US President Donald Trump made his first trip to the Middle East in late May. The visit was significant because it established the framework for the new administration’s policy towards the region. Although in some respects this framework represents continuity with the policies of the Obama administration, it departs from them in other ways. The trip also coincided with an open rupture among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, where Saudi Arabia and other GCC partners – along with Egypt – economically and diplomatically isolated Qatar over its connections with Iran and support for the Muslim Brotherhood, and in which the White House and the US Department of State intervened in apparently incompatible ways.
In broad terms, there are fairly striking similarities between the Obama administration’s stance towards the region and the Trump administration’s initial posture. Regarding the most salient current issue, the civil war in Syria, the respective administrations staked out congruent positions. Neither wished to intervene as a combatant in the war between the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and its allies Russia, Iran and Hizbullah, on the one hand, and the Syrian opposition and its main supporters Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), on the other. Both administrations made rhetorical gestures that privileged diplomacy, while largely avoiding significant military assistance to opposition forces, though the provision of enhanced American weaponry was under consideration. Similarly, neither administration materially challenged Russia’s interest in Assad prevailing in the conflict or attempted to interdict strong Russian military support for the Assad regime. Rather, the common focus of the two administrations was on the suppression of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, in Iraq and Syria. The execution of that campaign has not substantially changed in scope or intensity since Obama left office. The effort has been arduous and, while it is not yet complete, the timeframe and level of effort correspond closely to the plan announced by Obama in the summer of 2014. Given that the military outcome in favour of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition was never in doubt, the Trump administration had little incentive to alter the nature of the campaign.
The United States did strike the regime’s Shayrat air base shortly after the apparent April 2017 delivery of chemical weapons (CW) from that location on an opposition-held town in Idlib province, but the retaliatory measure was both reflexive and inevitable. Given the controversy surrounding the Obama administration’s September 2013 decision to opt for the large-scale destruction of most of Syria’s CW stocks, instead of striking back against the regime for demonstrable CW strikes on opposition civilians, no US administration could have realistically avoided a military response to a second major CW attack. Tellingly, however, the retaliatory action, involving 59 Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles, was clearly perfunctory – very few Syrian aircraft were damaged and the airfield resumed flight operations within 24 hours. More recently, in June 2017, the White House claimed that the regime was preparing to launch another CW attack – an assertion that reportedly mystified senior Pentagon officials – and, when no strike took place, declared that the US disclosure of Syrian intentions prevented the anticipated attack.
Regarding Iran, the new administration has been fiercely critical of the clerical regime but has nonetheless certified to the US Congress that Iran was complying with the terms of the P5+1 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and, contrary to Trump’s campaign rhetoric, no senior US officials have yet indicated that Washington intends to withdraw from the JCPOA unilaterally. The administration’s posture on Egypt’s post-coup government has a warmer tone than Obama’s but, in practice, remains very much the same. Assistance levels and the terms of assistance are unchanged, while the Egyptians are moving forward with a large Russian arms deal and with legislative action intended to criminalise the interaction of Egyptian citizens with US-funded democracy advocates. With respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Trump administration – again in contrast to Trump’s campaign grandstanding – has articulated a strong interest in forging a peace deal and, like the Obama White House, has groused about Israeli settlement activity, characterising it as an obstacle to peace.
The president’s Middle East trip and the intra-GCC rift that followed have raised doubts about whether this pattern of continuity will persist. During Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, the administration announced a US$110 billion arms deal with Riyadh that included multi-mission frigates, the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system and Black Hawk helicopters. The ‘deal’ turned out to be a collection of letters of intent rather than actual contracts, elements of the package are facing congressional resistance on grounds of being strategically destabilising, and such arrangements are routinely announced by any administration for purely symbolic purposes. Nevertheless, the arms package reinforced the intended image of a president tilting hard towards Sunni Gulf allies with an eye to confronting Iran more aggressively. Among senior White House aides – particularly National Security Council Senior Director for the Middle East and North Africa Derek Harvey (a former advisor to General David Petraeus in Iraq), Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon and Senior Advisor for Policy Stephen Miller – anti-Iran sentiment is burgeoning. The US leadership has never been pro-Iranian in any meaningful sense, but the Obama administration did believe that making a deal with Iran that blocked its path to a nuclear weapon over a ten-year period and suspended sanctions would boost moderate forces in Tehran. From the perspective of former Obama administration officials, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s fairly easy re-election earlier in 2017, despite the opposition of many clerics and the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was a favourable leading indicator.
