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An open letter to presidential candidates on Middle East policy

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To whoever wins the presidential election, here is some free advice regarding your foreign policy towards the Middle East:

First and foremost, recognize and truly understand that the Middle East is not the biggest threat to American security. Instead, our efforts should focus on Russia and its desires for regional and international hegemony. Vladimir Putin needs to be contained and slowed in his machinations for Russian domination, in both Eastern Europe and the Middle East. With an increase in air strikes in Aleppo, it is clear that Putin and the Russian government have no intentions of slowing their aggressive policy throughout the world in an attempt to spread their influence and soft power. As such, our foreign policy needs to be directed towards slowing their advances, primarily through an international coalition committed to restraining the Russian bear.

That said, in no way should you sever all ties with the Middle East. Naturally, maintain current relationships and alliances. Continue to be amicable with the Saudis and maintain support for Israel (although a paradigmatic shift would be welcome there, shifting American special treatment of Israel to a more traditional ally relationship). In addition, continue to build new relationships, particularly with Iran. Pick up where President Obama left off: confirm the Iranian nuclear deal and work to strengthen those ties even more. For the first time since the late 1970s, Iran and the United States are on good terms (evidence of this can be seen by the exchange of prisoners and the uneventful American broach of territorial integrity a few weeks ago). Particularly with lifted sanctions, Iran is poised to once again become a regional leader in the Middle East; fostering friendly relations between their country and ours would be an immeasurable boon.

It is difficult to talk about contemporary Middle Eastern issues without bringing up ISIS. This radical terrorist group should not be avoided, but there most certainly is a right and a wrong way to go about defeating them. Above all, the United States should refrain from entering into conflicts that do not pertain to them. Despite the rhetoric and media-induced fear, ISIS threatens Syria and Iraq more than it threatens America. As such, it should be Arab nations that defeat the terrorist group, not American soldiers. The U.S. should be at the forefront of a coalition designed to fight ISIS, but should offer only technological and logistical support rather than boots on the ground. In addition to structural military support, we should attempt to tackle the very reason why ISIS, and other radical groups like it, spring up. Beneath it all is political disenfranchisement. In both Iraq and Syria, the Shia and Alawi minorities have dominated the Sunni majority politically (the Shia dominating the Sunnis in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003; the Alawi having the upper hand in Syria since Bashar al-Assad’s rise to power in 2000). In order for stability to return to the region, this needs to change. Without the prospect of legitimate representation in government, it becomes abundantly clear why ISIS and its offshoots can attract such massive throngs of believers. By leading a coalition designed to reform the Iraqi and Syrian governments to return this political representation, we have the opportunity to undermine the very foundation of ISIS, weakening it not only in the immediate but in the long-term as well.

Just as we can’t ignore ISIS, we can just as little afford to ignore Syria. Home to some amazing and extremely important history, Syria has devolved into a dangerous imbroglio, threatening not only our world’s cultural heritage, but hundreds of thousands of people as well.

Now complicated by the presence of ISIS, the Syrian civil war has escalated into an extremely devastating affair, both for the Syrian people and for the countries in and around the Levant. As a world leader, it should be the United States’ role to help solve this problem. It is not, however, our role to impart our specific world view or to militarily force a solution down Assad and the rebels’ throats. Instead, the United States should build off of recent success in Munich in negotiating a cease-fire. This style of positive diplomacy must continue, eventually pushing to promote a viable solution to the conflict. One avenue to explore is increasing federalism within a new, unified Syria, giving the Kurds, Sunnis, and Alawis more autonomous power in their respective regions. While not always a solution, ethnic partition seems logical, seeing as the earlier project of Ba’athism has clearly failed. Whether through this or some other modus vivendi, it should be our role to facilitate détente through diplomatic means rather than through force.

It is naïve, for a multitude of reasons, to imagine that any president could solve the issues tearing the Middle East apart. There are, however, certain policies that will help alleviate some of the stresses and others that will only enhance them.

So, to the next Mr. or Mrs. President, I sincerely hope that you consider the advice outlined above. For everyone’s sake.

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