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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

After one year, Trump’s Middle East policy remains tough on rhetoric but short on action

Whether it is calling Syrian president Bashar Al Assad an “animal” or referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as “rocket man”, it is clear that US president Donald Trump does not shy away from using strong and derogatory terms to describe his opponents. But experts and former US officials say this has not translated into action or a clear strategy to pursue American interests and weaken its rivals.

Mr Trump’s first year of the presidency was marked by the flushing out of ISIL from most of Iraq and key areas in Syria, decertifying the Iran nuclear deal and remedying ties with long-time partners, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. But when it comes to long-term strategy, Mr Trump gets low marks from experts speaking to The National, who say they are able to identify the policy but not a road to implementation — especially when it comes to countering Iran and looking beyond ISIL’s defeat.

“I think the Trump administration’s policies towards the Middle East are still a work in progress,” said Dennis Ross, a distinguished fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The priority of defeating the group [ISIL] has been clear from day one, but it is not clear what the administration’s approach is for after ISIL [is defeated].”

Mr Ross, a former senior US government official who served under Republican and Democratic presidents, said the Iranians and Russians are rushing to fill an imminent vacuum.

“The Iranians are already acting to fill the vacuum, and the Russians are telling the Kurdish forces to make their peace with the Assad regime, which is coming back to [ISIL’s once self-proclaimed Syrian capital] Raqqa,” he said.

Despite Mr Trump’s firm speech in October to confront the “fanatical regime” of Iran, Mr Ross said there is “little evidence” of that in Syria.

Iran-backed forces have helped turn the tide of the Syrian war in the Assad regime’s favour and have also played leading roles in Iraq’s battle to recapture territory from ISIL.

“We’re not seeing [US] action on the ground in Iraq and Syria … both are now in Iran’s orbit,” said Michael Pregent, an adjunct fellow at Hudson Institute. “Donald Trump’s ISIS strategy is unchanged [from that of former US president Barack Obama] though accelerated. We’re still using the wrong force to take back and hold territory from ISIL."

Mr Pregent, a former intelligence official, said that “every ISIL loss has also been a loss for the Sunni population and a gain for Iran in Iraq and Syria”.

Meanwhile, David Shor, a New York-based foreign policy analyst, said: “What’s primarily guiding the Trump Middle East foreign policy is coming from the region itself.”

Mr Shor said that the US president’s statements to counter Iran and its proxies in the Middle East were a major departure from the Obama days.

“Our allies, who under the Obama administration have been pushed to accept his transformative initiatives, are now free to unchain themselves and can now react and correct course,” he told The National.

This was evident in the Gulf crisis, when in June four Arab countries — allies of the US government — cut all transport and diplomatic ties with Qatar — also a US ally — over its support of extremist groups and ties with Tehran. The Trump administration reached a point at which it agreed to disagree with its allies and stopped trying to mediate between the disputing countries.

Mr Pregent, however, warned against the US becoming “over reliant” on its allies to counter Iran in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

Mr Ross, who worked on the Iran file during Mr Obama’s first term, said that Tehran does not seem to be backing off or lacking confidence.

He referenced headlines in the Kayhan newspaper — a hardline Iranian daily — in which Tehran “appeared to take credit for the missile attack on the Riyadh airport and suggested Abu Dhabi might be next”, according to Mr Ross.

He added that the only steps the US is taking against Iran is issuing new sanctions against its Revolutionary Guard and Lebanese proxy Hizbollah. Both Mr Ross and Mr Pegent said that such designations are limited pressure and a continuation of the Obama administration’s approach.

But Mr Ross says it is still too early to point out the administration’s successes and failures in the Middle East.

With hundreds of appointments reportedly remaining vacant in the state department and Mr Trump continuously publicly undermining secretary of state Rex Tillerson, critical parts of foreign policymaking have been outsourced. Mr Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner handles the Israeli-Palestinian portfolio and relations with key Gulf states. Since Mr Trump’s election, Mr Kushner has made three trips to Saudi Arabia, while Mr Tillerson has made two.

Last week, Mr Trump indicated that he was not sure if Mr Tillerson will continue to serve as secretary of state for the duration of the presidency.

"We'll see. I don't know who's going to be [here for the] duration," the US president said in an interview with Fox News.

Reports have suggested that Mr Tillerson may be replaced by US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley or CIA director Mike Pompeo — both of whom are close to Trump’s inner circle and share the same views on Iran.

What seems more certain in Mr Trump's first year in the Middle East is that both Arab and Israeli leaders “still seem to like the fact that he is not Barack Obama”, said Mr Ross. The better chemistry does not necessarily mean there is clarity, however. Leaders in the region "seem unclear about exactly what the administration’s priorities are and whether it is truly committed to remaining in the Middle East”, Mr Ross added.