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Middle East Strategic Issues Facing the Trump Administration: an interview with Dr. Walid Phares
by Jerry Gordon and Mike Bates
Dr. Walid Phares, Trump Campaign Foreign Policy Adviser
Fox News National Security and Foreign Policy Expert
Dr. Walid Phares was the Middle East and Foreign Affairs consultant to the Trump Campaign and national security and foreign policy expert at FoxNews. Among his extensive published noteworthy works are the acclaimed best selling 2006 book, Future Jihad: Terrorist Strategies against America and the 2014 The Lost Spring: US Policy: in the Middle East and Catastrophes to Avoid. He is currently under consideration by the Trump Administration for a possible post at the US State Department. We were afforded an opportunity to interview him on a wide range of Middle East issues facing the Trump Administration on Northwest Florida’s Talk Radio 1330amWEBY. The program aired February 20, 2017.
Among Middle East policy issues addressed by Dr. Phares during the interview were
Mike Bates: Good afternoon welcome back to Your Turn. This is Mike Bates. Middle East roundtable discussion time. With me in the studio Jerry Gordon, Senior Editor of the New English Review and its blog "The Iconoclast", welcome Jerry.
Jerry Gordon: Glad to be back Mike.
Bates: You can find Jerry at www.newenglishreview.org. Joining us by telephone is Dr. Walid Phares, Middle East and Foreign Affairs Consultant to the Trump campaign and expert foreign policy contributor to Fox News. Dr. Phares, welcome.
Walid Phares: Thank you for having me gentlemen.
Bates: Dr. Phares is also the author of the books The Lost Spring. U.S. Policy in the Middle East and Catastrophes to Avoid" and the bestselling book Future Jihad: Terrorist Strategies against America. You can find Dr. Phares at www.walidphares.com.
Gordon: Walid there has been a flurry of interest in the media recently about the formation of a regional national security group that would involve the Sunni monarchies, Emirates and even possibly Israel. You have been a proponent of something like that for a while. Why don't you give us your views and an update?
Phares: Yes indeed. Basically the idea is about forming an Arab military alliance. I have called it seven years ago in an article on al-arabiya.com in 2010, the Arab NATO. Originally the idea before the Arab Spring erupted was to put together the resources of Arab governments’ counter-terrorism forces to fight at the time Al Qaeda. Then the Iranian regime started to become very active in Yemen and of course it has Hezbollah in Lebanon. Since the Arab Spring all these civil wars created an unstable area in the region. The idea travelled through briefings before Congress and at the European Parliament. Many quarters in the region were talking about it. It became a strong idea over the past year, especially after the U.S. election of Donald Trump as President. During the election campaign, he met with Egyptian President El-Sisi in September 2016. After the election he communicated with a number of Arab leaders including with Sheikh Mohammed of the UAE, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, the King of Bahrain, the Tunisian President, the Prime Minister of Lebanon, and after inauguration he met with King Abdallah of Jordan and with important players in the region. He will soon be meeting again with President Sisi as he already met with the Prime Minister of Israel. The idea is to build mostly an Arab alliance which means those countries described as moderates who face not just Al Qaeda and ISIS but also the Muslim Brotherhood. Three of these countries have put the Brotherhood on their list of terrorist or extremist entities. Then you have the Iranian Islamic Republic threatening Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. The project is now being discussed among these players. There are lots of tensions with some of these countries on other issues. However, they are coming to the conclusion that they need a joint force to confront radical Islamic terror.
The question with regard to Israel is different. At this point in time and after the Iranian expansion in the region and the war against ISIS, some of these countries, Egypt, Jordan and to a certain extent the Gulf Cooperation Council members are talking to the Israelis. In certain areas of the region, such as the Sinai and Southern Syria, there is coordination between Israel, Egypt and Jordan which has been facilitated via Camp David and the other peace agreements. However, never have we seen an Arab military alliance forming; especially when Iran is progressing with development of its own missile force. Iran has fired missiles at Mecca, against United States Naval vessels. So the proposal for a regional Arab military force is building momentum to push forward. The coordination with Israel is going to come when the Trump administration will be able to reignite discussions between these countries and Israel with regard to security arrangements in the region to make sure that the threats of ISIS and the Iranian regime are dealt with.
Gordon: There have been missile tests which are said to violate the JCPOA agreement. What is the status of Iran’s compliance with their end of the deal that was brokered with Barack Obama and the P5 Nations? What is the threat from the Iranian regime?
Phares: There are two kinds of threats I mentioned in my 2014 book The Lost Spring and in later briefings and hearings before Congress and with European lawmakers. Number one, it's about non-implementing the Iran nuclear deal. They are actually not shutting down their program and there has been a lot are reporting about this.
