Trump’s turnarounds have implications for Gulf countries

Gulf states are well placed to preserve their interests and are likely to find new opportunities to project their influence even further.
Sunday 06/01/2019
A Saudi soldier stands guard in Riyadh with the Saudi and US flags in the background. (AP)
On firm ground. A Saudi soldier stands guard in Riyadh with the Saudi and US flags in the background. (AP)

DUBAI - The final days of 2018 saw US President Donald Trump make important announcements that significantly reorient US policy in the Middle East and the nature of its overseas military campaigns.

The US military’s pullout of Syria and drawdown in Afghanistan were followed by the resignation of US Secretary of Defence James Mattis and represented a significant but unexpected turn of events that have important implications for America’s partners in the Gulf.

Mattis had a nuanced understanding of regional dynamics and brought with him strong relationships established from his time commanding forces in Iraq and Afghanistan but Trump has styled his presidency on a no-nonsense, business-first approach that is unafraid to abruptly make big decisions.

Dismissing Syria as nothing but “sand and death,” Trump framed his decision to pull out US troops from the theatre as a way of cutting loose from what he views as America’s “endless wars.” It is a decision that will have a strategic effect on the endgame in Syria and potentially open new space to counter Iran in the region.

Syria has remained a gridlocked theatre of conflict but the Russian military intervention in 2015 proved decisive in swinging the momentum back favourably for the Assad regime. It was a price to be paid for the Obama administration’s approach to the Syrian conflict, which was lethargic and indecisive in its earliest stages. As a result, the United States could not effectively secure any advantage.

US influence in Syria had become another expensive commitment, by Trump’s calculations, where any gains were only possible in the long term. At best, the United States could play the role of a spoiler in Syria but its dependence on a tactical alignment with Syrian Kurdish militias was coming at the cost of forcing Turkey into deeper cooperation with Russia and Iran.

Trump has also been increasingly critical of the US military involvement in Afghanistan — America’s longest war — which has proven even more costly in blood and money. Pointing out his dissatisfaction with the senior military leadership’s performance in Afghanistan, Trump criticised them for taking “all the money they wanted” but not delivering on expectations.

Afghanistan under President George W. Bush and several times under President Barack Obama saw repeated cycles of troop surges and drawdowns but the Taliban insurgency has proven itself resilient against the United States’ overwhelming firepower. A peace settlement appears to offer the most desirable scenario for the United States to pursue its interests and ensuring it does not become another breeding ground for terrorists.

There is, however, another driving motivation to Trump’s moves. Pat Shanahan, acting US defence secretary, in his first meeting with leaders of the US military branches had one underlying message to them: focus on “China, China, China.”

The 2018 National Defence Strategy, which Shanahan was deeply involved in putting together, identifies competition with China and Russia as the United States’ “principal priorities” that “require both increased and sustained investment.”

The United States has, for several years, pursued greater burden-sharing with its partners around the world and its latest decisions must be considered in that context. Trump’s military pullout from Syria could well be a prelude to a change in US policy for Iran, i.e. moving from containment to confrontation.

For the Gulf, the endgames in Syria and Afghanistan have implications for their strategic interests as well as the regional balance of power — in particular vis-a-vis Iran and its regional alliance. However, Gulf states are well placed to preserve their interests and are likely to find new opportunities to project their influence even further at a time regional competitors face great uncertainty.

The United Arab Emirates has hosted talks with the Taliban — supported by Pakistan, the United States and Saudi Arabia — and helped broker diplomatic breakthroughs at a timely juncture. The geostrategic backdrop to Afghan peace talks means that the prospects for a negotiated settlement that ends the Taliban insurgency are greatly enhanced. It is also a scenario in which the roles of America’s Gulf partners, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are also greatly enhanced.

The past few months have seen sustained US pressure on Iran and the decision to begin a phased pullout of American troops from Syria could be an ominous development for Tehran.

The Islamic State will struggle to revive itself in the face of intense regional military assaults but Iran’s long-term presence in Syria is as doubtful, considering regional sensitivities and opposition.

In any case, the Saudi-led moderate Arab bloc would be expected to play a crucial role in rebuilding Syria and assisting in a reconciliation process there.