Donald Trump’s whims stoke fears of instability in the Middle East
It was an inglorious end to a crucial alliance in the US’s continuing battle against Isis. As American troops in armoured vehicles pulled out of towns in north-east Syria and headed east to Iraq, Syrian Kurds hurled rocks, rotten vegetables and insults at the departing soldiers.
“What happened to America?” asked one man, as local traffic forced one of the imposing military vehicles to reverse down a street in Qamishli.
It is a question many in the Middle East are asking. President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw US troops from the frontier, paving the way for a Turkish offensive against Kurdish forces that Washington had armed and trained to fight Isis, is the latest act to give the impression of creeping US disengagement from the region.
Arab powers, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, which have for decades counted on Washington as their staunchest ally, condemned Turkey’s offensive as an “aggression” in a sovereign Arab state.
But it was not the fate of the Kurds that concerned them. What they fear is Mr Trump’s unpredictable actions and worry that arch rival Iran, which has capitalised on its support for the Assad regime during the Syrian civil war, will strengthen its foothold in the heart of the Arab world, analysts say.
It is creating uncertainty at a time of heightened regional tensions, fuelled by the stand-off between the US and Iran. At issue is whether Washington can still be counted on as a dependable ally — and whether Mr Trump, who is averse to costly military interventions, would be there if they got into a fight?
“People are disillusioned with the US. The truth is Trump is just staunchly pro-Israel. He doesn’t respond to Arab issues unless it’s for money,” says one Arab diplomat. “There will be consequences of the US’s slow disengagement, it’s going to be filled by others.” Mr Trump has said the US will send some troops back into north-east Syria to protect oil facilities and claimed a success after special forces killed Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last week. But the moves are unlikely to assuage the broader concerns.
The US has long been the dominant foreign power in the oil-rich Middle East, militarily and politically. But there is renewed talk of how Washington’s perceived pivot away from the region is providing an opening for Russia. The Kremlin backed the Assad regime, and has gained control of air bases and ports in Syria and brokered a deal with Turkey that means Russian and Turkish forces now conduct joint patrols in the north-east — the region from which American troops have withdrawn.
Moscow has also been strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the US’s closest Arab allies and the region’s most powerful Sunni states vying with Shia Iran. In a coincidence that came to symbolise the shifting dynamics, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, was receiving lavish royal welcomes in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in mid-October, just as Mr Trump was fending off a Congressional backlash triggered by his decision to withdraw US troops from Syria.
“If America decides to turn its back on us, the Gulf and the wider Middle East, it would set in motion the thinking that we need to turn our back to America,” says Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati commentator. “If there is less of America, even 10 per cent, there’s going to be a vacuum and someone is going to fill it.”
Others see another dynamic evolving from Mr Trump’s actions, particularly his apparent reluctance to use military force against Iran. They argue that it has emboldened hardliners in Tehran at exactly the moment when Gulf states are more aware of their vulnerabilities to potential attack by the Islamic republic or its proxies than ever before.
Ultimately this could persuade Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to pursue their own diplomatic tracks with Iran to avert the risk of conflict, analysts say. In July, the UAE sent a maritime delegation to Tehran, the first such talks in six years. Saudi Arabia is showing signs that in the wake of the September attacks on its oil facilities it has become more serious about ending the war in Yemen — holding back-channel talks with the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels it has been fighting in that country, western officials say.
Likening Iran to the region’s “school bully”, the Arab diplomat says Riyadh and Abu Dhabi tried to “enlist the support of their big brother from outside, but “it became clear the brother was not interested in fighting the bully”.
“They must either submit”, the diplomat says, “or try to take it [Iran] on in ways other than a direct fight. They have two options; either they sign their Versailles Treaty with Iran or they keep resisting. So far, they didn’t choose to surrender.”
Debate over a US withdrawal from the region has been simmering for a decade. The costs of interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have weighed heavily on Washington. “It’s real,” says veteran US diplomat Robert Ford, referring to the shift. “In the White House talking about the Syria conflict [during the Obama administration], boy I heard about Iraq — none of us wanted troops in Syria.”
While careful not to overstate the changing dynamics, he adds, “The era where only America mattered among foreign states effecting the Middle East, that may be over”.
From an Arab perspective, it was the US failure to back Hosni Mubarak during a popular uprising that ended the Egyptian president’s 30-year rule in 2011 that first triggered alarm bells. Two years later, those concerns were exacerbated by Mr Obama’s decision not to follow through on his “red line” warning to the Assad regime over the use of chemical weapons. The former US president then infuriated the Saudi-Emirati axis by signing the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran.
For many in the region, Mr Trump was supposed to be different. Just over two years ago, he wooed Arab leaders by choosing Riyadh, where he raged against Iran, for his first foreign trip as president. A year later, he pulled the US out of the atomic accord and began imposing what he describes as the “toughest ever” sanctions against the Islamic republic.
But his impulsive and transactional manner has sowed fresh uncertainty. He has stoked tensions in the region with his “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran. But has also been unwilling to authorise more muscular responses beyond sanctions. In June, he aborted planned strikes against Iran at the last minute after Revolutionary Guards shot down a US spy drone. Then, he was perceived by some to have responded meekly after Washington and Riyadh blamed Iran for a devastating attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure in September, which secretary of state Mike Pompeo described as an “act of war”.
Sir John Sawers, former head of the UK’s MI6 intelligence agency, says it is “unheard of for a close US ally to be subject to a missile and drone attack and there be no military reaction whatsoever”.
“The US is no longer looked at as the calming influence. To some extent, it has been replaced by Russia and President Putin, but also countries now realise they are going to sort out their own relationships and not do it through the brokerage mechanism of Washington.”
