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Yuri Barmin

Analyst on Russia and its Middle East policy, MPhil International Relations, University of Cambridge, RIAC expert

Three months of Donald Trump’s presidency have wreaked havoc with American foreign policy that has been traditionally quite resilient despite ambitions of every new Administration. President Trump’s team has produced policy statements that contradict one another and make it hard to draw the contours of a future foreign policy.

Donald Trump came into the Oval Office seeing significantly less pressure to deal with foreign crises since his predecessor had been the one to optimize America’s military presence in the Middle East and to reduce its commitments with foreign partners.

US officials acknowledge that Donald Trump reserves the right to change his policy towards the Middle East. This is evidenced by how quickly the President made a U-turn on the issue of removing Bashar Assad from power but also by shifts in thinking on such crucial issues as ending expensive wars.

While the circle of advisors who have Donald Trump’s ear on issues related to the Middle East is still being formed, the number of people in this group has shrunk compared to the Obama era and has become extremely securitized. There is a distinct hawkish military and intelligence hue to the people around the new President, such as Steve Bannon and H. R. McMaster, which impacts policymaking.

Restoring faith of allies in the United States became the center theme of Donald Trump’s strategizing on the Middle East in the first weeks of the presidency. The trust was undermined by the Obama Administration that sought to create equilibrium between Iran and its Sunni opponents in the region, thus minimizing and optimizing US presence there. Donald Trump has no intention to work towards maintaining the status quo that his predecessor carefully negotiated.

The relationship between Russia and the United States in the Middle East under Trump will be defined by Washington’s desire to restore its dominant position in the region. This may result in a combination of policies to push back against Moscow in some contexts and engage it in others.


Three months of Donald Trump’s presidency have wreaked havoc with American foreign policy that has been traditionally quite resilient despite ambitions of every new Administration. President Trump’s team has produced policy statements that contradict one another and make it hard to draw the contours of a future foreign policy. This was exacerbated by the fact that US officials were not on the same page on many issues, especially when it comes to the Middle East. The lack of clarity on Trump’s vision of the Middle East has people express doubts whether a coherent policy is at all possible under his Administration. Against this backdrop Barack Obama’s policy towards the region may be described as rational and pragmatic despite leaving a deeply controversial legacy.

Mr. Obama came into the Oval Office in 2008 with the goal of reshaping the US engagement in the Middle East after the damaging eight years of George Bush’s policy in the region. All in all, in 2008 he inherited the two longest wars in the US history in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as a dysfunctional state system of the region. Barack Obama set very ambitious tasks for himself – ending the two wars was only the first step of his policy. He aimed at bringing an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, build a constructive relationship with Iran and encourage it to terminate its nuclear program, as well as to revive the belief in democratic principles in the region.

With the Arab Spring unfolding in the background, what the people of the region wanted was to have a say in what policies the United States prepares for the Middle East. Barack Obama promised exactly that during his presidential campaign. Ramping up diplomatic efforts in the Middle East was one of his priorities, a notable departure from the “American interests first” approach towards the region of the Bush Administration. What was even more encouraging, Barack Obama was ready to sit down with America’s staunchest opponents, Iran and Syria, which did in fact signify a potential breakthrough for a collective approach towards regional security. All in all the election of Barack Obama in 2007 made many in the Middle East hopeful that he would bring a more flexible and a more nuanced policy with diplomacy being a go-to instrument and the military would be the measure of last resort.

Donald Trump came into the Oval Office seeing significantly less pressure to deal with foreign crises since his predecessor had been the one to optimize America’s military presence in the Middle East and to reduce its commitments with foreign partners. In fact, observers maintained that this unstable region would be of little interest to the new President, whose divisive figure would have him dedicate most of his attention to domestic issues and focus on delivering on the numerous promises that he gave to the electorate.

Donald Trump reserves the right to change his policy towards the Middle East.