Second they are developing long range and medium range missiles. These missiles are not designed to deliver conventional pay loads. These are missiles that would have nuclear, chemical or biological warheads. The range of some of these missiles can reach the Gulf Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and Egypt. Some of the missiles they are developing are able to reach Europe and may soon be able to reach the across the Atlantic. So this is a very serious threat.
In my writings I call this the dome. Israel has the Iron Dome to defend against rockets and missiles coming from Hamas or from Hezbollah. What the Iranians are doing is establishing a ‘superdome’ that would be equipped with anti-aircraft and very advanced missiles purchased from Russia with the Iran nuclear deal money. Under that superdome they are developing everything in their armed forces: their tanks, missiles, communications and radars. Any geopolitical expert will tell you Iran is not just involved in warfare in Iraq, although they have their militia there. The commander of the Iranian Qods Force Suleimani is always there. In Syria they are virtually in control of the Assad regime. In Lebanon they have Hezbollah. In Yemen they are basically the partners of the Houthi militia. And Iran is doing something else, basically sending threatening messages to our partners in the region. Threatening messages against Israel? All the time. However, it is sending threatening messages against the UAE, Bahrain, and the Saudis. Recently they even signified that they will be acting in the Bab-al-Mandab at the mouth of the Red Sea, which commands access to the Suez Canal.
All this was done under the Obama administration which allowed the Iranians to develop the expansion of its “superdome.” Regarding the Iranian expansion, the Trump administration is sending a signal back to Tehran that we are watching these developments. The question is how the Iranian regime would respond to Washington when it says it has had enough - these are red lines and we are not going to permit your expansion any further.
Bates: In terms of the nuclear agreement under the Obama administration it was very front-loaded for Iran and very back loaded for the United States. Iran got all their money up front without really having to do anything. They made a promise to comply while they received all that they wanted up front. We expected them to not continue developing their nuclear weapons program, while it seems like they are really proceeding to achieve that objective anyway. Given that background I have two questions. One, is there any possibility of re-imposing sanctions and two, what would be the point since Iran has received what they wanted, already?
Phares: That is a great question. Indeed, the fact that we have just transferred a lot of money to the Iranian regime which they have used to purchase the equipment. They are not using those funds to support the people of Iran. They are using it for the comfort of the elite of the regime and to equip themselves with a deterrent despite our having released those funds. This is the tip of the iceberg. The hundred and fifty billion dollars is only the beginning. By opening up the Iranian market, by lifting up some of the sanctions and opening the market from Europe and other parts of the world, the hope was this would have a positive effect on the Iranian regime. Because we cannot control it, can we reinforce sanctions? Yes. President Trump can cancel previous executive orders; however, he would need to have Congress pass new sanctions.
What we need in America is a new joint strategic approach towards the Iranian regime. We have an opportunity for the next two years to achieve that. This should be initiated during the next six months. We need to signify that to our allies in Europe. That is why the recent trip by Vice President Pence to the Munich Security Conference sent an important message. We need to assure that the Europeans are not doing something else while we are putting sanctions in place, while at the same time they are doing business with Iran. We need to communicate that through the foreign policy pundits here in the US and abroad. At the same time, the new Administration is working with Israelis on intelligence coordination with pro-American members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. We need to work more with Jordan and the Egyptians. I think we can reverse the Obama policy. However, we also need to send a strong message to the Russians when President Trump meets with President Putin that while we can work together on fighting the Jihadists, the Islamic State and al Qaeda. On the other hand we must tell them that we have serious problems with the Iranian regime and they need to recognize that situation.
Bates: Assuming that President Trump was to reverse executive orders by President Obama and re-impose some U.S. sanctions on Iran, what would be the effect on US firms interested in opening the Iranian market? Other than Boeing, the United States really isn't doing a whole lot of business with Iran, while the rest of the world is. Can’t Iran really live without us anyway?
Phares: Yes, we have the contract with Boeing and then we have a long line of American businesses waiting to do business with Iran. We have stopped not just the contracts under consideration but also many US companies mobilized by the Iranian regime to do business there. Don’t underestimate when a U.S. decision is made public what would happen in other parts of the world. There are many Europeans who will start to calm down and are not going to do business with Tehran. I am not saying all Europeans will follow our lead. Germany under Chancellor Merkel will continue but others may not. The Arab economic and political power of the region will be strengthened by our making those decisions. Moreover, the ripple effect of such Presidential executive orders could go as far as East Asia. Iran has achieved tremendous economic openings, because of the Obama policy, with South Korea, Japan and others. These are our partners in the region who have a common problem with North Korea. Their choice will be: should they risk their relationship with the U.S. now that we have this problem with North Korea and do some business with Iran? I would not underestimate a change in U.S. policy towards Iran, even if we cannot control that change with our partners. They will understand that they would have to rearrange their policies.
