Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 24 May 2019

Trump's Middle Eastern policy has made it more unsafe

Two years into his presidency, America's power in the region has not been enhanced, nor the goals of allies furthered

A military vehicle at the scene of an ISIS suicide car bomb attack on a US-Kurdish military convoy in Syria's northeastern Hasakeh province, which killed five people / AFP
A military vehicle at the scene of an ISIS suicide car bomb attack on a US-Kurdish military convoy in Syria's northeastern Hasakeh province, which killed five people / AFP

In a week that marks the second anniversary of his inauguration, Donald Trump has fulfilled expectations that he would reshape America’s relationship with the Middle East.

His promises on the campaign trail were sometimes provocative and did not always seem attainable. But two years on, he has fulfilled many of the things he promised – to both the delight and dismay of his allies. That Mr Trump is doing things differently in the Middle East is no longer in doubt. Whether he is doing them successfully is still unclear.

On the campaign trail, he lamented the US’s involvement in the wars of the Middle East. Last month, he announced he was bringing US troops home from Syria and reducing the number of military personnel in Afghanistan by half to about 7,000. He promised to hit ISIS hard; with the help of allies, he has done that, although his claim that "we have defeated ISIS in Syria" has already been proven fatally wrong by recent attacks on US troops on the ground.

A US Navy carry team carry the body of Scott Wirtz, one of four Americans killed during a suicide bombing in the northern Syrian city of Manbij. EPA / Scott Serio
A US Navy carry team carry the body of Scott Wirtz, one of four Americans killed during a suicide bombing in the northern Syrian city of Manbij. EPA / Scott Serio

While running for president, he controversially promised "a total and complete" ban on Muslims entering the US. In office, he has enforced a travel ban on six Muslim-majority countries.

He pledged to move Israel’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and followed through on his promise in May last year, despite widespread criticism of his acknowledgement of the city as the capital of Israel, overriding Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem. He has yet to deliver a peace plan, the so-called deal of the century that he says will bring “lasting peace”. That has been postponed until after the Israeli elections in April.

He promised, too, to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which he did, infuriating European allies and pleasing Arab ones.

So the Middle East, halfway through Mr Trump’s first term, certainly looks different.

Yet America's power has not been enhanced, nor the goals of its allies always furthered. Indeed, if anything, Mr Trump's decisions have made allies in the region less safe and allowed rivals to expand their spheres of influence.

One reason is that Mr Trump has sought to distance himself from Barack Obama, not only in policy but in style.

He has been pugnacious, even aggressive, with allies, often heedless of the diplomatic consequences. His decisions have enhanced a view of this US administration as mercurial, lacking policy depth and preferring ideology to strategy.

He has shown – as with his hasty withdrawal from Syria, or sudden but largely ineffectual air strikes against Syrian military bases in response to chemical attacks against civilians, or the unexpected cut in funding to UNRWA, the UN body that helps Palestinian refugees – that he is willing to make snap decisions and expects allies to simply deal with the consequences.

A US army convoy patrolling near the city of Tall Tamr, in the northwestern Syrian province of Hasakah. AFP
A US army convoy patrolling near the city of Tall Tamr, in the northwestern Syrian province of Hasakah. AFP

There is a clear contrast with Mr Obama's deliberate, long-term planning, even if the results of that deliberation – the nuclear deal with Iran, the hesitancy over Syria – were not always welcomed in the region.

Two years on, however, that mercurial nature is having a marked effect in the Middle East.

Moving the Israeli embassy weakened the Palestinian Authority, thereby strengthening Hamas. Abandoning the Kurds with his sudden withdrawal of troops gave succour to their enemies. Slapping economic sanctions on Turkey in autumn last year, a fellow member of Nato, has pushed a pivotal country to seek more reliable allies. A developing Russian-Turkish-Iranian axis has strengthened as a result.

Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, right, and US Republican senator Lindsey Graham discussing the US withdrawal from Syria last week.Turkish Foreign Ministry Press Service via AP / pool
Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, right, and US Republican senator Lindsey Graham discussing the US withdrawal from Syria last week.Turkish Foreign Ministry Press Service via AP / pool

And it is there that the sum total of Mr Trump's actions and attitude has had its greatest impact. Because the greatest beneficiaries of two years in office have broadly been those opposed to US policy.

Russia, in particular, has returned to an oversized role in the region – from Iran through to Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Libya, there are few countries where it is not active. Russia's backing has propped up the regime of Bashar Al Assad in Syria and has been influential in balancing the interests of parties like Iran, Turkey and Israel.

Iran, certainly, was dealt a significant blow with the loss of the nuclear deal but it has continued its expansion into countries in the region relatively unchallenged by the US. The Syrian regime has had little to fear from Mr Trump and was even unexpectedly gifted responsibility for the Kurds, when the US troop withdrawal forced them to seek Damascus's protection against Turkey.

If the US continues its retreat from the region, that impact and those new alliances are inevitable.

Arab allies in the Gulf were pleased when the Iran deal was scrapped but removing “every Iranian boot” from Syria will be difficult without a US presence. Getting rid of the remaining pockets of ISIS in Syria without the US will require vigilance and a mass co-ordinated effort from the Global Coalition in conjunction with Middle Eastern countries closest to the threat.

America claims to want to maintain a close relationship with historic allies in the Middle East but its conspicuous military and political retreat says otherwise. Ultimately, Washington's allies will have to do more themselves and seek alliances elsewhere.

Yet Mr Trump's policies have only sped up that process, not created it.

Because while Mr Trump has differed in both substance and style from Mr Obama, on this long-term trend they are agreed: the US is retreating from the Middle East. Mr Obama may have wanted to pivot to Asia and Mr Trump may want to surround himself with walls but the actions of both, from the perspective of the Middle East, amount to the same thing.

Two years of Mr Trump have changed many facts on the ground but it has not altered a fundamental strategic realignment. America's soldiers might not be heading home but they are leaving the Middle East.

Updated: January 22, 2019 05:30 PM

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