The US has lost the diplomatic initiative on Syria, and its weakened State Department is in no shape to advance Trump's provocative regional agenda.

Trump at the Western WallBy Jonathan Stevenson, Senior Fellow for US Defence; Editor of Strategic Comments 

At the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore six months ago, United States Secretary of Defense James Mattis felt compelled to reassure nervous senior officials of Asia-Pacific nations that the Trump administration would eventually get foreign policy right. There was palpable anxiety at what appeared to be a headlong rush to dismantle the post-war rules-based international order. In less than half a year in office, President Trump had withdrawn the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Agreement, and implicitly downgraded the US commitment to NATO.

In the Middle East, however, Trump seemed to have bucked the most dire expectations. He had recertified the Iran nuclear deal – formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – noted that new Israeli settlements in the West Bank impeded resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and continued the effective if grinding US-led campaign against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) in Iraq and Syria initiated by the Obama administration in 2014. Hope remained for a sensible, stabilising US Middle East policy.

In the intervening six months, such hopes have been shaken. In October, Trump decertified the Iran deal, citing Iranian regional behaviour as a violation of the ‘spirit’ of the JCPOA. Washington has intensified US support for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen, with dire humanitarian consequences, against Iran-backed Houthi rebels; fuelled rather than moderated discord between Qatar and its Gulf Cooperation Council partners; increased deployments of special operations forces in Syria aimed at challenging Iranian-led Iraqi Shia militias; and seemed to back Riyadh’s apparent attempt to manipulate Lebanon’s internal politics by orchestrating the 4 November resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

At the same time, the Trump administration has ceded the diplomatic initiative on Syria to Russia, which recently held a conference in Sochi on Syria’s transition that included Iran and Turkey but not the US. Moscow, of course, supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian regime is, alongside Hizbullah, Iran’s most important proxy in the Middle East.

The White House may be trying to make its regional policy look positive and visionary with an Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative. Yet it has arisen at a distinctly unfavourable moment, when the two sides are farther apart than ever, the Israeli population is relatively complacent, and many Palestinians have given up on the idea of a Palestinian state. None of this was helped by President Trump’s announcement yesterday of official US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The hollowing out of the State Department is especially problematic for US Middle East policy. The US lacks top-level diplomats in key Middle Eastern countries: there is no American ambassador to Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, Qatar or Saudi Arabia. The US has no official diplomatic relations with Iran, and its embassies in Syria and Yemen are closed. In short, the US is advancing a provocative regional agenda with precious little diplomatic capacity in the region. There is also a dearth of supervisory experience and expertise back in Washington: Trump has not even nominated an assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, while the undersecretary for political affairs has little Middle East experience.

There are reports that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is on his way out. But, whoever replaces Tillerson, it does not appear likely that a successor will reverse the evisceration of the department, or restore its morale. Soon after entering office, Trump identified the State Department and USAID budgets that should be cut, to pay for higher defence spending. There is no sign that this will change. It was President Trump, after all, who stated in a Fox News interview earlier this month that he is ‘the only one that matters’ in US foreign policy.

This article is part of a series of posts providing analysis and commentary from IISS experts throughout the IISS Manama Dialogue, to be held in Bahrain on 8–10 December 2017. 

For full coverage of the proceedings visit the IISS Manama Dialogue 2017 website. For a flavour of the debate on social media, check out #IISSMD17.

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