Vicken Cheterian

Trump, Tweets and the Middle East

US President Donald Trump keeps surprising us. He surprised us by becoming the Republican Party presidential candidate; he surprised us by winning the elections; and since he surprises us every single day one way or another by his tweets and decrees from his declarations on China, to the “Muslim ban”, and lashing out on the media. 

But what about the Middle East? Can we already make sense of what he wants to do, and what kind of policy change he will implement?

First, as a candidate he has promised to defeat the “Islamic State” organization or ISIS. During the presidential campaign, Defeating ISIS was going to be his priority. In September 2016, he said: “We are going to convey my top generals and give them a simple instruction. They will have 30 days to submit to the Oval Office a plan for soundly and quickly defeating ISIS. We have no choice.” He also said that in Syria the US policy should not be to bring down the Asad administration, instead to focus on fighting ISIS

Now that Donald Trump has become the “POTUS” (President of the United States), as the tweet goes, what can we say about Trump’s policies so far?

First, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad seems to agree with the 45th President of the US: priority is to fight jihadis. The Syrian President also agreed with Trump in “banning” Syrians from entering the US, by saying: "It's against the terrorists that would infiltrate some of the immigrants to the West. And that happened. It happened in Europe, mainly in Germany (…) I think the aim of Trump is to prevent those people from coming." It was "not against the Syrian people", said Bashar al-Asad, as reported by Reuters (February 16, 2017).

Could we conclude that there is a major shift on US Middle Eastern policy? Could there be US cooperation with Russia in fighting against jihadi groups in Syria, and agree to keep the current Baathist regime?

It is too early for such a conclusion. Next to fighting ISIS, the US president also wants to revise the “Iran deal” made by his predecessor, and to fight Iranian influence in the Middle East. The new American administration is also resolved to oppose Iran developing long-range ballistic missiles. Will Trump return to the old anti-Islamic Republic policy that characterized Washington-Teheran relations since 1979? Trump administration renewal of warm contacts with Gulf countries and Turkey might suggest a return to the US policy to the pre-2003 Iraq invasion, where the Islamic Republic of Iran was the American “enemy”, and Turkey and the Gulf the allies.

Such a return back in time is not easy. Iran today is not the Iran of the past. The “nuclear deal” signed during Obama era has freed Iran from the UN sanctions, brought investors back, and revitalized its economy. Iran has strong relations with Russia and Asian powers, and survived decades of US sanctions. US anti-Iranian policies could create major problem for US fight against ISIS, and especially in Iraq. The new US administration could antagonize Iraqi Shiite forces both in the Iraqi government in Baghdad, as well as among the Popular Mobilization Forces, who have strong relations with Tehran.

In case Trump administration will stop collaborating with Iran and its allies, then, how will it fight ISIS, for example in its major bastion in Iraq?

Then, Trump will be left with the Kurds as the only allies with whom to fight against ISIS, and to push them back from the rest of Mosul, Tel Afar, west of Kirkuk and the remaining areas of west Anbar province. 

In case Trump administration relies on Kurdish fighters in Iraq to fight the jihadis, then, what about Syria? In a telephone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on February 8, the two leaders agreed that their forces would jointly take the towns of al-Bab and Raqqa from ISIS. The two sides also discussed the creation of a “safe zone” in northern Syria, an old Turkish demand that had been rejected by Washington during the previous administration. 

Now, since Turkish army started its direct intervention in Syria in August 2016, it first recorded rapid progress as ISIS evacuated the border town Jarablus. In September 2016, Turkish Army supported by Syrian rebels advancing towards al-Bab, a town to the north-east of Aleppo, where they continue to face stiff resistance by the jihadi fighters, and could only take the town after more than five months of fighting. Will the Turkish army be fit to be trusted the Raqqa operation then? The question is a legitimate one from the military perspective; the failure of the Turkish army to occupy al-Bab keeps it at arms length from the three fronts of the Raqqa battle.

This leaves us with the mainly-Kurdish “Syrian Democratic Forces” closely associated with PKK, who are already advancing on Raqqa from the north, from the north-east, and from the west (near al-Tabqa military base). The new US administration announced that it opposes autonomy for the Syrian Kurds, while, at the same time US military collaboration with various Kurdish military formations in Iraq and Syria is continuing as before (at least for now).

US choices in the Middle East are limited. The region is going through a violent process of disintegration, with multitude of foreign interventions in which the US is one among many. Obama understood this. What are the choices of Trump? A last one: he might use American might to bomb the bad guys. But that was also done. Under Obama, Bush and Clinton. The US has launched tons of bombs over the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa. The bad guys did not go away. They have only multiplied.