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Trump may find it hard to assert a US role in the Middle East

Gulf allies that blame Obama for rising power of Iran are hoping for an US administration that mirror their priorities

WP
15:54 January 23, 2017

Astana: At a time of widespread global anxiety about President Donald Trump’s foreign policy goals, the Middle East stands almost alone in its optimism about his presidency.

The United States’ traditional Arab allies are hoping he re-engages in the region after years of what they perceive as neglect by Barack Obama’s administration. US rivals are hoping he becomes an ally and aligns with their interests.

But after eight years of steady disengagement by his predecessor, Trump may find his room for manoeuvre constrained by the expanded influence of Russia and Iran, analysts say.

“Even if Trump wants to have a more assertive policy, he will not be able to bring America back as the strongest regional player,” predicted Ebrahim Hamidi, the chief diplomatic correspondent of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat. “The Americans can’t go back to being the only superpower anymore.”

That Trump does intend to pursue a more assertive Middle East policy has been evident from some of the more consistent of his often contradictory statements, including his inauguration pledge to eradicate what he called “radical Islamic terrorism ... from the face of the earth.”

Although the president and some of his foreign policy nominees appear to have opposing views on some issues — such as the importance of Nato and whether Russia can be trusted — they seem to agree on the need to do more to fight Daesh and to push back against Iran’s widening influence, making the Middle East one of the few areas on which there appears to be some level of foreign policy consensus.

It is also one of the areas where the Obama administration’s policies have most noticeably eroded the once unchallenged US role.

Russia now holds sway in Syria, has forged a close relationship with Turkey that could threaten Ankara’s ties with Nato and has been courting traditional US allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Most recently, Russia has been exploring relationships in Libya, dispatching its aircraft carrier to the waters off Libya and inviting the erstwhile US ally Khalifa Haftar on board for a video conference with the Russian defence minister this month.

Trump’s repeated promises to forge closer ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin could facilitate the kind of alliance in the Middle East against terrorists that the Obama administration sought but failed to achieve, said Vladimir Frolov, a columnist with the Moscow Times. But Russia would not want such an alliance to come at the expense of the role it has already carved out for itself in the region.

“The US has been exiting the Middle East under Obama for a while, and with Trump talking about an America First agenda, that creates even more opportunities for Russia to fill the vacuum. We may see a situation where the US actually empowers Russia to do the dirty work in the Middle East,” he said.

The constraints are most immediately apparent in Syria, where Russia has taken the lead in promoting a peace initiative that includes Turkey and Iran as co-sponsors but offers no role for the United States. Russia and Turkey have coordinated the agenda and preparatory negotiations for the talks in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, Western diplomats say. Rebel commanders, UN officials and European diplomats began arriving in Astana Sunday, but the Trump administration will not send a delegation to the meeting, according to a statement Saturday by the State Department.

Russia will welcome offers of help from Trump to bomb terrorists and perhaps provide funding for reconstruction, but it doesn’t want the United States becoming involved in crafting the terms of a settlement, Frolov said.

The Syrian regime is also unlikely to want the United States playing any significant role in the country, which has a long history of fraught relations with Washington, said Salem Zahran, a Beirut-based media entrepreneur who runs media outlets in Syria and has close ties to the Syrian regime.

Trump’s statements in support of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad have come as a relief to the Syrian government, signalling an end to the Obama administration’s mantra that Al Assad should eventually step aside, Zahran said. But the Syrian regime is hoping mostly that the United States stays away, by halting support for the rebels, lifting sanctions and ceasing the calls for Al Assad to be removed.

“Trump is a businessman and if Syria were a company, he would see it as a losing company. Why would anyone invest in a losing company?” Zahran asked.

“Syria just wants Trump to be neutral,” he added. “Now that they have Russia, they don’t need America.”

Iran has more reason to fear the tough anti-Iranian rhetoric that has emanated both from Trump and his foreign policy nominees. But any attempt to push back against Iran would contradict the goals of allying more closely with Russia and Syria — which are, at least nominally, allied with Iran — and also run the risk of confrontation.

“Why would Iran respond to anything other than military pressure?” asked Tobias Schneider, a German analyst based in Washington. “Iran has won right now. It’s represented everywhere; it’s aligned with the winners everywhere.”

Iran has been instrumental in helping Al Assad survive, sending money and militias to fight on the front lines and securing in the process vast influence over the country. Last week, Tehran signed a series of contracts with Syrian government officials that included giving Iran control over Syria’s largest phosphate mine and a license to operate a mobile telecommunications network.

Since the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, Iran has also secured its place as the most influential power in Iraq, said Ryan Crocker, a former US ambassador to Iraq who is now with Texas A&M University. Reviving the US role there would not be impossible, he said, but “it would be very, very difficult.”

The United States does have staunch allies. Israel is counting on Trump to fulfil his promise to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, which has made Palestinians one of the only groups vociferously opposed to his presidency. The Kurdish regions of Iraq and Syria are hoping his pledges to fight Daesh will translate into more military assistance for them.

The United States also still holds important levers in the Middle East, notably its big military presence in the Gulf and its economic might, neither of which Russia can match, said Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia that blame Obama for the rising power of Iran are looking forward to an administration that might more closely mirror their priorities, he said.

“The Gulf states need the United States as a counterbalance to Iran. You need to reestablish confidence that you are really going to back your allies,” he said. “This is not something that needs radical change, but it does need a steady, patient, consistent effort.”

But whether Trump is a leader who will provide patience and consistency is a concern for some in the region, Hamidi said.

“The scary thing is that to pave a way for an American role in the upcoming years needs vision and imagination,” he said. “If you don’t have this vision, you might find yourself in confrontation. Or, completely giving up and handing it all to Russia.”