Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Trump in the Middle East (2019)

Specials- Donald Trump
US President Donald Trump speaks to members of the US military during an unannounced trip to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq, December 26, 2018. Photo AFP

Donald Trump’s election in 2016 as president of the United States (US) sent shockwaves around the world. Less shocking is the mark he has left on the Middle East, although he may have irrevo-cably changed American influence in the region. From Syria to Saudi Arabia, here is a look at how Trump’s White House has bullied, brokered and battled its way across the region.

Syria: Punishment and Pullout

Syria has been the standout issue in the Middle East for nearly a decade. However, initially Trump, like his predecessor Barack Obama, was short on strategy, despite his campaign-trail promise to “bomb the s***” out of Islamic State (IS). Like Obama, he used the Kurds to fight IS, supplying them with arms, training and massive air support. His most notable moves were strikes against Ba-shar al-Assad’s regime for its use of chemical weapons – putting Obama’s ‘red lines’ to shame – and the decision to pull out of Syria altogether.

Trump was reportedly horrified by reports of a sarin gas attack on Syrian citizens, ordering a campaign of missile strikes on regime targets. Although the strikes themselves did not amount to much, the order immediately marked his policy as different from his predecessor’s, raising some hopes that he might use his power for good in the region. However, it is his unwillingness to keep America’s military in Syria that will likely define his presidency. The withdrawal of US forces, announced in January 2019 on Twitter, surprising even his defence minister, looks set to end significant US involvement in the region’s most infamous war, which is already heavily influenced by Russia and Iran.

Turkey: Highs and Lows

Trump’s stance toward Turkey has gone from one extreme to the other. However, this testy relationship was in part inherited from Obama, who had long challenged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism after the Gezi protests of 2013. This only intensified with the purge of Turkish society that followed the attempted coup in 2016.

For much of his first two years in office, Trump had a difficult relationship with Turkey’s leaders. Much of the tension centred around the detention of Andrew Brunson (as well as other US-Turkish citizens), with Trump even using tweets threatening economic sanctions to force Brunson’s release. Relations have since warmed, although the US Congress’ decision to block the sale of F-35 jets to Turkey caused Ankara to purchase Russian S-400 missiles instead, invoking fresh US ire.

Yet the two leaders reportedly communicate regularly on the phone, working on issues of mutual interest, primarily Syria. This has resulted in Trump offering Erdogan a prize he has been after for years, namely the establishment of Turkish-controlled ‘safe zones’ along the Syrian-Turkish border that would allow Ankara to crush Kurdish militant groups. Senior US officials immediately tried to avert such a violent turn of affairs. But Washington’s decision to pull out of Syria regardless paves the way for Turkey to dominate Syrian territories beyond its borders.

Israel-Palestine: Dangerous New Chapter

Trump’s Middle East policy may be best remembered for his actions toward Israel. He has been unapologetically on Israel’s side since well before his election, making promises that go far beyond accepted US policy with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The centrepiece of this policy is Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the US embassy there from Tel Aviv, overturning decades of US neutrality on the issue of Jerusalem’s sovereignty. Several other countries have followed suit, giving Israel’s claim to Jerusalem unprecedented international legitimacy. Trump has also remained silent about Israel’s repeated moves to expand its settlements in the West Bank. All this has come at the cost of the Palestinians, with the White House treating them not as a long-oppressed population but as one that must accept its status as a conquered people without complaint.

Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, oversaw negotiations for talks between the two sides, which were described as a complete failure, principally because the US refuses to consider both sides as equals. With Trump’s former United Nations’ rep-resentative Nikki Haley willing to openly lambast anything pro-Palestinian, the administration has been one of the most anti-Palestinian for decades, even stripping UNRWA, the UN Palestinian refugee agency, of much of its funding. With Trump in office, the future of Palestinian rights and statehood looks bleak.

Iraq: Gone and Forgotten

Although Trump has never been keen on US military involvement in the Middle East, he allowed US forces to play a major role (if one largely off the frontlines) in the fight against IS. US airpower and support were integral to IS’ territorial defeat in Iraq, but Trump has since shown little enthusiasm for longer term support to repair the damage caused by the fundamentalist organization.

