Former US national security advisor: Trump team deserves ‘no more than a C+’ on Middle East approach

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Delil Souleiman | AFP | Getty Images A picture taken on December 30, 2018, shows a line of US military vehicles in Syria's northern city of Manbij.

U.S. President Donald Trump's administration deserves "no more than a C plus" for how it has addressed conflict in the Middle East, according to a former U.S. national security advisor.

James Jones — who served as NSA under former President Barack Obama and as supreme allied commander of NATO forces in Europe during George W. Bush's presidency — said Monday that it isn't clear exactly what the White House wants to do in the Middle East because of apparently "disparate" messages it has sent. However, Jones ultimately expressed optimism that the United States will stay committed to the region.

"I think generally — with regard to the main threats: with regard to Iran, with regard to ISIS, with regard to Russia — I would say, at this point, because there's some confusion, I would say, no more than a C plus," Jones told CNBC's "Capital Connection" when asked what grade he would give to the administration's handling of the various issues in the Middle East.

On one such issue — the planned U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria — Jones said the tensions that have arisen between Washington and Ankara should not be litigated in public, but rather by careful discussion between the two governments.

"You really have to have serious meetings at both capitals with the intent of fixing what right now is somewhat fractured," he said.

That comment came after Trump threatened in a Sunday evening Twitter post to "devastate" Turkey's economy if the NATO ally "hit" the Kurds.

As the U.S. prepares to withdraw from Syria, it's set to leave behind an increasingly fraught situation between its Kurdish partners on the ground and its ally in Ankara. Turkey has said it is planning an offensive against the Kurds, but Washington has said it requires guarantees of safety for the Kurdish fighters that helped it against Islamic State, the extremist group also known as ISIS.

'We're the only ones'

As for Iran's role in Syria's conflict, Jones said he believes Tehran won't "change its stripes."

"It has not shown, in my view, any indication that it is ready to join the family of nations in the civilized world. It's still the No. 1 exporter of terrorism, of instability in the region, the support to the war in Yemen, it has an ambition to build a connector all the way from Tehran to Beirut," he said.

"And we're the only ones, I think, with our coalition, that can stop that."

The U.S. withdrawing too much from the Middle East will not only encourage Iran to build that connection across the Southern border of Turkey, but may also lead to an increased role for Russia in the region, Jones said.

Ultimately, the former national security advisor said he believes that the American commitment to the Middle East, in particular to the "existential threat" posed by Iran, is "solid, genuine and unshakable."

"The question is, you know: How do we convince them that we're really serious?" he said. "I think it would be a strategic mistake for Iran to read into this current situation that they can start raising all kinds of mischief again."

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