Trump’s Second Year Crossroads

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

January 19, 2018

As the Trump administration enters its second year, signs abound that the Middle East is in the midst of a historic realignment. The foundations of U.S. influence in the region are being shaken by the rise of China, the increasing assertiveness of Russia, the possible decoupling of the EU-U.S. alliance, a strategic tacit alliance between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and Turkey’s and Iran’s desire for regional leadership, to mention just a few.

Much of the recent analysis focuses on the growing rift between the United States and Europe. For example, Arab News’s Fadi Esber points out that, on a number of issues, some European countries are developing positions that are at odds with Washington: “Recent events and diplomatic maneuverings have shown that the major European players are trying to carve out an independent space for their policy in the region, sometimes at the expense of the long-established American position. European relations with Iran and Turkey, their approach to the Qatar crisis, and their stance on the Jerusalem watershed have stood in marked contrast, if not outright opposition, to Trump’s policy.”

According to The National’s Faisal Al Yafai, one of the reasons for the divide could be the independent streak shown by the new French president, Emmanuel Macron, who has made it clear that he would like to see France play a greater role in the region: “Mr. Macron has made no secret of his desire for France to matter in the Middle East and across the globe. He sees an opportunity: with the United States and Britain turning inwards for their own reasons, and Russia still, in Barack Obama’s caustic phrase, ‘a regional power’, Mr. Macron believes that only France can exercise western leadership… But it is in the Middle East that Mr. Macron has sought influence first…. Mr. Macron may prefer to play the man in the middle, but in the Middle East, eventually, even if reluctantly, foreign powers always choose a side. The twists and turns of a region in the midst of significant change are simply too great to stand on the sidelines.”

Such realignments, however, do not occur in a vacuum, which is why the noted political scientist Zaki Laidi notes in a recent op-ed for Khaleej Times that Europe’s aspirations to play a greater global role must take into account the increasing influence of China: “Some suggest that to strengthen its position further Europe should team up with China… A Sino-European partnership could be a powerful force offsetting America’s negative impact on international trade and cooperation. Yet such a partnership is far from certain. Yes, Europe and China converge on a positive overall view of globalization and multilateralism. But whereas Europe supports a kind of “offensive multilateralism” that seeks to beef up existing institutions’ rules and enforcement mechanisms, China resists changes to existing standards, especially if they strengthen enforcement of rules that might constrain its ability to maximize its own advantages.”

Eyad Abu Shakra, writing for Asharq Alawsat, believes that the increased competition for influence is partly due to the fact that the United States has been derelict in the discharge of its role as the region’s most important actor, making it possible for countries like Russia and others to become more involved: “Russia and China, the two aspiring ‘superpowers’ challenging America’s supremacy, had their own considerations in confronting Washington and exploiting its miscalculations. These considerations have been obvious in Moscow’s and Beijing’s open support of Al-Assad regime in Syria, and tacit approval of North Korea’s nuclear threat to Washington and its Asian allies…. One would assume that when Washington decided to confront Tehran’s mullahs in the Security Council, it was well aware of the unfavorable mood against it; especially, following the White House’s disregard to the Council resolutions by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In short, welcome to International Relations ‘2018 Model Year’.”

The Russian government, for its part, has made the resolution of the Syrian conflict its main focus. But Jordan Times’s Osama Al Sharif argues that Russian president Vladimir Putin will find the road ahead difficult and treacherous: “Putin’s investment in Syria will be costly and long-term. With so many key players — Iran, Turkey, US and Israel — and non-state actors still active in Syria, Moscow’s push to extract a political deal at Sochi will not be easy. For the regime it will further increase its dependency on Russia’s backing. For the Syrian opposition it will deepen its marginalization but may also result in much needed restructuring and unity. Repeated attempts to make the Geneva rounds work were met with failure because Moscow refuses to put pressure on the regime to engage in genuine negotiations.”

A further complicating factor for Mr. Putin’s broader Middle East strategy is the fact that, as Hurriyet Daily News’ Murat Yetkin opines, Russia’s erstwhile allies in the Syrian conflict—Iran and Turkey—have their own designs and objectives in the region: “One major factor behind escalating tension between the three partners, which were able to successfully decrease (in relative terms) tensions through the Astana talks, was the Syrian army’s operation to take back the military airport of Abu Duhour, which is southeast of Idlib. FSA sources claim that the FSA controls the airport, ‘not the bad ones’. Ankara fears that if the Syrian army takes back the airport, the FSA will be unable to stop the People’s Protection Units (YPG) from advancing towards the Turkish border.”

Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Post’s Jonathan Adelman points out that Iran’s regional competitors are beginning to make their own strategic calculations. This is leading to some significant realignments, not least of which being the growing tacit cooperation between some of the Arab countries and Israel: “In recent weeks there has been much talk of improved relations among Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. There are persistent rumors that the reward for Israel joining the battle against Iran would be leading Arab states’ willingness to cede east Jerusalem to Israel and make Ramallah the capital of a Palestinian state…. There is virtually no danger that Israel would ever turn on Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Meanwhile, the Iranians are again facing an uprising, and history shows that eventually the revolution will triumph. The Israelis would gain much and lose little from aligning with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. And so, as in ancient India, the enemy of my enemy turns out to be my friend.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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