Gordon: Syria is foremost in the minds of people trying to find a resolution to nearly six and a half years of a bloody civil war hemorrhaging refugees involving Iran its proxy Hezbollah, the Russians, Turkey, Kurds and others. You have written about this. You have actually been ahead of the pack on this. What are your thoughts and suggestions about what to do?
Phares: Let's address Syria. What we should not see in the Syria resolution is for Assad, Hezbollah and Iran to take back all of Syria and to transform it into an anti-American, anti-Western, anti-moderate entity. On the other hand, we don’t want to see the Jihadists, Al Qaeda, ISIS or Muslim Brotherhood linked organizations take over Syria, bring down Assad and create an Emirate or Caliphate. Everything in between can be looked at as possible solutions. But these are the two “no’s.”
What has happened in Syria over the past six years is a new set of geopolitical realities. One of these realities is that there is a consensus worldwide that ISIS should disappear. Most of ISIS areas are in western Syria. Therefore the forces operating in the northwest of Syria are the Kurds and Arab Sunni in the south. The first recommendation would be to have the US-led coalition establish safe zones. To create those safe zones you are going to have to dismantle ISIS and create this coalition. With regard to the Assad regime, for now it is protected by the Russians. There needs to be a discussion between the President of the United States and President of Russia to solve that issue.
More importantly, the issue is what is going to be the future of Syria? My answer is that I cannot imagine a Syria which won't be federal, which won't give the Kurds autonomy. I'm not addressing who will rule that autonomy, but the principle should be having a Kurdish community with its own autonomy. Every other community in Syria may have its own version of autonomy for the Alawites, the Druze, the Christians and Sunni Arabs. They should be enabled to rule their own areas. Of course we will back the moderates across that federation. However, that seems to be the healthiest geopolitical solution for Syria.
Gordon You have written extensively about the problems of Jihadism and the Sudan, which has been a state sponsor of terrorism. After the election of President Trump you reached out to a number of émigrés, particularly from the Nuba community here in the US. Why is the Sudan a clear and present geo-political danger under President Bashir to the Sahel region of Africa?
Phares: Realize that Sudan has been having these problems, not just during the last six months. We are talking about nearly thirty years since 1989 while an outspoken Jihadi regime has committed genocide first against the south that established its own independent Republic in 2011 and which still has its own its own problems. Then there is genocide perpetrated by the same regime that has been sanctioned by the International Criminal Court. Bashir’s Jihadist militia ravaged Darfur, in the west the Abyei people in the east, the Nubian community in the north and the Nuba people in the south of the Islamic Republic of Sudan. It seems to me that the international community and U.S. effort should concentrate on making a change in Sudan because this regime has been backing Jihadists perpetrating these collective atrocities. There needs to be a regime change. Unfortunately, the Obama administration just before leaving office lifted some U.S. and U.S. backed UN sanctions against the Bashir regime. What Washington should do under the Trump administration with the help of Congress is to put back those sanctions but also develop a coherent Sudan policy. We don’t have one now. We need to speak with the communities inside Sudan and figure out what is their desire for the future.
Bates: Dr. Phares what is the current status of the Muslim Brotherhood vis-a-vis the U.S. State Department and are you expecting any changes under the Trump Administration?
Phares: Under the Obama administration there was no change in terms of the Muslim Brotherhood. It was the opposite. The Muslim Brotherhood was seen as partners within our own homeland. Their NGO's or fronts across the United States have participated in the activities of various departments of the U.S. Government. a number of Congressional members have denounced the Brotherhood in briefings and hearings but nothing has happened. The Brotherhood was able to have an influence at the State Department and other parts of the Obama administration in terms of our policy towards Egypt. We actually backed the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt. We backed Ennahda of Tunisia which is a cousin of the Brotherhood. We backed Brotherhood factions in Libya and across the region. Now this has to change under the Trump administration. President Trump mentioned them in his speeches, as did both Secretary of State Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Mattis.
Bates: Do you expect the President to change that?
Phares: I expect it to change but it's going to take longer than our current expectations.
Bates: Dr. Walid Phares thanks for joining this discussion. You can find Dr. Phares at: www.walidphares.com.
Phares: Thank you for inviting me.
LISTEN to the 1330amWEBY interview with Dr. Walid Phares.