Navigating Middle East Turmoil: A Conversation with Dennis Ross

by Forum Staff

In a recent conversation with the Fletcher Forum editorial team, the Former U.S. Envoy to the Middle East Dennis Ross explores how the struggle between radical Islamists and non-radical Islamists is shaping the Middle East and U.S. policy in the region. At the heart of the struggle is the future of pluralism, one that requires the U.S. to balance its support of some unscrupulous, yet pro-Western, regimes with its ideals of human rights and democracy. Ross spoke about the non-linear nature of foreign policymaking: it requires recognition that policies are often riddled with tensions and complications that require tradeoffs.

Ambassador Dennis Ross is counselor and William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Prior to returning to the Institute in 2011, he served two years as special assistant to President Obama and National Security Council senior director for the Central Region, and a year as special advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

FLETCHER FORUM: What are your thoughts on the U.S.-Turkey relationship? How can the U.S. persuade Turkey to join the broader coalition actively engaged in fighting ISIS?

ROSS: It is hard to talk about Turkey separate from the personality, persona, and ideological approach of its president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He is an Islamist. He is someone who very much identifies with the Muslim Brotherhood. Now that doesn’t mean he identifies with ISIS [the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria]; he’s not a radical, but he falls into the category of individuals who see the world through an ideological lens that puts religion before civilian authority.

Today he is caught on the horns of a dilemma. He can see ISIS as a real threat. On the other hand, you can see his unconscionable behavior blocking access to Kobani. Now he is allowing resupplies to enter only after the U.S. forced his hand by air dropping supplies.

Turkey is a member of NATO. They are a formal treaty ally. We have converging interests when it comes to ISIS and we also have areas where we disagree. We need to focus on areas of convergence and manage areas of disagreement. But we should also leave no doubt in Erdoğan’s mind that we will oppose him when we find his behavior unacceptable. We need to go into this relationship with eyes wide open and recognize that Erdoğan is driven by his ideology.

FLETCHER FORUM: What should our strategy be for combating ISIS and stabilizing Syria?

ROSS: Notwithstanding some of the problems I’ve raised with Erdoğan’s policies, I do think he is right on a number of issues. I think he is right that there needs to be a buffer zone. I think he is right that there needs to be a safe haven. And I think he is right that there ought to be a no-fly zone.

You are not going to build a set of partners that can replace ISIS on the ground if you don’t have an area from which you can do that. We need to build a government in waiting, one that creates a magnet for a coherent political opposition to President Bashar al-Assad.

We also need to directly take on President Assad. When we bomb ISIS infrastructure in Syria, but we don’t touch any of Assad’s capabilities—especially as Assad doubles down his offensive against non-ISIS opposition—we are leaving a vacuum. And we’ve seen what has happened when we leave a vacuum in the region.

FLETCHER FORUM: Does that mean we need U.S. boots on the ground?

ROSS: I don’t think it means U.S. combat boots on the ground, but we do need to do more. We need to do more to convince the Sunni tribes in Iraq to join us, and that won’t be easy. We betrayed every promise we made to them when we were in Iraq and may need some people on the ground to help convince them to join us.

FLETCHER FORUM: Stepping back a bit, how does the U.S. navigate the complex relationships and tensions of the Middle East without the perception of picking sides

ROSS: The divide in the region is not in the coalition we are building against ISIS, nor is it a Sunni-Shia divide. The real divide in the Middle East is between radical Islamists and non-Islamists. It’s between Hezbollah, ISIS, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood—all radical Islamists that reject civil authority, the legitimacy of the state, and pluralism—and non-Islamist states like Egypt, Jordan, the Emirates, Kuwait, Morocco, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia.

Are the non-Islamists democrats? No. Are many of them authoritarian? Yes. But are they our natural partners when making sure the radical Islamists don’t win? Yes. Do we have to manage these relationships carefully so their behaviors don’t foster the very radical Islam we are trying to defeat? Yes. But if the radical Islamists win, then there is no hope for pluralism.

So we need to start by ensuring the radical Islamists don’t win. Let’s focus first on security. But at the same time, let’s not lose our voice. We have to be who we are. We have to tell [authoritarian regimes] that we will call them out for human rights abuses or other policies we think will give rise to radical Islamists.

In the end, this not a linear policy. This is not a policy without tensions. It’s complicated. But we have to look long-term here.

FLETCHER FORUM: When you say non-Islamists do you mean secularists or anybody that is not radical?

ROSS: I mean anybody that is not radical. It would be hard to call a country like Saudi Arabia non-Islamist, but they are not radical. The civil authority is beginning to see the consequences of the things they have done. They see the threat of radical Islam and they are trying to do something about it.

FLETCHER FORUM: Is there a role for moderate political Islam in the region, such as the AKP in Turkey or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt?

ROSS: Look, I met President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in New York not long ago, and he told me “I’m a Muslim.” Who is the Muslim Brotherhood to deny me my identity? Now his challenge is not to lump all the opposition or all the challengers into one camp. You don’t want to turn everybody into a radical opponent.

The problem with the Muslim Brotherhood when they were in power wasn’t just that they were exclusive, it was that they were Islamists first and Egyptians second. The Muslim Brotherhood had a majoritarian approach to government—meaning “when we win we rule, and you have no role in government.”

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