Status Quo: The Trump Administration and the Greater Middle East

 Image via CNN

Image via CNN


“Peace does not become peace in a single day; a crisis does not become a crisis in a single day. Both become what they are through a gradual accumulation.”
— Jia Yi, History of Han

The United States' engagement with the Greater Middle East and countries such as Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan since the Cold War have produced great consequence and change. The impact of the United States' multi-generational war in the region continues to unravel amidst the chaos of the Arab Revolutions, the Great Recession, and the country's ill-fated march into Baghdad in 2003. 

Under the Republican Party and the Trump administration, little will change in the United States' conduct in the region. The Middle East and Central Asia have frequently proven to be a thorn for superpowers and the Iraq War and disastrous occupation of Afghanistan wounded American power, igniting a fierce debate in the United States not seen since the brutality of the Vietnam War. The Afghanistan War has become the longest in American history as superpower economic and political rivalries have shifted to Central Asia where the "New Silk Roads" lie.  Vast natural resources exist in these regions and the United States' will pivot to this region despite the military mission-creep it has suffered in countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. Equally, the rise of ISIS and the resurgence of civil war in Iraq has reengaged American forces in the region to secure its interests in the Persian Gulf, the door to Central Asia. 

With regards to the region, the difference between the potential policies of Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton were slim. While Donald Trump is boorish, profoundly controversial and pandered to nativism to secure his historic election in November 2016, when it comes to managing its interests in the Middle East, the Democrats and Republicans typically converge. For Washington, the region is a hyper-realpolitik frontier where tactics differ occasionally militarily but the establishment is usually consistent in political and economic strategy.  


The Republican Party, traditionally bellicose rhetoric against Tehran and zealously pro-Israeli, will come face to face with numerous realities, particular on policy and attitudes towards Iran. For Western and South-East Asian businesses allied to Washington, the Iranian nuclear deal forged by the Obama administration offers an opportunity of renewed access to 78 million consumers. The opening of Iran may be irreversible despite ideological and political differences between Iran and the United States. The letter signed by forty-seven Republican Senators, spearheaded by Mr. Tom Cotton, during diplomatic negotiations led the White House to respond by accusing the Republicans of conspiring with Iranian hard-liners to start a war between the two countries. The nauseating response of Congress to Benjamin Netanyahu's speech in Washington, a direct intervention in the international negotiations, seemed to encapsulate the polarisation between the Republicans and Democrats, and how powerful partisanship threatened to destroy negotiations.  

However, newly appointed General James Mattis, who described Iran as the "single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East", like Israeli intelligence and security, has defended the core tenants of the deal stating "I don't think that we can … take advantage of some new [president] - Republican or Democrat - and say, well, we're not going to live up to our word on this agreement. I believe we would be alone if we did, and unilateral economic sanctions from us would not have anywhere near the impact of an allied approach to this."

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Washington is playing a distancing act while funnelling billions of dollars worth of armaments into Saudi Arabia as a counter-balance and deterrent to the expansion of Iranian military and economic power.  The Obama administration behaved in a similar manner with the Israelis on the Iranian nuclear issue. It is not a coincidence that the United States pledged to increase military support for Israel a day after the Iranian nuclear deal (14th July, 2015) and the lifting of sanctions against Iran. This deal was ratified by an unprecedented military package worth $38 billion on 13th September, 2016. The proxy war between Washington and Tehran will continue to exist, particularly in regards to Washington's opposition for continued support of Hizbullah, its intervention in Syria on behalf of its ally Bashar al-Assad, the shadow it casts over politics in Iraq, and its Cold War with the Gulf States. 

The conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, a battleground for local, regional and global forces, will have to be contained by the Trump administration. John Bolton suggested that Nineveh and chunks of the Syrian provinces of Deir ez-Zor and al-Hasakah be converted into "Sunnistan". Technically, the United States and it Middle Eastern allies (Turkey, the Gulf States, Jordan, and Israel) already ensured that "Sunnistan" would emerge by over-funding rebels fighting the Assad regime. At the core of the splintered rebel groups lay extreme factions such as Jabhat al-Nusra, Ansar al-Sharia and ISIS who swiftly gained military superiority over and assimilated the "moderate" rebel forces (some of whom even switched sides and rejoined Assad's army). Aleppo is a microcosm of how Western ambivalence has created catastrophic results and goaded Russia into action to protect its political, military and economic interests and clients in Syria. Mr. Trump's close ties with Russian president Vladimir Putin may ease the tensions between the two superpowers on the Syrian Crisis. 

