Trump’s End Game in Middle East

ISSSP Reflections No. 53, May 26, 2017

Author: Shreya Upadhyay

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US President Donald Trump first international nine-day tour comprises three major religious capitals of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. With that, he chose to plunge straight into the middle East politics with sit downs in Saudi Arabia, Israel and Palestine. This article looks at Trump’s first diplomatic mission and analyse the contours of his endgame in the Middle East.  

A Pan Arab, US, Israel Coalition: Targeting Tehran?

Trump’s perfectly tailored speech on “radical Islamic extremism in Saudi Arabia urged the Muslim countries to take lead in combating radicalisation.  The President also held separate session with leaders of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council to discuss the civil war in Syria and potential “de-escalation zones” to provide safe areas for civilians.  

In recent years, fears of a rising Iran have started to chip away at differences among Arab countries. Israel has also voiced her wish to improve ties with Saudi and other Gulf countries as part of an initiative that would draw Palestinians into a peace deal and create a broad front against Iran’s nuclear ambitions. During his visit Trump addressed major issues that are of immediate concern to the US. ISIS and other radical Islamist factions in the region remain a threat. However, Syria and Iran take remain of particular concern for the US. In his speeches he sent a strong message to Iran regarding its nuclear ambitions.  Interestingly, till now Trump has not ‘ripped up’ the Iran nuclear deal till now due to what the analysts see as reflecting business interests at home and diplomatic interests abroad.  However, Trump has accused Iran of funding, training and equipping terrorists and militias.  

Trump administration is taking up “Arab NATO” rather seriously and working towards closer security coordination between key Arab states and more burden-sharing to maintain the security of the region. A budding coalition of the United States, Israel and Arab leaders, largely arising from their shared view of Iran as a growing national security threat seems to be taking shape.                                                     

The Ultimate Israel- Palestine Peace Deal

The US President hammered the requirement of re-invigorating an Israel-Palestine peace process stating it was important for establish a common cause with the Arab neighbours in order to challenge Iran. It should be noted that even in the past, US Presidents ranging from Jimmy Carter to Obama have expressed confidence in their ability to bring the two sides together. Obama was certain that peace would occur under his watch that he told the United Nations in his 2010 address that it was possible the dream of a Palestinian state could be realized in the next year. The talks have, however, been moribund since 2014.

Trump during the visit avoided addressing thorny issues that have stalled peace efforts for decades. Instead, in his talks with the Israelis and Palestinians, he sought common sets of principles to build momentum for peace. However, his speech was missing specifics and bordered largely on rhetoric and goodwill.

The Israeli side was already miffed with revelations that the US president had shared sensitive intelligence with Russia. Another strain was backtracking on a campaign promise to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. However, that led to a fracas between American and Israeli officials planning for Trump’s visit. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked to join Trump on his visit of the Western Wall, but was snubbed. US officials declined to say whether the Western Wall belonged to Israel. Western Wall and the surrounding area holds an important place for the Israelis as well as the Palestinians. The US has withheld recognition of Israeli control of the area until there is a deal.

On paper, both Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have made right noises about their readiness to negotiate. However, in reality they face domestic constraints on their freedom to manoeuvre. A peace deal still remains elusive till the five core issues (borders, security, Jerusalem, a right to return for refugees and mutual recognition) are not addressed.

Challenges to Trump’s Policy in Middle East

A new US president with a different foreign policy is a welcome step for the Middle Eastern leadership. Moreover, the region views Trump as someone not beholden to a particular ideology. That gives him some leeway and freedom. However, there are challenges to achieving the Arab-Israel peace and forging a regional security alliance against Iran and Syria.

  1. Regional Issues: One of the biggest issue for Trump is the distrust in the region. The level of disbelief between Israel and Palestine exists not only on the leadership level but also among the public. The Gaza war that started after the breakdown of the 2014 talks have worsened the situation. The issue of trust not only exists between Israel and Palestine but even within Palestine with the rift between Hamas, which controls Gaza, and Fatah, led by Abbas, growing deeper in recent months. Israel on its part is sceptical of the entire region. Till now the US ensured that Israel must maintain a ‘Qualitative Military Edge’ in the region and therefore constrained its military sales to Gulf. Trump’s recent $110 billion defence deal with Saudis is sure to attract grumblings of discontent among those in Tel Aviv.
  2. Russian Influence: In the past few years, Russia is reasserting its influence across the globe, including Middle East. The starting point was intervention in Syria where Russians have put boots on the ground. Other than that there is growing Russian involvement in several other Middle Eastern countries, including Turkey, Egypt and Israel with which the US had built strong ties over the decades. Russia is also coordinating with many of these countries against the ISIS. Netanyahu has made three visits to Moscow in the last two years and Putin has also tried to organise a summit between Israel and Palestine, an area traditionally dominated by the US. For the Trump administration, it is therefore crucial to strengthen ties with the region and find ways in which Russia and the US can collaborate on increasing the safety and security in the region. Notably, the US government were caught off guard with Putin’s presence in Ukraine and Syria. The US needs to be mindful of Russian activities in the regions such as weaponising Iran, and other activities to undermine US interests in the region.   
  3. Saudi Money: Analysts have questioned whether the Saudi kingdom is in a position to afford the deal thanks to its flailing economy due to volatile price of oil and massive deficits.  Saudi’s forex reserves are plummeting at an alarming rate due to plunge in oil prices. Even as the regime recognised conceded its weakness in the Vision 2030 unveiled last year, its spending of billions of dollars only shows economic lunacy and too impractical to be honoured.   
  4. Domestic Constraints: Trump took his first foreign trip amidst mushrooming domestic challenges. His public approval ratings continue to revolve around 40 per cent, a low mark for a new US President. However, he received a royal welcome from the middle eastern leadership and got some goodies to take back home as an example of Trump as a deal making President helping America domestically. However, the Trump administration may find congressional opposition to the some of the promised defence equipment, amounting to as high as $86 billion, that can be a source of instability in the region. 

About the Author

Shreya Upadhyay, Consultant at ISSSP, NIAS. She can be reached at <vini.shreya@gmail.com>

Conducting Academic and Policy Research related to National and International Security Issues
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