First on CNN: Adviser says Russia crucial to Trump's Middle East plans

Trump's challenges in the Middle East
Trump's challenges in the Middle East

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Story highlights

  • Trump foreign policy adviser Walid Phares met with Arab ambassadors
  • He named Syria as the top priority, particularly ISIS

Washington (CNN)President-elect Donald Trump's push for greater ties to Russia will help in key administration priorities in the region, starting with ending the civil war in Syria, a Trump foreign policy adviser told Middle East diplomats on Wednesday.

Walid Phares met with Arab ambassadors Wednesday to brief them about the incoming Trump administration's policy toward the Middle East. 
"We invited him as an adviser to President-elect Trump," one of the ambassadors said about the meeting at the Arab League offices in Washington. "We wanted to know what Trump's vision is for the region."
Phares was a foreign policy adviser to Trump's campaign, and he has continue to use the title in foreign media interviews and briefings to diplomats and think tanks around Washington and overseas.
According to four diplomats who participated in the meeting, Phares laid out a broad outline of the President-elect's priorities.
After declining requests for comment, Phares' office told CNN after the story appeared that he is not a member of the Trump transition team and was not speaking in an official capacity. However, several diplomats said that Phares was invited to speak because of his advisory role with the Trump team.
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In the meeting Wednesday, Phares named Syria as the top priority, starting with the campaign against ISIS but also ending the Syrian civil war and alleviating the humanitarian suffering in Syria. Iraq was another priority, although large gains on the battlefield by Iraqi forces have made it less acute than Syria.
That was followed by Libya, where successes by government forces against ISIS and efforts by the internationally supported Government of National Accord -- of which the Obama administration was a key architect -- to impose order in the country continue to be threatened by warning militias. European leaders have voiced concern that the conflict in Libya, if not addressed, could risk another European migrant crisis. 
Yemen's two-year war rounded out the list of immediate priorities. The conflict has been eclipsed by Syria but is a humanitarian catastrophe as well, killing more than 10,000, displacing 3 million and causing widespread food shortages.
On the Iran nuclear deal, Phares said that Trump would review the agreement, push for stronger implementation on some areas and seek to negotiate certain changes, comments similar to the ones he made in an interview with BBC last month. 
The sources said Phares did not have a firm answer for how he planned to strengthen ties with Russia but increase pressure on Iran at the same time -- two policy goals many diplomats have said would be difficult to square. 
However, he did suggest a better relationship with Moscow could help solve outstanding conflicts in the Middle East, pointing to Trump's appointment of Rex Tillerson as secretary of state as potentially facilitating better cooperation with Moscow because of his tight relationships with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other top officials.
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The sources said that Mideast peace was not listed as one of the immediate issues that would be tackled, but Phares did tell the group that Trump was personally interested in trying to make inroads on a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.
He said that he expected Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to be intimately involved on the issue, while mentioning that his daughter Ivanka was expected to be involved on climate change policy.
Phares hedged when asked about pledges by Trump and members of his transition to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, according to those in the room, saying that such a move was "complex" and, if undertaken, would be part of a "process" that would take a long time.  He noted that previous presidents had studied moving the embassy. Last month he told the BBC moving the embassy would happen under "consensus," but not right way.
He didn't have a firm answer when pressed about Trump's views on Islam and his suggestion there could be a Muslim registry, the diplomats said. 
All in all, diplomats said Phares was careful not to go into too much detail on any potential policies, saying they were still being developed and that he didn't have clear direction from the transition.
"Personally, I didn't think we learned anything we didn't already know," one diplomat said. "He was beating around the bush a lot."