 Image via The Japanese Times

Image via The Japanese Times

Paradoxically, the same American mistakes have been replicated as the battle for Mosul rages where the U.S coalition, Iran, Turkey and Jordan supports a government propped up by hardline militias and funnels armaments into Kurdish peshmerga units (with the exception of Turkey) to fight the ultra-violent ISIS and Sunni insurgents in Syria and Iraq which they tacitly supported. The politics of gas and oil have played a fundamental role as Professor Mitchell Orenstein evaluates

“In 2009, Qatar proposed to build a pipeline to send its gas northwest via Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria to Turkey… However, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad refused to sign the plan; Russia, which did not want to see its position in European gas markets undermined, put him under intense pressure not to”. Russia’s Gazprom sells 80 per cent of its gas to Europe. So in 2010, Russia put its weight behind “an alternative Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline (a deal signed July 25, 2011) that would pump Iranian gas from the same field out via Syrian ports such as Latakia and under the Mediterranean.” The project would allow Moscow “to control gas imports to Europe from Iran, the Caspian Sea region, and Central Asia.”

While human rights are clearly being violated in Aleppo, Mosul and Raqqa, Iraq and Syria is not a war about promoting democracy and human rights, nor is it a war wholly dictated by religious zeal, sectarianism, or the fight against "terrorism". The term "terrorism", so overused, generalised and generic, has become almost useless as a convincing explanation.

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ISIS is a volatile proxy, which was strengthened and supported predominantly by the Gulf States and Turkey who were highly obsessed with regime change in Syria. It is not a coincidence that the major areas where Syrian authority has collapsed or been bitterly contested have occurred along the planned route for the gas pipeline (through central and north-western Iraq and eastern and northern Syria). The leaked document by the Defense Intelligence Agency suggests that flooding these locations with ultra-violent insurgents was pre-planned before 2014: 

 "Establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist Principality (Caliphate) in Eastern Syria...this is exactly what the supporting powers to the (Syrian) opposition want...ISIS could also declare an Islamic State through its union with other terrorist organisations in Iraq and Syria which will create grave danger in regards to unifying Iraq." 

Furthermore, a leaked memo detailing a conversation between Hilary Clinton and John Podesta illustrated that Qatar (who Assad refused to sign the pipeline deal with) and Saudi Arabia have proved U.S policymakers knew the Gulf States were their sponsors. Mrs Clinton wrote: 

"While this military/para-military operation is moving forward, we need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the government of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support for ISIS and other radical Sunni groups in the region." 

The battles of Aleppo and Mosul are two sides of the same coin, one immensely complex battleground, "Syraq" as Nino Orto would describe. To Washington hawks, a Sunni state would largely cut Syria's connection to Iraq, whose government in Baghdad is highly influenced by Iran and, to some extent, Russia. This has has been a consequence produced by the invasion of the country in 2003 which broke the 'Iraqi Shield' to the Middle East and allowed Iran to assert itself more effectively politically and economically than ever before. However, the act of creating a "Sunnistan" would have deep repercussions for Iraq, Syria and the wider geo-political order.

The creation of nation states are bloody affairs and in the context of the Middle East and Central Asia, none demonstrate this more clearly than the emergence of Pakistan and Israel in the 1940s. The circumstances under which these countries emerged, circumstances which were appallingly managed by the Western powers, resulted in retributive violence, ethnic cleansing and mass-population transfers (the botched partition of India and the creation of Pakistan resulting in hundred of thousands, perhaps millions, of deaths in 1947). Worst of all, they were unsolved conflicts  which have seethed and bubbled without end for decades. The suggestions by numerous Western policymakers to partition the Greater Middle East has and will produce similar devastating results. 

This is a process which, unfortunately, may already be inevitable according to Mr. Cockburn who argues that "The mass flight and expulsion taking place is on the scale of that in India and Pakistan at the time of Partition in 1947 or in across Europe at the end of the Second World War." Alongside the mass movement of people, Kurdistan is a state in waiting, and its reignited conflict with Turkey, who have de-facto invaded northern Iraq and Syria to contain Kurdish aspirations for a homeland have fuelled change across the region. Kurdistan's growing economic prosperity, the Iraqi Kurdistan's increasing autonomy from Baghdad, its military alliance with the United States are increasing the realities on the ground of a Kurdish nation. 

 Image via The Newstatesman

Image via The Newstatesman

The maps of the Middle East, traditionally defined by the British, Russians, French and Americans, do not necessarily exist for particular ethnic and sects anymore. This does not necessarily imply Iraqi, Yemeni or Syrian nationalism is dead. Iraqis and Syrians alike are fiercely patriotic as displayed by the Iraqis fierce resistance to the American occupation and localised objectives of rebel, activists, and some jihādists cells. However with millions displaced by violence, the procedure may happen anyway, even if Iraq and Syria remain on a map. 

