What is Trump’s Strategy in the Middle East?

On the 4th April 2017, President Trump awoke to scenes of Syrian civilians gasping for their final breaths as sarin gas filled their lungs. Scores of innocent lives were inhumanely taken away by President al-Assad in a contemptuous act against his own people. Uncharacteristically humane (yet fittingly naïve), President Trump replied privately in aghast: ‘let’s f***ing kill him… Let’s go in. Let’s kill the f***ing lot of them’. Future historians may well argue that this phrase encompasses the Trump Doctrine for foreign policy in the Middle East.

Despite promising to end America’s ‘forever wars’ during his election campaign, controlled US withdrawal in the Middle East has been undermined by a strategy where impulse and emotion reigns supreme over any long-term, coherent vision for the region.

Assad’s atrocity provoked US forces into firing 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles onto a Syrian Airfield. It was a response of shock-and-awe, perfect for blockbuster viewings on rolling-news channels and social media. Significantly, the act demonstrated a firm response against a State-Actor disobeying the US’s long-held ‘red-line’ of chemical weapons use. Yet foreign policy decisions can never be consigned as a singular act, devoid of any potential implications. The fact of the matter is that 2 and a half years on from this supposedly decisive act of bravado, Syria remains in the clutches of Assad.

It is undoubtable that the Suleimani assassination was driven by the same vein of petulant impulse. This is not to say that the killing was illegitimate. Head of the Elite Quds Force, Suleimani had been pivotal in perpetuating and exacerbating the human crisis in Syria. He would have been instrumental in the storming of the US Embassy in Baghdad on New Year’s Day, akin to the traumatic scenes of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. He represented an unequivocal threat to the US and its allies in the region.

Yet what is most concerning is seemingly the lack of strategy for what will follow this event. The State Department’s revolving door during the Trump Administration has presented a consistent theme. Tempered figures such as Mattis, McMaster and Tillerson all promptly left their positions due to Trump’s failure to adhere to a consistent policy. As Johnathan Freedland put it, the President is no longer advised by a plethora of foreign policy experts like during the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Trump was instead advised by a group of sycophantic yes-men whilst revelling in festive celebrations at Mar-a-Largo.

The unpredictable malaise of an Iranian response has been unleashed on a region famous for its anarchical state of international relations. The consequences of the ill-planned Suleimani assassination will most likely play out in an asymmetric style across the Middle East, and will surely draw in State-Actors privy to the US. Despite Trump claiming that Tehran was backing down from further retribution; Abdollah Araghi, a senior commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has already said that Iran will ‘impose harsher revenge on the enemy in the near future’. The diplomatically-popular Iran Nuclear Deal from the Obama era surely has no chance of resuscitation, risking the emergence of a new nuclear power.

World War 3 may no longer be trending on Twitter, but there is still a risk that the US becomes involved in a full-scale conflict with Iran, due to the impulsivity of the Commander-In-Chief. If this catastrophe were to occur, then the sectarian and nationalist blood-spill that has haunted the region will perpetuate for the next decade. The looming threat of this may lead to US allies in the region deciding to align more closely with Putin, weakening US hegemony. This would follow a key trend of the Trump Presidency, where despite singular acts of American machismo, Russia has increasingly been able to exert itself as the main geo-political power in the Middle East.

Donald Trump may never have won the Presidency without his promise to end America’s ‘forever wars’. Yet any desire to genuinely limit the US’s involvement in the region has been usurped by his pulsating urge to follow emotion over rationality. Throughout his Presidency, the US has complicated its position and the balances of power in the Middle East.

Jamie Welham

Image source: Wikimedia Commons