The Trump Administration has been an extraordinary experience for the entire world as much as for the United States. However, regarding the Middle East, it has not caused a radical change in general, but accelerated already-existing trends:
The American Withdrawal from the Middle East
The US disengagement from the Middle East was a policy that the Obama administration had adopted. Although the turmoil of the Arab Spring and the emergence of ISIS had drawn the US troops back to the region, President Obama kept the US military engagement very limited and sought close cooperation with local actors on the ground. A small number of the US troops, in liaison with the Syrian Democratic Forces, in eastern Syria was a leverage against Russia. But even this limited US existence was too much for President Trump who has several times tried to pull back all US troops from Syria. Needless to say, this inconsistency between different administrations has caused a problem of trust and confidence between the United States and its allies, namely the SDF.
Even Trump’s distaste for Iran and his aggressive policies against it could not stop this trend. Contrary to the expectations in the region, President Trump did not have an intention to be dragged into the region to confront the Iranian regime although he did not shy away from targeting Iranians both militarily and politically. Instead of leaving a more stable region, President Trump choose to add fuel to the flames and trigger new chaos without offering anything as solution. This was an eye-opener for many actors in the region. During the tensions in the Gulf; the UAE, for instance, has acted more cautiously by urging de-escalation and diplomacy.
Different from Obama, Trump has spread this trend of disengagement also to the diplomatic area and thereby stayed ignorant to many issues in the region. This obliviousness has strengthened the question marks about US leadership in the region.
On the other hand, US withdrawal does not necessarily mean less use of arms. The Trump administration has carried out military strikes against the Assad regime and killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. Although such acts were seen as recklessness by many, limited military acts have remained a consistent US pattern in the region.
Revisionist States (Russia, China and Iran)
In parallel with the US withdrawal from the Middle East, the revisionist states were expected to fill the power vacuum that the US left behind. Particularly in 2016, just before Trump’s presidency, Russia and the Syrian regime won a decisive battle in eastern Aleppo which was foreshadowing the dawn of Russian domination in the region. Russia, together with Iranian cooperation and support, could replace the United States and become a new patron.
Similarly, China has been another revisionist US rival in the region. It has strong economic relations with Iran and the Gulf countries – which lends Beijing political influence.
However, contrary to the initial prospects, the influence of those revisionist states has stayed very limited. Russian influence can barely go beyond the borders of Syria. Even in Syria, the still-surviving US-SDF cooperation in the east and the Turkish existence in the west have exhausted the Russians. Particularly, the asymmetric advantage that the Turkish drone technology has provided on the battlefield has reduced the Turkish dependency on Russia and highlighted geopolitical differences between two countries.
Regarding Iran, it was increasing pressures of the US sanctions and aggressiveness of the Trump administration that have led the Iranians to pursue a low-profile foreign policy. Even against the killing of their general, the Iranians gave a self-controlled and restrained reaction.
China is another power that has been consistently increasing its influence in the Middle East. Many states in the region have strong economic dependency on China. However, China has been decisive in keeping its engagement with the region on the economic level until now.
Rather than those ‘revisionist states,’ a more serious attempt to replace the US came from France who has been trying to play a leadership role in the region. In various diplomatic crises, France has acted as a problem solver. Moreover, it is not against cautious military engagements in the region. France, with the support of other European countries, has initiated a maritime surveillance mission in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASOH).
Regional Cold War
One of the most important developments in the region during the Trump era is a rise of new cold war between Turkey and Saudi Arabia-UAE. The 2017 Qatar crisis, the Khashoggi case, Libya, Syria and diplomatic spats, combined with ideological differences, have polarized the Sunni countries and divided them into two main camps. Both sides have supported their own clients in regional issues and tried to gather allies against each other. Bolstered by a lack of US leadership in the region, this geopolitical rivalry has complicated the diplomatic efforts to solve regional crises, raised the level of violence and internationalized local conflicts.
It was not the first geopolitical rivalry in the region. Countries of the Middle East have come into such rivalries in different contexts. However, the US leadership in the region was able to prevent escalation of crises into all-out wars, to contain armed conflicts or initiate a political dialogue for resolution of such conflicts. Yet, the US retrenchment and ignorance has removed all the checks and balances for regional actors. This encouraged both sides to take bolder steps, namely more militarization, to balance the other.
Militarization is one of the themes that have further come to the forefront in the Trump era. As regional actors have lost their diplomatic capacity because of personal animosities and sharp ideological differences, they tried to make fait accompli through changing the military balance of power on the ground. This understanding has aggravated geopolitical rivalries, particularly in Syria, Libya and Yemen.
After its first large-scale military operation in August 2016, Turkey has conducted two more operations against the Kurds in Syria. It has also established observation points in Idlib, reinforced those areas and come into conflict with Russia and Syria.
Turkey has been carrying out military operations in northern Iraq for decades. But those operations were aiming to maintain the status quo in the border areas through temporarily crossing the border. Yet, Turkey’s new military understanding has more revisionist goals by aiming demographic changes, new administrative units which are integrated with Ankara, and long-lasting Turkish existence in those areas.
Although those operations have tarnished Turkey’s image in the international arena and harmed Turkey’s diplomatic relations, they have not caused any serious military confrontation other than with Russia. Having said that, Turkey’s engagements in Qatar, Libya and Eastern Mediterranean have given rise to a wide anti-Turkey bloc in the region.
Militarization is not limited to Turkey. After their years-long military operations in Yemen and Libya, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates now feel more confident to engage in new military conflicts. Even Egypt, which is extremely cautious about cross-border military engagements, passed a parliamentary resolution that allows deployment of Egyptian forces in Libya. These show that militarization is a regional phenomenon that will continue to shape the future of the Middle East.
The Trump presidency has been one of the most pro-Israeli administrations in the White House even by US standards. It has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, supported Israeli settlements in the West Bank and thereby almost killed the two-state solution. Although these overtly one-sided policies have annoyed Palestinians, the demise of the two-state solution has encouraged Arab countries to normalize relations with Israel.
The low-profile engagement between the Gulf and Israel was not a new thing. For years, both sides had conducted friendly relations out-of-sight. Apart from economic relations; shared concerns about Iran and the political Islamism have been driving forces of these relations. Nevertheless, it is not possible to ignore President Trump’s role in recent agreements. His close relations with both sides have become a catalyzer for the GCC-Israel normalization.
Trump’s sui generis leadership has of course influenced the region. His sympathy for authoritarian leaders, one-man policy-making by disregarding his own staff and undiplomatic comments about the region are certainly unique to Trump. Yet, outlines of US policies have remained more or less the same in the region. The region has witnessed regional powers taking the stage more than the United States during the Trump administration.