The Trump administration cannot control these conflicts in Iraq and Syria. They can influence and contain them in alignment with public opinion which has grown weary of direct interventions in the region. What Mr. Trump must understand is that everything is linked, overlapping and complex in the Middle East. Each conflict cannot be compartmentalised and dealt with as an independent challenge. 

Turkey's tilt towards Russia and the blowback of the Syrian War, which has included multiple suicide bombings and mass-shootings by ISIS and Kurdish nationalists will concern American and European policymakers. On the doorstep of Europe, a full-blown civil war in Turkey would have disastrous consequences for the Balkans. A Middle Eastern crisis would become a European crisis (already in panic over the refugees pouring into Europe). President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's programme of Islamising the country, his purge of the military and judiciary, the brutal treatment of activists, journalists and protestors, the downturn in the Turkish economy and the downgrade in credit ratings will only concern investors and tourists alike further. The coup attempt in Turkey on 15 July, 2016 became a catalyst for all these authoritarian trends in Istanbul and Ankara. Ensuring that Turkey does not fragment on Europe's doorstep will need to be an essential aspect of Trump's Middle Eastern policy. 

In Mr. Netanyahu's tenure as Prime Minister, the longest behind David Ben-Gurion, the slim chances of realising the two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have gradually been replaced by a one-state reality. With a record weapons package of  $38 billion from the Obama administration who largely turned a blind-eye to the draconian siege of the Gaza Strip and horrors of the 2014 Gaza War, Netanyahu's coalition has expanded illegal settlement projects (de-facto colonisation) of Palestinian and Bedouin lands. 

The Obama administration, despite all this, had a poor relationship with the Israeli government, typified by the personal disdain Barack Obama and Mr. Netanyahu held for each other. Under Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump, the explicitly pro-Israel stance, would have tightened with officials in the Likud coalition celebrating the victory of Trump with Education Minister Naftalie Bennett stating "Trump's victory is an opportunity to immediately retract the notion of a Palestinian state in the centre of the country...the era of the Palestinian state is over." 

The Israeli army is sitting on a boiling pan, one which occasionally bubbles over into horrible violence. Since the 2014 Gaza War, over 240 Palestinians and 40 Israelis have been killed in tit-for-tat violence including stabbings, shootings, vehicle rammings and a bus bombing in March 2016.  The disintegration of a two-state solution and polls indicating that over 50% of Palestinians no longer support such an agreement paints a picture of instability in the foreseeable future and a potential new uprising.

 Image via Matthew Williams

Image via Matthew Williams

The Trump administration will have to contend with the transition of the Palestinian conflict from a fight for Palestinian nationalism to a fight for Palestinians civil rights and human rights as Palestine and Israel become  inextricably entangled.

Equally, containing the Israeli-Hizbullah conflict to a minimum in the Lebanese borderlands will be critical. Lebanon faces a major crisis: According to Amnesty International, 1.1 million refugees from Syria (which amounts to around one in five people in the country) are situated in the country. Nearly half a million Palestinian refugees, displaced by the 1948 Jewish-Arab Civil War and with a troubled history with the Lebanese population, accompany these staggering figures. 

If Lebanese civil and military infrastructure and its civilians are treated in an indiscriminate manner by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) in the pursuit of Hizbullah, it will create a new humanitarian crisis by displacing thousands of Lebanese civilians while significantly undermining governmental capacity to provide for its Palestinian and Syrian refugee populations. In the second Lebanon War (2006) the IDF severely damaged Lebanese civil infrastructure and displaced 900,000 Lebanese civilians, as well as killing over 1,000.

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A war now would have far greater impact, making these statistics pale by comparison. The regional context has drastically changed since the Arab Revolutions shook the Middle East in 2011 and the military strength of both parties has surged. Posturing and sabre-rattling is the norm in the Arab-Israeli conflict and has frequently led to miscalculation by Arab and Israeli actors. However despite bloody confrontations, informal stability and compromise has emerged from the Arab-Israeli wars in the Occupied Territories, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon. Deterrents of terror and the horrors of Pyrrhic victories for either side may be the only solution for now in a region plagued by violence. 

 Scott Olsen/Getty Images via  The Washington Post

Scott Olsen/Getty Images via The Washington Post

In Central Asia, Afghanistan has become the United States' longest war where the Pentagon is embroiled in special operations, drone wars, and counterinsurgency operations in the borderlands of Afghanistan which the Washington Post summarised as "a strategic necessity and an unmistakable burden." By-enlarge the war in Afghanistan (2001 - present), alongside covert operations in the 1980s and 1990s, has become a geo-strategic nightmare for American policymakers. The return of the Taleban (the students) and the failure to stop Pakistan's intelligence and military from directly supporting the movement has left NATO's state-building project in a perilous position. 

