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Donald Trump and Mohammed bin Salman © The White House

Does Donald Trump Have a Middle East Strategy?

Can Trump’s advisers persuade the president to think about long-term US policy goals in the Middle East instead of succumbing to impulsive decisions?

The increase of US military personnel in the Middle East over recent months reflects President Donald Trump’s promises, as well as the fact that he has surrounded himself with military men such as John Kelly, James Mattis and H.R McMaster. It is no coincidence that Trump chose to appoint these generals to high positions in his government. All of them are experienced and highly respected veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they all seem to agree that leaving the Middle East to Russia is a mistake. Although he has been widely criticized for a lack of clear policies, it seems as if the administration finally knows what it wants in the Middle East.

A Pentagon report has revealed that US military presence in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates has increased by more than 50% in the past four months, which is significantly higher than in any other country in the region. The most plausible reason is that Washington has been mediating in the diplomatic crisis between the Gulf countries and Qatar, which is part of a broader strategy of building a strong coalition to contain Iran.

The US co-signed the recent ceasefire agreement in Syria, and the latest public statements from President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin that “there is no military solution” to the civil war also included a comment about foreign troops having to leave Syria, though without specifying a time frame. In addition, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s demand that the US must stop funding Kurdish fighters in Syria was accepted by the Trump administration, which only confirmed the widespread belief that the US is handing Syria’s future over to Russia, Iran and Turkey.

New Approach

The days of vast US deployments to the Middle East are over, but the Trump administration seems to be devising a new plan. The latest developments in the region have been more dramatic than usual, most notably the actions taken by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). MBS has taken it upon himself to push back Iranian influence in a number of ways. The seemingly forced resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, announced during a visit to Riyadh, was probably the most significant decision by the crown prince, but it is premature to assess whether this plan will work. The decision was an attempt to expose the true intentions of Hezbollah and Iran to the Lebanese people by letting the Iranian regime cement its power in Lebanon further. At the same time, MBS is trying to break the Iranian Shia axis by reaching out to Iraq, punishing Qatar for its ties to Iran, and continuing to support the Syrian opposition at the negotiating table with Russia, Turkey and Iran.

Behind this Saudi-led effort stands the Trump administration. Saudi-US relations are as good as ever, with President Trump supporting King Salman and Prince Mohammed in every possible way. Washington is also providing military assistance to the Saudi-led war in Yemen, and Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has developed a close relationship with MBS. In an unprecedented interview with a Saudi newspaper based in London, Israeli military chief Gadi Eisenkot revealed that, “We are ready to exchange experiences with Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab countries and exchange intelligence information to confront Iran,” contributing to the Trump administration’s and Saudi Arabia’s broader strategic goal of containing Iran.

Interestingly, both Saudi Arabia and the US have more or less handed Syria over to Russia and Iran, which could mean two things: Either it is part of a long-term strategy where Syria is not the key to confronting Iran, or it is a simple coming to terms with the facts on the ground. Given Trump’s rather chaotic first year in office, with scandals, the resignation of key staff and an overall confusing foreign policy, it is more likely that the generals have advised the president to leave Syria alone for now.

When Trump took office, Russia and Iran were already deeply involved in Syria, which meant that he would have to confront President Putin right away in what could have escalated into a war between the US and Russia. When King Salman chose his son, Prince Mohammed, to be the new Saudi defense minister, he made a strategic choice of going to war in Yemen instead, which seemed far less risky and more important at the time. Now, the crown prince has even given up his demand that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down, which caused the leader of the Syrian opposition bloc, Riyad Hijab, to resign. The Syrian opposition might be unhappy with the lack of effort and consistency by Saudi Arabia, but the kingdom has made a clear cost-benefit analysis and made up its mind on Syria. Like the US, it is not in the interest of Saudi Arabia to waste more energy on Syria when it can counter Iran in other areas.

Disagreements

It is difficult to speculate about what actually goes on in the Oval Office when Trump discusses matters like the US strategy in the Middle East with his staff, but the official statements from his closest advisers, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, indicate disagreements on several issues, such as Iran and North Korea. Mattis is known for his hawkish views on Iran, but he has stated that it is in US interests to honor the nuclear deal. This is contrary to Trump who decided to decertify the agreement in October, leaving it to Congress to decide if sanctions should be reimposed.

Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, has been more supportive of the “new Iran strategy” laid out by the president, aiming to fix the fundamental flaws that the nuclear deal contains: “It’s a weak deal that is being weakly monitored. … what the president has done is he has laid out a strategy for dealing with Iran’s destabilizing and dangerous hate filled behavior.” McMaster further said that the US should pay attention to its allies in the region, namely Israel and Saudi Arabia. He thus echoes President Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Prince Mohammed’s rhetoric, backing the broader strategy by the US toward Iran.

Another common ground between the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel is an old but always relevant theme: combating terrorism. MBS has declared it a top priority for Saudi Arabia, and Israel’s history of fighting terrorism speaks for itself.

The question remains of whether the advisers can persuade Trump to think about the long-term goals of US foreign policy in the Middle East instead of succumbing to impulsive decisions he is known for. It is clear that the US is now moving in a direction where confronting Iran — by backing Saudi Arabia and Israel’s actions — is preferable to engaging directly against the Iranians in Syria. Perhaps the recent increase in US military personnel should be seen as America’s attempt to reengage in the region.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: The White House