The Trump administration tends to view Iranian politics as monolithic and to hold that there are no moderates within the Iranian government. Rouhani, in its estimation, is merely a useful mask for an implacably extremist and anti-American regime. To mistake the appealing carapace for the ugly face of Iran’s actual powerbrokers constitutes, in the minds of Trump’s senior advisors, a strategic and moral error. Sharing this view are many Republican members of Congress, led by Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), one of Obama’s most strident critics and a firm believer in the need to discard the JCPOA to pave the way for crippling economic sanctions on Iran. Legislation along these aggressively neoconservative lines – which cuts against Trump and Bannon’s insular, quasi-isolationist impulses – is now circulating in Congress. Its advocates appear to hope that an escalation of unilateral sanctions on Iran based on human-rights violations and ballistic-missile proliferation would so damage the Iranian economy that Tehran itself would reject the JCPOA. Pushing Iran into a corner in this way, they believe, would free the United States to escalate while retaining the moral high ground.
The Trump administration’s rhetoric suggests that the international legitimacy accorded Iran by the JCPOA has undermined the containment of Iran, a policy that goes back to the Reagan administration in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Accompanying this line of reasoning has been renewed talk of regime change, a policy objective that had been disavowed when Trump took office but was advanced in mid-June by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and by a host of Republican stalwarts at a large rally in Paris. Advocates of regime change believe that successive administrations of both major US political parties have fecklessly emboldened Iran to intensify its efforts to dominate the Middle East. Thus, they have concluded that a more appropriate policy would be rollback – that is, not merely containing Iran’s burgeoning ambition, but pushing Iran’s power back to its borders. The most challenging question for them is where to start.
Iraq is not a good candidate. The Iraqi government has close ties to Iran for historical reasons and the US itself opened the door to an entrenched Iranian presence in Iraq by deposing Saddam Hussein in 2003. Nor is Lebanon a practical venue for rollback. It currently enjoys a modicum of stability despite the anarchic conditions prevailing in neighbouring Syria, in part because Hizbullah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, is a legitimate political party closely linked to Lebanon’s largest Christian party. Any attempt to roll back Iran by destroying Hizbullah would wreak civil havoc in Lebanon and probably precipitate fighting between Israel and Hizbullah that would damage Israel’s as well as Lebanon’s security. A Saudi and Emirati attempt at rolling back Iranian involvement in Yemeni politics on behalf of the minority, predominantly Shia Houthi movement is already underway. Although it has thus far failed to achieve its goals, the military campaign there has been so damaging to Yemen’s civilian infrastructure and population that the US has been compelled to withhold the all-out support that the Saudis and Emiratis would like. By default, therefore, the most suitable place for the United States to roll back Iranian power would be Syria.
The premise for challenging Iran in Syria is Tehran’s alleged determination to establish a land corridor through Syria to the Levantine coast, from which it could open a front against Israel and, presumably, threaten Jordan and Saudi Arabia. It is unclear why so much emphasis is given to the land corridor, other than to evoke the geopolitical terminology of twentieth-century fascist aggression in Europe. Hizbullah’s huge missile inventory and Iran’s former training bases in the Bekaa Valley were assembled entirely without the benefit of a land corridor in a period when deep antipathy between the Syrian and Iraqi branches of the Ba’ath Party made them mortal enemies, ruling out movement of Iranian personnel and weapons across Iraqi territory to Syria. Nevertheless, the White House and its wide range of surrogates, which includes disillusioned former senior Obama White House official Dennis Ross, believe that Iran’s presence in Syria must be brought to an end, beginning with the interdiction of Iranian land access to Syrian territory. This has transformed the area of southern Syria near the intersection of the Jordanian, Iraqi and Syrian borders into a locus of confrontation between US forces and Iranian-led pro-regime militias consisting of Iraqi Shia volunteers. Thus far, the United States has attacked these forces on the ground and downed an Iranian drone. As of early July, Iran had not responded militarily.
It is difficult to interpret the state of play between the United States and Iran in Syria, in part because of mixed signals coming out of the Trump administration. After the first confrontation in early June, Secretary of Defense James Mattis explicitly foreswore any US intention of a sustained confrontation of Iran, insisting that US forces had merely assessed the Iranian-led column as a threat and were forced to show that they would defend themselves. The Trump administration argued that the pro-Assad force had violated the terms of a US–Russia deconfliction arrangement, which confused matters further because the only agreements that Moscow acknowledged involved ‘de-escalation zones’ that were all on the other side of Syria. Compounding the uncertainty surrounding US objectives is the seeming irreconcilability of rollback, Trump’s deference to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Syria and the pre-existing US focus on defeating ISIS in central Syria. But in light of the disposition of US forces in southern Syria and the presence of Iran-linked pro-regime forces there, the possibility of inadvertent escalation remains salient.
