For Washington’s traditional allies and foes in the Middle East, this year began full of anxious hopes and expectations with a president who can safely be classified as a wild card in American politics.
In January, U.S.-backed Iraqi forces were pushing against Islamic State in eastern Mosul and the caliphate in Syria was still relatively strong. By July, Mosul was declared liberated, paying a heavy price along the way, leveled to the ground during the battles against the enemy deeply entrenched in the city’s historical suburbs. Raqqa followed in October. The notorious caliphate that managed to turn its name into a synonym for brutality and terrorism is now confined to a few enclaves in Syria and Iraq.
Naturally, ISIS has been a large part of Washington’s foreign policy narrative in the Middle East, but as the Syria and Iraq examples illustrate, it seems that the White House still hasn’t come up with a clear strategy in post-ISIS times.
- September: Post-ISIS Iraq Series, Part I: Future of Sunni Iraqis — National Reconciliation or Eternal Suspects?
- September: Post-ISIS Iraq Series, Part II: Shi’ite Iraqis — Between Iran and Nationalism
- November: What Ate the Dream of an Independent Kurdistan from Within?
- Syria in 2017: If Obama Betrayed Syrians, Trump Is Betraying Kurds — to Washington’s Own Detriment
A lack of clear objectives has plagued Trump’s administration throughout the year, pushing America’s allies towards impulsive and reckless actions, as well as tentative exploring of possible new alliances.
Aside from ISIS, the Iranian Nuclear Deal has been on Donald Trump’s mind since the early days of his campaign. U.S. Envoy to the United Nations Nikki Haley has led a full-fledged diplomatic offensive against Iran, but Washington remains signatory to the nuclear deal, considered an “embarrassment” and “the worst deal ever” by the president.
The irony is, however, that the nuclear deal with Iran did not spell disaster for the region as much as the need to conflate it with all things Iran. This is the mistake shared by both Obama’s and Trump’s administrations.
- August: Iran and the United States Are No Friends — But the Nuclear Deal Was Never Meant to Change That
If Obama turned his back on U.S. security interests and America’s traditional allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, in the pursuit of his great legacy in the Middle East, Trump continued to prod at their greatest concerns in a rather non-constructive manner, leaving Jerusalem and Riyadh to their own devices.
Israel at Russian Mercy Where It Counts the Most
Trump was warmly welcomed in Israel after Jerusalem’s great rift with Obama. So far, his direct and indirect moves and declarations have mainly served the current Israeli government, which received little pushback from Washington for its settlement policy. The Palestinians were willing to go along for a while, quietly voicing concerns about the president’s lack of plan, dealing with their own internal matters to kill the time.
- August: Kushner’s First Round in the Israeli-Palestinian Arena: A Whole Lot of Nothing
- October: Fatah and Hamas — Desperation Leading to Palestinian Political Reconciliation
Trump stirred great controversy and finally alienated the Palestinians after declaring Jerusalem as the Israeli capital in early December, even though he actually signed a waiver that once again postponed the U.S. embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Although Palestinian leaders’ reactions were strong, the street protests have gradually died down, and Ramallah had to swallow a bitter pill of Arab leaders’ relative indifference to the cause that once rallied them into failed wars.
- December: Jerusalem and Saying the Unspeakable – It Is Great Expectations, Not Trump, Plaguing the Peace Process
While Trump may have provided good PR for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing government, he didn’t solve Israel’s most urgent concern — Hezbollah’s presence along its border with Syria, resulting in growing Iranian influence in the region.
In November, BBC reported that Iran was building a permanent military base in Syria just south of Damascus. Russia asserted that the Iranian presence on the Golan Heights, only 5 to 10 kilometers from the Israeli border, was legitimate, on the pretext of Assad’s invitation to join his defense. The statement followed the signing of the agreement between Russia, the United States and Jordan about the cease-fire arrangements in southern Syrian.
- June: Syria Could Be The Last Stand between Israel and Hezbollah
Israel, therefore, couldn’t rely on the United States to protect its interests where it mattered the most, and even though Moscow and Jerusalem maintain a good relationship, on the Syrian front this may prove to be a more delicate challenge. For now, Russians feel comfortable enough to please both Israel, by letting the IDF conduct airstrikes on Hezbollah’s positions, and Iran, by leaving Shi’ite militias as a ground force to protect Assad’s regime.
