Trump’s foreign policy in the Middle East is a collection of contradictions which seem to be trying to maintain American strength, whilst at the same time attempting to retreat from the region. The recent withdrawal from Syria, the ongoing situation in Afghanistan and the increasingly tense escalation in Iran amount to a confused American stance and a happy Putin.
Trump withdrew a substantial American force from Northern Syria in October, attempting to keep his campaign pledge of bringing troops home. The decision received bipartisan opposition because everyone knew what was going to happen. As soon as the US troops withdrew, Turkey invaded, putting the Kurds, US’ allies in the fight against ISIS, and a group with long-standing tensions with Turkey, at risk and allowed many imprisoned ISIS fighters to escape. Both Europe and the US responded with sanctions which led to a “permanent” ceasefire, however, this is merely damage control. The US lost their strength in Syria whilst advertising to the world that they are unreliable allies.
A similar strategy is apparently being applied in Afghanistan. The US are back to negotiating an agreement with the Taliban, which has recently been resumed after a pause in October when Trump called off a meeting in response to Taliban violence. Mark Esper, the US Secretary of Defence, plans on reducing the amount of troops in Afghanistan from 14,000 to 8600 “with or without” a deal, believing a smaller force can manage the current situation. He also intends on using these troops elsewhere to counter China. After the abrupt departure from Syria, the Pentagon has drawn up plans for a quick exit from Afghanistan in case the President does it again.
Trump’s policies in Afghanistan and Syria seem semi-coherent. He is attempting to keep his campaign pledge of withdrawing troops, whilst trying to control the damage to America’s standing in the Middle East, and this partial coherence is completely thrown out the window as soon as Iran is mentioned.
On the 3rd of January a US drone strike killed Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian general who was seen as the second most powerful figure of the country. The US is also sending approximately 3000 troops to the Middle East in response to an Iran-backed storming of the US embassy in Baghdad on the 2nd of January. Iran responded with a range of threats and by pulling out of the 2015 nuclear deal, which Trump pulled out of in 2018, completely. The deal was salvaged partially by Trump’s European allies but now Iran announced it will not be upholding it at all. Iraq passed a non-binding resolution which requires US troops to leave the country. Iran has a strong influence in Iraq and has been attempting to remove US troops for a long time, however, the country was overall split on the matter. The US provocation might weaken its foothold in Iraq.
The confused nature of Trump’s policies could be excused if they were effective; yet it seems everything Trump does in the Middle East creates more problems than it solves. Trump’s current actions towards Iran seem to lack an end goal and can only spiral into further escalation. The previous strategy of bleeding Iran out economically through sanctions, even if it killed the 2015 deal, had some kind of direction- it forced Iran into a disadvantaged position whilst giving the US more leverage, also offering Iran a way out creating the possibility of a de-escalation. Killing Soleimani united the various factions within Iran, relieving the pressure the government felt after protests against it due to the effects of sanctions. It also makes it impossible for Iran to back down even if it wanted to, no government can back down after having its second in command assassinated and keep any respect.
Whilst Trump weakens his position abroad, Russia and China strengthen theirs.
After US forces withdrew from Syria, Russian troops moved into the region. Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, supports Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad, and this newly gained foothold will strengthen Russia’s ally and its position as a mediator in the Middle East.
China has been taking an alternative strategy of expanding its soft power. In recent decades, it managed to assert control over the South China Sea and has been shifting US allies. Since 2016, China has given the Philippines a range of loans which amount to $169 billion, whilst in 2017, 20% of the country’s exports went to China and 13% to the US.
In 2018, a poll by the Pew Research Centre showed that the approval ratings of Trump were lower than both Putin and Xi Jinping, the leader of China.
Overall, Trump’s foreign policy is doing him no favours. America seems unpredictable and therefore unreliable to allies both in the Middle East and worldwide. Putin is doing his best to expand Russian influence where Trump is retreating, his and whilst America looks like a world bully more than a world policeman, China is buying influence instead of bombing its way to it.