Much of Mosul lies in ruins and the US – like most Western states – has been reluctant to take back its citizens who joined IS and were captured in Iraq (although it has taken a small number). Further-more, Trump’s administration appears to have little interest in ensuring proper reconstruction, real justice and fair trials in Iraq, potentially laying the groundwork for the same grievances that allowed IS to flourish in the first place.

Despite winning favour with Iraqi Kurds – who nicknamed him ‘Abu Ivanka‘ – for his initial support, Trump has proved unwilling to back Kurdish demands for independence. His administration sided with Baghdad when Erbil held an independence referendum in 2017, ending Kurdish hopes for a state of their own. In the process, Trump potentially lost his opportunity to win the undying love of a new nation. Bill Clinton is still widely revered in Kosovo, decades after backing the independence dream there.

With respect to Iran’s role in Iraq, Trump’s policy is not much different from Obama’s. Given Iraq’s close ties with Iran, particularly on a popular and cultural level among the Shiite majority, challenging or even breaking these ties would be almost impossible for the US, especially in the post-Saddam, post-US occupation era.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt: Pals over Principles

From the early days of his presidency, Trump has fostered close ties with Saudi Arabia. Soon after taking office, Trump was pictured with the Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, leaders of two of the region’s most controversial regimes.

However, Trump’s relationship with Saudi Arabia will no doubt be determined by the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi on 2 October 2018. The available evidence points to Riyadh having planned, carried out and probably ordered the execution and dismemberment of the Washington Post writer. While leading politicians from across the political spectrum (not to mention international allies and human rights organizations) have expressed outrage at the killing, Trump has shown little more than mild consternation.

Although he initially demanded the truth behind Khashoggi’s death, he then appeared willing to cast doubt on his own intelligence apparatus to back the Saudi leadership’s denial of involvement, seemingly based on little but Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s word. The reason? Arms sales. Riyadh has been an eager buyer of US weaponry under both Obama and Trump, but Trump has lauded these sales as key foreign policy successes.

From his near-myopic focus on the dollar value of US actions overseas to his unwavering confidence in his personal relations with leaders rather than the work of his own government agencies, Saudi-US relations are central to Trump’s Middle Eastern foreign policy.

A side effect of this relationship has been US policy in Yemen. Little more than an afterthought in US regional policy, Washington has continued to back the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen politically, despite opposition at home, doing little to bring about an end to the bloody war there. No doubt the US’ hands-off approach is principally to placate its Saudi allies, while a ban on refuelling Saudi military jets aims to ease concerns in the US. Nevertheless, the Khashoggi murder has changed the atmosphere in Washington, with influential senators now trying to end US arms sales to Saudi Arabia and pressing for an end to the war in Yemen.

As with Saudi Arabia, Trump’s Egypt policy has been marked by early public appearances with the country’s strongman and a willingness to overlook broad human rights concerns. In mid-2018, the US released $195 million in previously suspended military aid to Egypt, despite the secretary of state being unable to show that Cairo had met the necessary human rights conditions.

Iran: Arch-Enemy

Since the 1979 revolution, US relations with Iran have been strained at best. The high point was ar-guably the 2015 nuclear deal that was negotiated by Obama and the more moderately minded Iranian government of Hassan Rouhani. Even before his election, Trump was incredibly critical of the nuclear deal, which halted Iranian progress towards a nuclear bomb. He has since withdrawn the US from what he called the “worst deal”.

With a White House populated by hawkish figures like John Bolton, known for his animosity toward Iran, and former Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, Trump has taken an aggressive stance on Iran. Sanctions relaxed after 2015 were re-imposed in 2018, although the Iranian oil industry has not (yet) been shut down, as Trump weighs international partnerships as well as a desire to curb Iranian influence in the Middle East. Still, he has engaged in a fierce Twitter battle with his Iranian counter-parts, matching their rhetoric with warnings of ‘consequences’ for Tehran if it threatens the US. Trump seems unlikely to want another Middle Eastern war on his hands, but his stance on the nuclear deal, in spite of his allies’ support for it, is unlikely to ease tensions.

More aggressive to US enemies, arguably more erratic with US allies and with the financial benefit to the US at the centre of his foreign policy, Trump’s involvement in the Middle East has not been a stabilizing factor in one of the most turbulent periods of the region’s recent history. With at least two years left in the White House, it is too early to say what his lasting legacy in the Middle East will be, but the signs do not point to a positive one.