Trump Looks to Leave His Final Marks on Middle East
The Gulf rift, Lebanon, Turkey, Yemen, Iraq and Iran are still on the White House’s to-do list
In the waning weeks of its White House tenure, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump is calling for unity in an attempt to secure its legacy. Not in America, but in the Persian Gulf.
“Assuming nothing really bad happens in the next two months, it will be said that Trump restored the confidence of all of our partners and allies in an American presence and commitment to the region,” James Jeffrey, the recently-retired U.S. special representative for Syria engagement and the special envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, told The Media Line.
Assuming nothing really bad happens in the next two months, it will be said that Trump restored the confidence of all of our partners and allies in an American presence and commitment to the region
“All of our major partners – Israel, Turkey, Egypt, the Saudis, other Gulf states, Jordan – most had been enthusiastic about the prospect of another Trump term,” said Jeffrey, once a Never-Trumper who has become complimentary of Trump’s realpolitik Middle East policy and is urging the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden to stay the course.
One of the final items for Trump to check off his to-do list is healing the rift within the Gulf Cooperation Council states.
For three years, Qatar has faced an embargo by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, who, along with Egypt, claim that the Qataris support terrorism. Among their demands are the shuttering of the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera television network and breaking ties with Islamist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood.
“There’s a heavy American strategic interest in mending this fracture, and it ties directly into what the Trump administration sees as its major foreign policy achievements,” Dr. Roby Barnett, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, told The Media Line.
“What do these states have in common? For one, they’ve forged closer ties with Israel,” said Barnett, citing the recent Abraham Accords agreements involving the U.S., Israel, the UAE and Bahrain, as well as talk of potential Israeli normalization with the Saudis.
“Secondly, the U.S. has heavy oil interests and military bases in the region. As many as 13,000 American troops are in Qatar alone, with plans to expand bases there,” said Barnett.
But, one of the consequences of the embargo is the $100 million Qatar is paying each year to Iran in order to use its airspace after being denied the use of overflight freedom by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt. Qatar Airways is suing the four nations for $5 billion dollars in a case that the United Nations decided this summer falls under the jurisdiction of its International Civil Aviation Organization.
“It’s killing the Trump administration to see that kind of money unnecessarily being pocketed by Tehran every year,” said Barnett.
Trump’s special advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was in Qatar and Saudi Arabia this week pushing for a breakthrough. Notably, he did not stopover in Abu Dhabi, a possible signal that the Emiratis aren’t yet ready to let go of their grievances with Qatar.
The State Department is also wrestling with whether to designate Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a terrorist organization – something that many experts say could exacerbate the enormous Yemeni humanitarian crisis.
The Saudis and Houthis, engaged in a six-year war with devastating effects, are currently involved in negotiations that would see Saudi Arabia sign a United Nations proposal for a cease-fire if the Iranian-backed Houthis agree to a buffer zone along the kingdom’s borders.
Washington is dangling the terrorist designation as a means of pressuring the Houthis into advancing talks, as Riyadh begins to run out of leverage with the incoming Biden administration already clamoring to clamp down on the Saudis.
Meanwhile, U.S.-led negotiations on the Israeli-Lebanese maritime border have stalled, with Lebanon making an unexpectedly inflated territorial proposal.
That the Lebanese even entered into the talks is seen by some as a way for Beirut to collect massive revenues from offshore hydrocarbon deposits and revitalize its economy without making the long-term reforms necessary to build a sustainable Lebanon, while at the same time making a case to the U.S. that sanctions on Lebanese officials and restrictions on trade with Syria should be lifted.
In context textThe U.S. fears that Syria continues to drive Lebanon’s instability, with a State Department report to Congress this summer citing Bashar Assad’s regime for driving up exchange rates and weakening the Lebanese lira by siphoning off Lebanon’s foreign currency reserves to save its own economy, all while maintain a menacing influence in Lebanese affairs.
“Half of the Syrian population has fled Assad’s terror. The country is in financial free fall, there are strong U.S. sanctions, no reconstruction money coming from the international community, no way out for the Russians or the Iranians and no way to help Assad make Syria a normal state,” said Jeffrey.
“That’s a stalemate, not a success. But this is the first step – to make Assad realize there is no success without compromise, and Trump has succeeded in that,” he said.
UN-backed talks between the Assad government and the opposition on devising a new constitution are going nowhere, according to a near-consensus of observers.
“The Constitutional Committee is not about regime change, but trying to bring about a major change in behavior,” said Jeffrey.
“Assad has never taken the Constitutional Committee seriously. He threw his minions on the pro-government group, and tossed up obstacles to the committee being able to do its job,” he said.
It’s believed that regime committee members urged participants to focus on the return of Syrians from abroad, according to the Syrian state-owned SANA news agency. However, fighting continues between the Syrian army and Turkish-backed opposition in the northwest province of Idlib.
The U.S.-Turkish relationship has come unglued in the final months of Trump’s presidency. This week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blasted Turkey during a virtual meeting of NATO foreign ministers. He and others accused Ankara of stoking tensions with fellow allies in the Mediterranean and chided Turkey for its purchase of a Russian-made anti-aircraft system, something that could lead to U.S. sanctions on Turkey, but that the Trump administration thus far has not used.
The Turkish government’s public antagonism toward Biden before the U.S. presidential election now puts Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan between a rock and a hard place, with Biden much more likely to take a harder approach to Erdogan than has Trump.
“Turkey is one of the most strategic players in Eurasia, its military ran three strong campaigns in eight months, it has over 200 F-16s, the 17th largest economy in the world, and its geographic location means we have a tough time operating in the Middle East or the Caucasus without Turkish support,” said Jeffrey.
“By the same token, Turkey has been unpredictable, has not exploited its natural advantages to leverage its diplomatic position, has a hard time compromising on anything, and has made more enemies than friends, with little support beyond Qatar and Azerbaijan. Erdogan doesn’t have a realistic option to expand its influence. It isn’t Iran. The Turkish people, by and large, are oriented toward Europe, 20 years of Erdogan notwithstanding,” Jeffrey said.
ISIS has been defeated militarily. It has no territory. It is now a relatively weak terrorist movement in Iraq and Syria with subsidiaries elsewhere in the Middle East – in Yemen, Sinai, Afghanistan and a few other places
Meanwhile, a looming drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq is causing some concern about a possible resurgence of the Islamic State there. Trump points to the defeat of ISIS as one of his crowning foreign policy achievements.
“ISIS has been defeated militarily. It has no territory. It is now a relatively weak terrorist movement in Iraq and Syria with subsidiaries elsewhere in the Middle East – in Yemen, Sinai, Afghanistan and a few other places. That makes it an al-Qaida-like phenomenon. It forces our coalition to carry out counterterror operations, while combating the ideology that drives the movement,” said Jeffrey.
“ISIS has a home in Iraq and in Syria south of the Euphrates, in an area that Assad controls, which makes it harder to go after. The Iranian footprint in Iraq and Syria makes it difficult to defeat,” he said.
Biden has said he hopes to return to the crumbling nuclear agreement with Iran while also addressing the Islamic Republic’s involvement in Iraq and around the Middle East. A consequential drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq could reduce his leverage. That’s something the Trump administration may not be considering in its long-held plans to bring its troops home from Iraq, but an effect that may help it in its attempts to seal off any possible U.S. reentry into what it has long deemed a fatal deal and which has defined much of its foreign policy over the last four years.