25.02.2017 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Is There Anything New About Trump’s Middle East Policy

435342342342While Donald Trump is apparently busy in re-defining the US approach to the Middle East, the so-called new policy may not be that new. After all, those preparing this policy and those advising the president on the region were once at the helm of creating the mess that today’s Middle East is in. While their policy might be somewhat different from what Barak Obama had followed, it is not necessarily likely to produce positive results. On the other hand, it might create new complications. Donald Trump has already changed America’s stance on “two-state” solution, leaving the Palestinians out of the mainstream. Will he soon reach the conclusion that Assad in Syria “must go”? Were he to stay in Syria, Russia will have an advantage, giving it a territory to project its power, protect its interests and check the US’ overreach. This is what the US policy makers seem to be thinking and this is what the mainstream US media has been projecting in order to force the Trump administration into following a “strong” approach towards Russia.

According to this policy framework, the US thinks it imperative to “convince” Russia of the futility of war in Syria, which in not “winnable.” And as Foreign Policy magazine argued in one of its articles if the US fails to convince Russia, the alternative strategy should be, “greater humanitarian protection for civilians trapped in the conflict combined with a stepped-up US effort against the IS in tandem with regional partners (that) should provide greater leverage to nudge them (Russia and Syria) towards a negotiated settlement.”

Trump’s Middle East team certainly has the potential to prepare the policy of re-fighting the war that the Obama administration has apparently lost in the Middle East. Vital as it is for the US survival in the region, the team consists of those who were at the helm of first creating and legitimizing chaos in Iraq. Let’s have a look at some of the “advisers”:

There is, first of all, retired US Army Col. Derek Harvey, who leads the NSC Middle East team as the special assistant to the president and White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, is credited, in the official US circles, with figuring out the nature and composition of the Iraqi insurgency that had erupted after the US invasion in 2003 and dissolution of the Iraqi army—something that might not have happened in the first place if the US had not invaded the country.

Col. Joel Rayburn, who serves as the NSC director on Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Syria, is an army intelligence officer who has written the US military’s official account of the Iraq war—an account that was a part of massive state propaganda to project the US invasion as a great liberation mission and a blessing in disguise for the Iraqis. He is also the author of the publicly available book “Iraq after America: Strongmen, Sectarians, Resistance.”

It clear even from the title of this book that the chaos that Iraq finds itself in today is projected to have emerged only after the US withdrawal, placing the responsibility squarely on Iraqis themselves. We should, as such, not be surprised if Rayburn were to define an aggressive policy towards the Middle East, particularly Iran. Already known for his hawkish views towards Iran, his influence on Trump’s approach to Iran and its regional standing is more than visible.

Retired US Army Col. Dr. Michael Bell, who serves as the NSC director for Gulf Affairs, served as an officer in Europe and the Middle East and as a strategist to the Joint Staff.

These officers, according to a report, had always advocated greater US involvement in Iraq and have currently advocated, according to a Brookings expert, a strong approach towards Assad and the creation of “No Fly Zones. These policy folks don’t trust Russian intentions in Syria and advocate a policy that aims at both ousting Assad and containing Russian influence as well. Sounds like a recipe of conflict!

What policy, then, would these policy makers make towards the Middle East and Russia? Clearly, there will be minimum margin of co-operation between the US and Russia against ISIS and other terror networks. Conversely, an emphasis on re-starting Obama’s “lost war” would be put and the US would consequently be re-drawn in a conflict that has just started to subside and show early signs of settlement.

It would not be the US alone, however, that is re-drawn in the conflict, the advisers, who are known to have sound knowledge of the region and are “weary” of Iran’s standing, might also pave the way for a greater alliance between the “Sunni” Arab world and Israel by using the “Iranian threat.”

That is to say, if Jordan, Egypt and, above all, Saudi Arabia see, or are made to see, the Shia Islamic Republic of Iran cutting a swath through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and its influence spreading into the Gulf, is that not an existential threat sufficient for them to shift axis?

By providing them with such a sufficient excuse to enter into an alliance, the Trump administration would be directly luring them into a greater regional alliance against Iran and against Russia. This is likely to happen because the alternative to it demands giving up a number of interests to Russia.

That is to say, were the Trump administration to start co-operation with Russia, they will have to accommodate an even stronger Russian presence, both physically and diplomatically, in the region. This is something that the Trump administration, which is full of those who prefer war over diplomacy, might not be willing to give to Russia.

As such, what is being projected as a “new Middle East in the making” by the Trump administration is nothing but a quest for finding a way to reinsert the US militarily in the region and regain the space it has lost to the Russians and Iranians. And, as the Brookings expert noted in his interview, as Trump’s advisers had opposed, during Obama’s first term, the scaling down of US military in Iraq, they are likely to advocate a policy that can yield results only when the US has enough presence on the ground and protect its and those of its allies’ vital interests against Russia and Iran, currently two most important players in the region.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.