From Washington’s perspective, the Gulf states are vital allies in the Trump administration’s confrontation with Tehran. President Trump should seek to reassure them that, while the nature of America’s military dispositions in the region may be changing, Washington’s support for its allies remains as strong as ever. Pictured: President Donald Trump hosts Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the White House on March 14, 2017. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
After all the recent speculation that US President Donald Trump is seeking to end America’s long-standing involvement in the Middle East, the violent demise of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has demonstrated that the White House remains resolute in pursuing its enemies.
As Mr Trump said in the immediate aftermath of Baghdadi’s death in northwestern Syria at the weekend, killing or capturing the ISIS terrorist, the man responsible for overseeing the barbaric reign of cruelty that manifested itself under his so-called caliphate, had been his administration’s number one priority.
It was to this end that Mr Trump personally authorised US special forces to undertake their daring mission against Baghdadi’s hideout in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border, even though, in public, Mr Trump was insistent that he was intent on reducing America’s involvement in what he has described as the “bloodstained sand” of the Middle East.
Mr Trump’s desire to reduce Washington’s military commitments, which he is keen to achieve ahead of next year’s presidential election contest, does not seem to apply — for the moment, at least — to ISIS. Following last weekend’s successful mission against Baghdadi, the president has revitalised his interest in fighting Islamist terrorists.
There have been more targeted attacks against ISIS targets since the Baghdadi mission, and the White House is organising a conference on tackling ISIS, to be held in Washington in mid-November.
Mr Trump undoubtedly deserves enormous credit for the role he played in the success of the Baghdadi mission, both in terms of maintaining the focus on hunting down the ISIS terrorist, as well has having the political courage to authorise a mission that, had it failed, could have inflicted serious damage on his presidency.
At the same time, Mr Trump’s continual assertions that he wants to scale down America’s involvement in the Middle East is causing serious consternation among Washington’s long-standing Arab allies in the region, not least those directly involved in another of Mr Trump’s foreign policy priorities — namely preventing Iran’s ayatollahs from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Concerns about Mr Trump’s future intentions are particularly acute in Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, which, thanks to Mr Trump’s decision last year to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran, find themselves on the front line of Washington’s latest confrontation with the ayatollahs.
It is, after all, not the fault of the Gulf states that they find themselves in a situation where they are under direct threat from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), as demonstrated by the recent attack on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais, an attack that everyone in the region has blamed on Iran.
The main reason there has been an upsurge in hostile activity by Iran in the Gulf is that Tehran is looking for ways to retaliate for the devastating impact the Trump administration’s economic sanctions are having on the Iranian economy, and the Gulf states, which are seen as close allies of Washington, are seen as an easy target.
Mr Trump’s constant refrain about withdrawing US forces from the Middle East is therefore an enormous source of concern for Gulf leaders, who historically have relied heavily on the US to protect their interests. It is a measure of their disquiet that Russian President Vladimir Putin received a warm reception during his recent visits to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, as Arab governments sought to weigh up their options in the event that they can no longer rely on Washington to safeguard their security requirements.
Allowing Mr Putin a foothold in Syria is one thing; enabling the Kremlin open access to the oil-rich Gulf states is quite another, and is not a prospect that Mr Trump should entertain.
From Washington’s perspective, the Gulf states are vital allies in the Trump administration’s confrontation with Tehran. So, rather than constantly sending signals that he is no longer interested in supported America’s allies in the Middle East, the president should seek to reassure them that, while the nature of America’s military dispositions in the region may be changing, Washington’s support for its allies remains as strong as ever.
Mr Trump might do well to understand that having the Gulf states on his side is vital if he is to succeed in his campaign to force Tehran to renegotiate the flawed nuclear deal. Preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons is, after all, just as important for the Trump administration as destroying the terrorist masterminds that run ISIS.
Con Coughlin is the Telegraph‘s Defence and Foreign Affairs Editor and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.