A Middle East We’ve Never Faced Before: Dennis Ross Lectures

Story and photos by Diane Joy Schmidt

Dennis Ross arrived in New Mexico to speak on Wednesday, February 15, the same day that Trump and Netanyahu met in Washington. He began his talk by dismissing the flurry of news reports that concluded that Trump had given up on the two-state model. Ross said that, actually, Trump embraced the idea of bringing the Arabs into the equation, and that “by wanting the Arabs to play a role, in wanting there to be a regional dimension, what that guarantees is in fact that there will still be a focus on two states. Because, if you bring the Arabs into this, they will want to say we were able to achieve the Palestinian’s national aspirations, and they won’t be able to say that if there isn’t a Palestinian state.”

Ross then drew a picture of the current conflicts raging in the Middle East and presented what he sees as a strategic moment for the current administration. However, he underscored, four times, that “Donald Trump is going to find a more daunting, more difficult situation in the Middle East than any of his predecessors. There is a threat to the state system in the Middle East that we have never faced before.”


Ross named five conflicts. He said, “In Syria a half million have been killed, 13 million out of 22 million have been displaced, the number of refugees on the outside is 5 million, and the number of displaced on the inside is 8 million. Most of the major cities look like Dresden after World War II. There is not only opposition to Assad, there is opposition to ISIS.” He pointed out that Assad’s army, which started out with 200,000, is now 20,000, a tenth of what it was, so he is using 75,000 imported Shia militia. He added that there are 161 different militias there.

“If the only issue Trump had to deal with what Syria, it would be enough. If this was Passover I would say ‘Dayenu’ but it’s not only Syria, it’s not only Raqqa (an ancient city in northern Syria, east of Aleppo, where ISIS has regional control), there is the fight for Mosul, where we’re backing up the Iraqi military. ISIS has embedded itself there with about one million civilians they treat as human shields. You can’t do what the Russians did in Aleppo and just level the place.”

Ross then took a moment to address one key issue that he sees as of paramount concern. “Wherever the Shi’a militia have entered a region, all the young Sunni males disappear.” He wants the U.S. administration to pay attention to that. “When you militarily defeat ISIS, keep the Shi’a militia out. Someone has to be responsible for governance, and if it isn’t done in a way that includes the Sunnis then the very factors there that produced ISIS in the first place will be re-created. If the Trump administration doesn’t want to deal with ‘Son of ISIS,’ it’s going to have to have a plan in place for not only defeating ISIS but for outcomes afterwards.”

Ambassador Dennis Ross speaking at the Hotel Andaluz
Ambassador Dennis Ross speaking at the Hotel Andaluz

The next problem he described is Yemen. “There is a proxy war going on in Yemen effectively between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Yemen may be the first country in the world to run out of water.” Following a 2014 coup, “Saudi Arabia said that they will not allow the Iranians to create a beachhead on their border.”

The BBC news reports that an unprecedented humanitarian crisis is unfolding there right now after two years of war and that fully a third of Yemen’s population is starving and millions of children could die of hunger in the next six months.

Ross also pointed out that, aside from the humanitarian crisis, there is a pivotal strait there leading out of the Red Sea. Yemen is at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula and stretches across the southern border of Saudi Arabia. The strait here that connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden, the Bab el-Mendeb (in Arabic, literally the Gate of Tears), flows between Yemen and Eritrea on the Horn of Africa.

“Then we have Egypt, a country of 93 million with a shortage of cooking oil sugar and rice.  We have a huge stake in Egypt’s stability. . . it has to be a collective strategy. If it was Egypt alone, I would say ‘Dayenu.’ I’m not even going to mention Libya. This is the landscape that President Trump and his administration confronts. It requires a very consistent approach, a collective approach, to be carefully orchestrated.”

A strategic moment now

After sketching a picture of these conflicts, Ross continued with a strategic analysis. “There is a convergence between the Israelis and the Sunni Arab states that is an unprecedented convergence. It’s not the first time that people have talked about a strategic realignment. Under Reagan, in 1981, Secretary of State Alexander Haig said, ‘there’s a strategically realignment of Israel and the Arab states, a common thread.’ Intellectually he was right but from a practical standpoint he was not, but today there is.

“The Gulf states look at Iran as their preeminent existential threat. Egypt and Jordan are facing threats from ISIS or ISIS related groups and they need Israel’s help. The relationship Israel has with all the Sunni Arab states is unprecedented but it’s below the radar screen. The Arabs don’t broadcast it because of their publics, but from a security operational standpoint it’s unprecedented.

“Trump can use this to help (deal with) Iran and Shia militias and with ISIS and potentially in terms of dealing with the Palestinian issue.”

Ross explained that now is not the time to seek an all-or-nothing solution to the Israeli-Palestinian situation. “We are at a low ebb – it’s worse than during the second intifada, the level of disbelief.” He said there is a poll that shows that “69% of Israelis want a two-state solution but 91% believe it will never happen.” He explained that because, for the Palestinians to negotiate is seen as a concession, there is a role for the Arabs in negotiations. He also said that Saudi Arabia has a national campaign to modernize, that they have lessened the authority of the religious police, and are taking steps to take ARAMCO public.

Three assumptions that were incorrect

Ross then went into an overview of three assumptions U.S. administrations repeatedly made that he has seen were incorrect. First, by distancing from Israel they thought they would improve relations with Arabs and second, he said they assumed that if you cooperate with Israel you lose with the Arabs. Ross pointed out however that, “They (Arabs) never were going to make their relationship with us dependent on our relationship with Israel because they look to us for their security and their survival. We can use that to shape an approach. Is everything going to turn around overnight? No — the struggle in the region is characterized by a struggle over identity, who is going control it and who is going to define it. It requires better governance.”

He then said, “The third assumption, (has been that) we can transform our position in the region, and we couldn’t transform the region itself if we didn’t solve the Palestinian situation.” Ross then pointed out that however, “If tomorrow the Mosaich (Messiah) arrived and suddenly you could solve the Israeli-Palestinian issue, would it end (all these other) wars?”

One-state approach unworkable

He reiterated that the region today is going to be characterized by great turmoil for some time to come, and concluded by affirmed the importance of Israel’s existence, calling it a pillar we can rely on. In the Q&A that followed his talk, in response to a question from the Santa Fe audience, Ross said he does not see a bi-national one-state approach as workable. “With a binational state, you are asking for an enduring conflict – there is the Jewish national liberation movement and the Palestinian liberation organization competing for the same space. There is not a single state in the Middle East where there is more than one identity where there is peace.

“There are 6.5 million Jews living in Israel and the West Bank and 4.1 million Arabs in Israel and the West Bank. 82% of the Palestinians in the West Bank believe the Israelis want to expel them or deny them their rights, and on the Israeli side 64% believe the Palestinians will never accept anything like the Jewish state. When the gap is that great psychologically, it’s not a time when you’re going to produce political outcomes that solve the whole conflict.

“One thing I can guarantee is that whenever you accept an equation that you’re going to solve it all or you’re going to do nothing, you do the nothing, and when you do the nothing you have a vacuum and one thing you can count on in the Middle East is that wherever you create a vacuum, the worst forces will go there.”

Special thanks to Ron Duncan Hart and Gaon Video for videotaping Ross’s talk in Santa Fe. View the entire talk at

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