Few solutions exist for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Withdrawing NATO forces would tip the balance of power in favour of Pakistan who consider Afghanistan to be a client state which can give it strategic depth to the Pakistanis in a future war with India. Remaining would leave no end in sight for U.S troops stationed in the war zone which has effectively become a stalemate. Under Mr. Trump, the military footprint will be slimmed but the special operations and drone wars will continue where it is likely that hundreds of military operatives will stay as 'advisers' and 'trainers' for Afghanistan's government forces to stabilise critical areas of the country. After the successes of ISIS in critically destabilising Iraq and the routing of an American-armed, corrupt Iraqi military, a repetition in Afghanistan and the Taleban recapturing Kabul would hold considerable consequences for the region and most troublingly Pakistan. 

Facing multiple insurgencies in Baluchistan, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and cross-border fighting in the Hindu Kush and Pech Valley, Pakistan is in deep turmoil. The brutality of the counterinsurgency operations by the Pakistani military and horrific campaigns launched by the Pakistani Taleban scarcely attract the attention it deserves in the Western world. Since 2008, there has been a sharp increase increase in attacks across Pakistan by Tehriki-i Taleban, Al-Qa'ida and other violent extremist cells dotted across the country who desire to inaugurate a puritanical Islamic State to replace Pakistan hybrid-democratic model dominated by the military. 

 Image via The Economist 

Image via The Economist 

A 2011 Pew poll found that '75 percent of Pakistanis held an unfavourable view of the United States; 70 percent believed the US is an enemy rather than a friend; and 70 percent saw the US as a possible military threat to Pakistan.' These deeply unpopular perceptions are likely to have been compounded by the Obama administration's escalation of drone strikes, the United States' deeply unpopular occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, and its violation of Pakistani air-space during the assassination of Osama Bin Laden

Mr. Trump's administration will engage with the Afghan-Pakistani badlands which, according to The Intercept, is "entering a new, potentially bloodier, phase." The situation in Pakistan, if left to fester, presents a major threat to global security. Juxtaposed to the crisis in Syria and Iraq (which, despite the carnage, is a containable threat), 'the dreadful possibilities of Pakistan splintering or nuclear weapons coming under the control of terrorists who might target the West or attack India' (catalysing a sub-continent spiral into war) is a nightmarish scenario which the Western powers, Pakistan's allies and Pakistan's neighbours must prioritise. 


With the exception of the Iranian nuclear deal, the Obama administration managed its interests practically in an inflamed and aggravated region without pursuing ground-breaking changes amidst turmoil and major interconnected wars.  Equally throughout his tenure, President Obama's rhetoric remained at odds with military and political-economic policies and realities which have prevailed before and after the September 11 attacks and during his two terms as president. Donald Trump's rhetoric, bombastic and vile at times during the election, will be at odds with what he is really able to accomplish in a region which experienced policymakers have struggled to understand and influence. Hard-realism, economic interests and safe-guarding national security will continue to define policy in the unstable and vast region, not liberalism or human rights. These policies may become more overt during Mr. Trump's tenure as president. 

Under the status quo will be maintained even if the United States' distances itself from the region. Despite promises of change, institutional and geo-political pressures forced Barack Obama's hand in Libya, Iraq and Syria in wars against Al-Qa'ida and ISIS.  Similar events, including the growing influence of Russia, China, Pakistan and India and its long-standing commitments to regional allies will ensure Mr. Trump remains engaged, for better or for worst, with the Greater Middle East. Describing everyone as "terrific" cannot be a substitute for policy, however Mr. Trump is surrounded by a well oil-machined equipped to tackle many of the major national security challenges in the region. 

Under George W. Bush, the United States' disastrously overextended itself. Under Barack Obama, efficiency and management of current affairs was preferred to ideological adventures. However, efficiency under Obama did not effectively end the overextension, it effectively expanded and perpetuated ineffective policies. 

Under Donald Trump, a wildcard maverick, the White House may have the license to pursue foreign affairs far more aggressively (as it did under George Bush) or pursue the more isolationist approach advocated by Mr. Trump throughout the chaotic U.S elections. The latter, while unrealistic, would be a radical change in American policy. The Trump administration will likely adopt the approach of its predecessor; containment and efficient engagement. Whether or not these approaches are sustainable in the long-term and effective in a time of revolutionary changes across the region is another matter.

Matthew Williams