Zolfagher ballistic missiles from western Iran to strike ISIS targets about 370 miles away in Syria. The missile attack was in retaliation for a June 7 ISIS terrorist attack in Tehran.
  • Experts believe that Iran could develop an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the U.S., although it is not known how long this will take.

FACT: Iran is a totalitarian police state that routinely violates the human rights of its citizens.

  • The Islamist dictatorship systematically suppresses the rights to freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and religious belief, and prosecutes dissidents in unfair trials before revolutionary courts.
  • Iran’s government denies freedom of religion and discriminates against non-Muslims, particularly Iran’s Baha’i minority. Security forces also continued to oppress Christian converts of Muslim heritage.

FACT: Syria’s Assad regime, aided by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, has provoked a civil war that has killed more than 400,000 Syrians since 2011.

  • The fighting in Syria has driven more than 11 million out of their homes, and more than 5 million out of the country into refugee camps in neighboring Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.
  • Many Syrian refugees have migrated to countries in the European Union, chiefly Germany.

FACT: The Israeli–Palestinian conflict is not ripe for resolution anytime soon.

  • While Israel remains committed to a negotiated resolution of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, Palestinians have not negotiated in good faith.
  • Hamas, which controls Gaza, not only rejects peace negotiations, but also Israel’s very right to exist.
  • The Palestinian Authority, which broke off negotiations with Israel in 2014, has pushed for unilateral statehood through lobbying the U.N., in violation of its commitments under the 1993 Oslo Accords.

FACT: Egypt has been an important U.S. ally, helping to stabilize a highly volatile region, since the 1978 Camp David Accords.

  • Egypt played a vital role in facilitating peace negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbors, in addition to a valuable role in combating Islamist terrorism.
  • Egypt has granted U.S. naval vessels priority access to the Suez Canal and is an important ally in the war against ISIS.
  • The Egyptian armed forces, one of the Middle East’s largest, could play a key role in the Trump Administration’s reported plans to assemble an Arab military coalition to safeguard regional stability.

Selected Additional Resources

James Jay Carafano, “Crushing Extremism Is First Step Toward Middle East Peace,” Heritage Foundation Commentary, July 7, 2017.

James Jay Carafano, “New Turmoil in Middle East Makes Sisi-Trump Ties Even More Important,” Heritage Foundation Commentary, April 13, 2017.

Luke Coffey and James Phillips, “U.S. Must Plan Now for the Day Mosul Is Liberated,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4607, September 6, 2016.

Joshua Meservey, “A Destabilizing Libyan Conflict Requires U.S. Engagement,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4708, May 25, 2017.

Joshua Meservey, “The Dilemma of Syrian Christian Refugee Resettlement and How the U.S. Can Help,” Issue Brief No. 4669, March 22, 2017.

James Phillips, “After Missile Strike in Syria, Trump Must Avoid Mission Creep,” Heritage Foundation Commentary, April 9, 2017.

James Phillips, “The Arab Spring Descends into Islamist Winter: Implications for U.S. Policy,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2754, December 20, 2012.

James Phillips, “How President Trump Can Improve U.S. Syria Policy,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief March 3, 2017.

James Phillips, “The Iran Nuclear Deal: What the Next President Should Do,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4468, October 2, 2015.

James Phillips, “Obama, It’s Time to Stop Shifting the Blame and Develop an ISIS Strategy,” The Daily Signal, June 12, 2015.

James Phillips, “President Trump’s Middle East Trip: An Opportunity to Reset Relations,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4706, May 18, 2017.

James Phillips, “President Trump’s Opportunity to Reset the U.S.–Egyptian Alliance,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4676, April 3, 2017.

James Phillips, “Putin’s Syrian Gambit Exposes Flaws in Obama’s Naive Foreign Policy,” The Daily Signal, October 1, 2015.

James Phillips and Michaela Dodge, “Recent Heritage Foundation Publications on the Iran Nuclear Agreement,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4436, July 20, 2015.

James Phillips, Helle C. Dale, and Janice A. Smith, “Ten Practical Steps to Liberty in Iran,” Heritage Foundation Web Memo No. 2832, March 11, 2010.

James Phillips, Luke Coffey, and Michaela Dodge, “The Iran Nuclear Agreement: Yes, There Is a Better Alternative,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4444, July 24, 2015.

Dakota L. Wood, Charlotte Florance, and James Phillips, “Intervention in Libya: Lessons in Leading,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3008, April 7, 2015.