Disillusioned with the Obama administration, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi pursued more interventionist foreign policies. They poured billions of dollars into Egypt to back Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime after Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader, was ousted in a 2013 coup. The UAE also actively backs Khalifa Haftar, the general who controls eastern Libya, and in 2015 Riyadh and Abu Dhabi led an Arab coalition that intervened in Yemen’s civil war to fight the Houthi rebels. Two years later, they imposed a regional embargo on Qatar because of its relationship with Iran and alleged support for Islamist groups.
But with Iran blamed for sabotaging tankers off the coast of the UAE and the attacks on Saudi Aramco’s facilities, their limited capacity to counter the Islamic republic has been exposed. So too the potential costs.
Speaking before the Saudi oil attacks, a senior Iranian official told a gathering hosted by an international organisation that if the US launched strikes against the republic, Tehran would cause massive damage to the UAE economy and drive expatriates out of the nation “within an hour”, a person attending the meeting says.
Saudi and UAE officials have insisted they do not want a war with Iran, even if they support Mr Trump’s strategy. A senior Saudi official says Riyadh’s stance has been not to take one step back, or one step forward, but hold the line.
“We are in an awkward position, we would like a robust response, but guess what, who is going to be hit hardest?” the official adds. “We think we have time and they [Iran] don’t [because of the economic pressures].”
He rejects the notion that the Trump administration has not been dependable, noting the president’s support for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi sparked the kingdom’s biggest diplomatic crisis in years, as well as his backing for the war in Yemen. “In the face of national crisis [Khashoggi’s killing] and the whole world wants to sink Saudi Arabia, guess who stands up? Trump,” the official says.
Washington also deployed some 3,000 troops, Patriot defence systems and two fighter squadrons to the kingdom after the attacks on Aramco. The US defence department says it has dispatched an additional 14,000 personnel to the region since May. The US still has about 54,000 troops in the Middle East, spread across seven countries, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
But even Riyadh is wary of Mr Trump’s unpredictability, as well as the rising anti-Saudi sentiment in the US, with “Congress moving farther away from Saudi Arabia, bigger than it’s ever been”, says an official familiar with Riyadh’s thinking.
“The issue with Trump’s foreign policy is it can have dramatic swings and he can deal with one country very differently to the one next to it,” the official adds. “Right now, we are comfortable but it would be silly not to be conscious that he could change his opinion very quickly.”
A year ago, as he sought to pressure Riyadh to do more to reduce oil prices, Mr Trump warned that King Salman would not last in power “two weeks” without US military support. The kingdom has been actively courting Russia and China, the main buyer of Saudi oil.
Prince Mohammed has visited Russia four times since 2015, and the two nations have for the past three years collaborated on cuts to crude output to bolster oil prices.
Moscow’s staunch willingness to fight — politically and militarily — for the Assad regime showed it to be a reliable ally to those it backs, says Mr Abdulla, even while Gulf states supported the Syrian opposition. There is also the belief that Russia — which has also strengthened ties with Turkey and Israel — could use its leverage to temper Tehran’s influence in the region.
“Russia has big influence over Iran and Turkey and so we should deal with them,” says the official familiar with Riyadh’s thinking. “It’s not like the cold war when you had to pick one side or another. I don’t think we are choosing new allies, but we are listening. We need to make sure we have options.”
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute says Russia and China — which provide almost all of Iran’s weapons imports — have already made significant efforts to sell arms to Saudi Arabia and chip away at the dominance of the US and UK, which provided 68 per cent and 16 per cent of weapons sales to the kingdom respectively between 2014 and 2018.
But can Russia or China fill any void left by the US? “No. Just 1 per cent, maybe 10 per cent maximum over the next five years, but not totally,” Mr Abdulla says. “It’s going to be an internationalised Gulf, rather than an American Gulf.”
Even if the US wanted to hasten its withdrawal from the Middle East, the region’s volatility will keep pulling it back, says Hesham Youssef, a former Egyptian diplomat and senior fellow at the US Institute for Peace.
“The region has its own way to impose itself on the international scene. So, even if you want to disengage, you can’t really . . . it sucks you in again,” he says. “It means a reduction of US influence, not the end of it.”
Trump upends US strategy in key areas
Donald Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdraw the US from the 2015 nuclear accord Iran signed with world powers and impose crippling sanctions on the Islamic republic was applauded by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. But questions have been mounting about the president’s strategy. After Revolutionary Guards shot down a US spy drone in June the president ordered, then aborted, strikes against Iran. When a missile and drone attack Washington blamed on Iran temporarily knocked out half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production, Mr Trump said the US was “locked and loaded” but chose to impose more sanctions on Iran.
Mr Trump shocked US allies last year when he abruptly announced he would pull 2,000 American troops out of north-east Syria. The move prompted the resignation of defence secretary Jim Mattis, though the US ultimately kept about 1,000 soldiers in the country. Last month, he appeared to give the green light to Turkey to launch an offensive against US-armed Kurdish militants and announced he was pulling US troops out, though some will remain to protect oil facilities. The moves drew criticism that the US was abandoning an ally and handing strategic victories to Iran, Russia, the Assad regime and Turkey.
Mr Trump has promised to deliver the “deal of the century” to end the protracted Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Any serious initiative to resolve the conflict would be welcomed in the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have covertly increased intelligence and security co-operation with Israel in their shared goal of pushing back against Iran. But Mr Trump has reversed decades of US policy by moving its embassy to Jerusalem and recognising the divided holy city as Israel’s capital. He has also recognised Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is occupied Syrian territory.