Thus, all the pleasantries and Jerusalem declarations aside, where it really counted, Israel had Moscow and itself to rely on — and in the coming years, it will be interesting to see how this relationship will play out.
Mohammed bin-Salman – Too Many Balls in the Air
Saudi Arabia is another “betrayed” ally who saw Trump’s administration as a chance for rekindled relationship with Washington.
Obama’s attempt at re-thinking one of the country’s oldest Middle Eastern alliances was not unwarranted. Many analysts and authors expressed their concerns over an alliance that made sense in the era of the Cold War, but has never been reassessed in light of almost three decades of an entirely different world order.
However, Trump was pleased to come back into Riyadh’s fickle, yet loving arms. During his first visit in May, he sent a message of support for the Muslims in their “fight against terrorism,” and refrained from criticizing the human rights record of his hosts. The two countries inked a weapons deal worth more than $350 billion over a period of 10 years and celebrated in a joint traditional sword dance with Saudi nobles.
- May: Trump Vows to Back Muslim World against Terrorism, Skips Human Rights Issues in Saudi Arabia Speech
- May: Trump Lashes Out at Iran, Calls for Its Isolation during Saudi Arabia Visit
As Trump spared no harsh words for Iran and those who “fund terrorism,” and in the absence of any criticism or joint security strategy, the notoriously impulsive Saudi crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman saw Washington’s posture as a green light for him to do as he pleases.
Shortly after Trump’s visit, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt have broken their diplomatic relations with Qatar, accusing their former ally of supporting terrorist groups such as ISIS, al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen and Shiite militants in Bahrain and a Saudi province. Gulf states also imposed crippling economic sanctions and a blockade on Qatar.
- June: Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Egypt Break Relations with Qatar in All-Out Rift
- The Roots of Gulf Crisis — Qatar’s Quest for Independence
2017 saw the escalation of Yemen’s civil war, where a Saudi-backed coalition is fighting on behalf of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi against Houthi rebels supported by Iran. The current death toll is more than 12,000 people, while the humanitarian disaster escalated with a famine and a cholera outbreak of more than 750,000 recorded cases of infection.
- September: UN Human Rights Council Decides to Send War Crime Investigators to Yemen
- US Future in Yemen: When Sticking to the Old Alliance Goes Against US Security Interests
November saw the Houthis treading the line of spilling over the conflict to Saudi soil in several missile attacks — while Mohammed bin-Salman orchestrated a Game of Thrones-esque coup against a number of Saudi royal family members and influential businessmen. The arrests went under the guise of “fighting corruption.” While some pundits and media hailed bin-Salman as a wildcard reformer, some saw his move as a rather typical authoritarian power grab.
However, even the greatest authorities on all things Saudi Arabia seemed to have been taken aback when Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri ended up detained in Riyadh, offering resignation to President Michel Aoun. The maneuver was supposedly prompted by Hariri’s ruling coalition with Iran-backed Hezbollah.
The clumsy adventure ended with Hariri withdrawing resignation upon his return to Lebanon. The benefits of Lebanese political actors toning down their pro-Iranian sentiments, statements and plans don’t seem to have been worth the bizarre show.
“The multi-pronged Saudi move — involvement in wars in Syria and Yemen, political maneuvers in Lebanon, efforts to isolate Qatar, efforts to limit the influence of extremist Wahhabi clerics, the plans to build a colossal “city of the future,” the IPO of oil company Aramco and many other ambitious initiatives — is being overseen by 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Assaf Orion believes the prince “has got too many balls in the air. It’s a systems overload that requires extraordinary command and control in tandem with long-term planning. I’m not sure the prince can sustain it without dropping any of the balls,” Amos Harel wrote in Haaretz.
Surely, Trump can sustain even less, which shows why good graces haven’t been particularly useful for Israel and Saudi Arabia. Aside from the grand public gestures and the controversies they have stirred, Trump hasn’t been much of a risk-taker in the Middle East.
Changing the tone with Iran after Obama’s attempt at reconciliation through the nuclear deal has been a good decision, but following in the footsteps of his predecessor, he couldn’t shake off his obsession with the agreement. This obsession continues to tunnel the U.S. administration’s vision on possible fertile grounds throughout the Middle East, where countering Iran could serve both Washington’s and its allies’ interests — and it will be the problem that will plague all of the actors involved in the following year.