The Trump administration’s Middle East policy has thus far has been a dramatic departure from President Obama’s approach to the region. Up to now, the Trump effect on the Greater Middle East has been a welcome recalibration of American relations with area countries, moving away from the Obama Administration’s overtures towards Iran and returning to the traditional alliances with Israel, the Sunni Gulf states and with Egypt. It has also focused attention on creating a new strategy in Afghanistan that includes a build up of U.S. and possibly NATO forces to counter both the Taliban and IS.
Thus far, the Trump administration’s efforts have been in the following key areas:
Shoring Up Regional Allies
President Trump’s outreach to the Sunni Gulf states has rallied the Sunni Arabs against Tehran and sends a clear signal that Obama’s conciliatory approach towards Iran is over.
This marked change in Washington’s Iran policy has brought relief to the leaders of Israel and the Sunni Gulf States, both of whom had reservations about President Obama and what they believed to be a soft and dangerous policy towards Iran. These regional leaders want to work with President Trump who has billed himself as someone who will be tough on terror and who will take a hard line against Iran, their principal adversary.
It is no secret that the Sunni Gulf States and Israel want to work with the U.S. on better arms deals and upgraded security cooperation, and Mr. Trump’s recent trip to the region cemented in their minds that he is their partner.
One sign of this is the development this month of Arab countries suspending relations and travel with Qatar for its ties to Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements. This bold move by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Yemen and the eastern government in divided Libya is an indication of their confidence in Mr. Trump’s public support for their endeavors to counter both Tehran and Sunni Islamist terror.
Beyond this, the Trump administration is making efforts to repair political and security ties with longstanding ally Egypt after relations frayed during the Obama administration.
During Mr. Trump’s Israel visit, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu got what he wanted with commitments by Mr. Trump for enhanced cooperation with the U.S. on Israel’s security and geopolitical challenges. Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Trump also went out of their way to display a willingness to work with one another, a marked departure from the frosty relations that the Prime Minister had with President Obama.
The President’s visit to the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem- – the first by a sitting U.S. president – – was an indication of America’s support for Israel and its way of life amid ongoing threats.
Additionally, the Trump administration has stepped up efforts to support Israel against the political attacks it faces at international forums like the United Nations. Outraged by the prior administration’s abstention from a UN vote condemning Israeli settlements, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has taken great pains to show her steadfast support of Israel.
President Trump has aggressively targeted IS positions with air power in Iraq where U.S. advisors continue to assist their Iraqi counterparts to defeat IS in the Battle of Mosul. Concurrently, the assault on the IS capital in Raqqa, Syria has commenced with the U.S. providing air power, artillery, intelligence and other capabilities to the endeavor.
One of the many complicating factors involved in the fight against IS are the actions of Turkey, a NATO ally of the U.S. that has opposed Washington’s backing of Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq out of concern for the groups’ alleged ties to Kurdish separatist organizations inside Turkey. While pledging support in the fight against IS, Turkish warplanes have bombed the Y.P.G. Kurdish militia in Syria and Kurdish pesh merga fighters in Iraq, two groups that have played important parts in the fight against IS. This has put strains on Ankara’s and Washington’s efforts against IS and is likely to continue given the key roles played by the Y.P.G. and the pesh merga forces.
Elsewhere, Mr. Trump has also devoted more resources towards fighting IS – – mostly with airpower – – in Libya, Africa and increasingly Afghanistan.
Syrian Civil War
The Trump Administration has shown that it is not inclined to become involved in the Syrian civil war with boots on the ground against Assad’s forces and partners. As Russia, Iran and Assad’s forces control most of Syria’s territory and air space, the U.S. lacks leverage in realizing desired outcomes in this prolonged war.
As a result, Washington’s involvement in the Syrian civil war has been relegated towards funding and training its own proxies, pursuing diplomatic outcomes and conducting occasional strikes on Assad when its military threatens U.S. forces in the country or when chemical weapons are used against civilian populations.
Mr. Trump has frequently expressed his distrust of Iran and its government, and, unsurprisingly, pulled back from former President Obama’s engagement with the regime. While he did not live up to his campaign promise of ripping up the nuclear agreement with Tehran, President Trump has taken a hard line against the country and has imposed additional sanctions. His appointment of Jim Mattis, a well-known Iran hawk, as Secretary of Defense, is one indication of Mr. Trump’s belief that Mr. Obama became too friendly with Iran and that its power in the region needs to be checked.
Additionally, Trump has backed Middle East states that are under assault by Iran’s proxies, namely, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Lebanon and Yemen. Yemen is perhaps the most widely covered example with the sitting Yemeni government and Saudi Arabia fighting against the Iran-funded Shia Houthi rebels in their attempt to overthrow the government in Sana’a. The political landscape in Iraq, meanwhile, continues to be widely influenced by Iran, a process that accelerated when U.S. forces withdrew from the country in 2011.
The Trump administration has committed to countering IS threats in Afghanistan as well as gains made by the Taliban in recent years following President Obama’s reduction of forces in the country. During his June 13 testimony before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis acknowledged that the U.S. was “not winning” in Afghanistan, stating “we need to correct this as soon as possible” and affirmed that the administration would finalize its new Afghanistan strategy by mid-July.
Amid reports in the media that up to 4,000 additional troops will be deployed to Afghanistan, Secretary Mattis promised the Senate Armed Services Committee a new approach to America’s longest war, asserting that it would be wrong to “walk away” from the conflict.
Additionally, the White House has given Secretary Mattis the authority to determine U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, paving the way for troop increases requested by U.S. commanders. This delegation of authority is long overdue, serving as a departure from President Obama’s practice of centralizing battlefield decisions in the White House, a practice that some of his critics called NSC (National Security Council) micromanaging.
In sum, the fledgling Trump administration has implemented a number of marked changes to President Obama’s Middle East policies, most notably a realignment with traditional partners amid efforts to blunt Iranian behavior in the region, a ramping up of efforts to defeat the Islamic State and a recommitment to the fight in Afghanistan. These policy changes have provided a jolt to Washington’s Greater Middle East policy, setting it on a foundation to both support allies and implement needed change to the prior administration’s ineffectual approach to the region.
Ted Gover, Ph.D. is Instructor of Political Science at Central Texas College, Camp Pendleton, California.