The GCC rupture
It is equally difficult to assess the US role in the roiling dispute between Qatar and (mainly) its Saudi and Emirati adversaries. The trigger for the latest dispute was the late May 2017 revelation of a transcript of remarks by Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani on the official Qatar News Agency’s website, YouTube channel and Twitter feed that derided Qatar’s Arab neighbours, criticised the United States and praised Israel and Iran. The language of the transcript was so extreme as to make Qatari claims that it was a forgery and that its news outlets had been hacked at least somewhat plausible. Trump eagerly fuelled the firestorm ignited by release of the transcript, echoing Saudi and Emirati anger and accusing Qatar of supporting terrorism. The president’s intervention puzzled many observers; the US Air Force’s largest Middle East contingent, including over 10,000 US military personnel as well as its Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) in the Persian Gulf, has been based at Qatar’s sprawling Udeid air base for about 15 years, and US relations with Qatar had remained cordial despite periodic diplomatic disagreements. Secretary of State Tillerson soon contradicted Trump by announcing the start of a US-sponsored mediation effort. His own spokesperson then undermined this even-handed posture by harshly criticising Saudi and Emirati behaviour from the podium at the State Department, declaring that the US was ‘mystified’ by their claims regarding Qatari support for terrorism. What the White House made of this welter of contradictory assertions is unknown. Meanwhile, Egypt and Bahrain joined Saudi Arabia and the UAE in cutting diplomatic ties with Qatar, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE cut Qatar off from goods and services.
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi presented Doha with a list of 13 demands that they said would have to be met for the blockade to be lifted. Chief among these was the shutting of Al Jazeera (the Qatari-owned news and entertainment network), the transfer of terrorists to Saudi custody and, in essence, a reorientation of Qatar’s foreign and security policy and the subordination of Qatari objectives to Saudi and Emirati policy goals. Qatar has long been an irritant to its more powerful neighbour, which had done its best to destabilise Qatar in the early twentieth century as Qatar’s ruling family, the Al Thani, sought to separate from Bahrain and establish sole control over the Qatari peninsula. These old resentments were intensified by disputes over gas pricing and the persistent needling of the Saudi royal family in increasingly pervasive and influential Al Jazeera broadcasts, which tracked the rise of satellite television in the region. Most recently, the three countries clashed over the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in regional politics, initially in Egypt. Qatar had poured funding into Muhammad Morsi’s short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government, prompting a cascade of Saudi and Emirati funding for General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who overthrew Morsi. Qatar’s attempt to pack the Syrian opposition’s government-in-exile with Muslim Brothers increased tensions with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, which favoured a broader base of Syrian expatriates.
With the accession in Saudi Arabia of Mohammed bin Salman, a crown prince bristling with self-confidence who courts risk and enjoys wielding power, and the increasing assertiveness of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE’s de facto head of state, the inclination to paper over differences with Qatar gave way to an instinct for confrontation – justified, in their view, by a clear asymmetry of power. The Qatari leadership, however, likely feels largely immunised by US dependence on Qatar for its ability to wage war in the region, which Qatar established by deftly exploiting Riyadh’s strategic misstep in easing the US Air Force and the CAOC out of Saudi Arabia following the successful 1996 Iranian attack on the US Air Force housing compound in Dhahran. A UAE offer of base access to the US in the midst of the crisis demonstrated Abu Dhabi’s awareness of Qatar’s edge. But while that offer presents a theoretical way for Washington to live with Qatar’s regional marginalisation, the Pentagon – notwithstanding Trump’s ill-informed zest for stoking discord among the United States’ Gulf Arab partners – does not consider shifting the bulk of its Middle East air operations from Qatar to the UAE practicable because the United States’ facilities in Qatar could not be easily replicated. It is of course possible that the confrontation will spiral due to the maximalist nature of the demands imposed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. But especially given the US interest in maintaining military readiness in the region, and the consequent probability of decisive American pressure on its Gulf allies to resolve their differences, the more likely scenario is one of gradual de-escalation and reversion to a tense but stable status quo ante.
The inconsistency of the Trump administration’s Middle East policies has produced significant and troubling uncertainty. While the administration appears to be moving towards rolling back Iran by way of challenging it in Syria, that is inconsistent with its courtship of Russia as a strategic counter-terrorism partner given Moscow’s support for Assad alongside Iran, in part on counter-terrorism grounds. At a more systemic level, taking into account Qatar’s centrality as the main hub of US regional air operations, the administration’s varying degrees of tolerance for Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s demonisation of Qatar are at odds with the need for military preparedness that a policy of rollback implies. The incoherence of US Middle East policy is largely attributable to Trump’s impetuousness (euphemistically, ‘transactionalism’) and his consequent lack of interest in inter-agency policy coordination by the National Security Council staff. Judging by US National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster’s public admission that Trump had no agenda for an important private meeting with Putin at the G20 summit earlier this month, which McMaster did not attend, these factors are likely to persist. As a result, US Middle East policy will probably remain unsettled, and could yield a full-blown proxy war with Iran in Syria. In any case, that policy is unlikely to lend stability to a region in dire need of it.