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Syria: The biggest issue for the next US president?
00:41 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Editor’s note: CNN International Correspondent Ben Wedeman has lived on and off in the Middle East since the 1970s and has covered the region extensively.

Story highlights

Challenge in middle eastern diplomacy awaits Donald Trump

CNN's Ben Wedeman: Top priorities should be a softer approach, focusing on education and trade

CNN  — 

The next US President will have a lot of global challenges to deal with, and the Middle East is one of them. Here’s what you need to know.

Trump on the Middle East

“If I become President, the era of nation-building will be ended. Our new approach, which must be shared by both parties in America, by our allies overseas, and by our friends in the Middle East, must be to halt the spread of Radical Islam,” Trump announced in a foreign policy speech in August.

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One map that sums up the Middle East

There are four active wars in the Middle East – Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya – and the US is involved to varying degrees in all of them. And where there isn’t full-scale war, there is profound uncertainty.

In Egypt, the economy is in steep decline and the regime of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is waging a low level battle against an affiliate of ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula.

Israel is never far from launching yet another war on Gaza (there have been three in the past seven years).

Turkey has locked up or dismissed tens of thousands of policemen, soldiers, teachers and other government employees in the aftermath of the failed July 15 coup, is fighting Kurdish separatists, has intervened in Syria and is threatening to join the fight against ISIS in Iraq against the wishes of the government in Baghdad.

Saudi Arabia is facing huge financial troubles, thanks to falling oil prices and a lack of other significant sources of income.

All of the above have created an atmosphere of profound instability, which is why hundreds of thousands of people are trying to flee to Europe.

To sum it up, the Middle East is a mess (partially due to Western meddling, it must be stressed) devoid of easy solutions.

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What is Trump’s top Middle East priority in the first 100 days?

Trump should conduct a thorough review of US policy on the Middle East since 1945 – what went right (very little) and what went wrong (just about everything).

What worked was the softer approach, focusing on education and trade. What has not worked is military intervention, regime change, and grand schemes to reshape the region.

He will have a big job getting up to speed on the Middle East, and the State Department and Pentagon will have to brief him on international law and military strategy. No, you can’t keep Iraq’s oil, and no, “bombing the s***” out of ISIS (whatever that means) isn’t going to fix anything.

Can Trump fix this in the first term?

No. Not in the first term, not in the foreseeable future. If the lessons of the last decades are anything to go by, the “solution” to one problem usually means the creation of another.

Saddam Hussein was perceived as a “problem,” so President George W. Bush led the “Coalition of the Willing” to depose him, and now we have ISIS. The US, its allies, and Iraqi forces are dealing with ISIS – but having spent copious amounts of time in Iraq in recent years, I have yet to meet a single person who labors under the delusion that peace and prosperity will follow the terror group’s demise. Syria is, if anything, even more intractable.

And then there is poor Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, the richest countries in the Arab world, are busy mauling it with US and Western-made weapons as they fight a proxy war with Iran. On the Israel-Palestinian question, one administration after another has exerted half-hearted efforts to resolve the conflict, to no avail.

Look, US policy in the Middle East is not working. Post-1945 US involvement in the region has been a disaster, post-9/11 even worse. Something has to change. My advice to Trump is: Pull back. Stop messing around in the region. Focus on what has worked in the past, like education and trade. Stop selling obscene amounts of weaponry to regimes that use them to fuel wars. The job of President of the United States is a thankless one, and when it comes to the Middle East, a hopeless one as well.

How big a priority is the Middle East for CNN readers?

A big one – Syria was the top international priority according to a very unscientific poll of CNN readers who took part in our interactive feature on the 10 biggest global challenges facing the next President. Iran was fourth and Iraq came in sixth.

What’s your biggest priority for the next President? Take our quiz and let us know.