Experts note that unlike Barack Obama President Trump did not come up with a meaningful plan for the Middle East and presented no clear set of objectives towards an outcome. A sense of threat coming from the region is not as strong as it was in 2008 and a sense of a perpetual zero-sum game for the White House in the region incentivized the new President to push any serious policy planning to the backburner. President Trump did, however, come up with a primitive set of goals related to the Middle East during his presidential campaign, the most significant being to fight the Islamic States and eradicate terrorism. He saw Russia as a crucial partner in this fight and what is more important, believed that Syria’s Assad could play a role in it as well.

Decoding Barack Obama’s policy making towards the Middle East was a relatively easy task, since most of it revolved around rational ideas of ending American wars in the region and promoting democratic principles. President Obama’s policy had enough constants that allowed experts to define American interests in the region and formulate policies likely to be adopted. Under the new Administration the situation has changed dramatically: there are never enough “anchor points” that may help define policies and we are unlikely to see more in the future. In private discussions US officials acknowledge that Donald Trump reserves the right to change his policy towards the Middle East. This is evidenced by how quickly the President made a U-turn on the issue of removing Bashar Assad from power but also by shifts in thinking on such crucial issues as ending expensive wars. Donald Trump won the Republican vote by opposing both George Bush’s war in Iraq and Barack Obama’s war in Libya. However, his decision to strike on a Syrian military base in response to an alleged chemical attack, the option his predecessor ruled out, gave rise to fears that a military option is on the table.

The use of military force in Syria by President Trump also highlighted the new ways in which decisions are being taken by the current Administration. While the circle of advisors who have Donald Trump’s ear on issues related to the Middle East is still being formed, the number of people in this group has shrunk compared to the Obama era and has become extremely securitized. There is a distinct hawkish military and intelligence hue to the people around the new President, such as Steve Bannon and H. R. McMaster, which impacts policymaking. Donald Trump has less regard for established traditions than his predecessor and shows less willingness to engage wider circles of policymakers, including the legislative branch of power, as the question of legality of the Syria strike that was conducted without formal Congressional approval has divided American politicians.

A security focus in Trump’s rhetoric marks another likely change in US foreign policy. Political and governance issues were central in Barack Obama’s strategy for the Middle East, while the new President is unlikely to push for policies that yield no immediate results. Instead a military-oriented strategy, much in tradition with the old Republican rhetoric, will become more definite. President Trump is not averse to the idea of the stabilization of the Middle East, but he is not a politician who will demand democratization and civil society engagement from his partners in the region.

Support for allies

The Israeli factor in Donald Trump’s campaign made the issue of the Middle East part of his domestic narrative underpinning hopes of a large portion of the population and a number of interest groups for pro-active support for the Jewish state. President Trump’s criticism of Barack Obama’s soft stance on the Iranian nuclear program also won him a lot of points domestically and globally, less because of the substance of that nuclear deal but more because of their perception of Iran as an existential threat.

Restoring faith of allies in the United States became the center theme of Donald Trump’s strategizing on the Middle East in the first weeks of the presidency. The trust was undermined by the Obama Administration that sought to create equilibrium between Iran and its Sunni opponents in the region, thus minimizing and optimizing US presence there. America’s pullout from the Middle East was interpreted by regional allies as the deprioritizing of the region in Barack Obama’s agenda, which incentivized Israel and Saudi Arabia, the two key allies, to find ways to resist the US-imposed security designs. Both arguably considered whether it was the right time to de-pivot their foreign policy from the United States and start looking for other regional allies, more pragmatic and more committed. Both Jerusalem and Riyadh reached out to Moscow despite its antagonistic policy in the Middle East.

President Trump is not a politician who will demand democratization and civil society engagement from his partners in the region.

Donald Trump has no intention to work towards maintaining the status quo that his predecessor carefully negotiated. The White House sees the Iran nuclear deal as a weak point of the US foreign policy that doesn’t serve the country’s interests in the Middle East. What is more important, the unwritten geopolitical component of the deal emboldens Tehran to stand up to its opponents and compete for regional leadership. While the Trump Administration is unlikely to scrap the deal that largely holds, it will look to push back against Iran’s growing influence, albeit not militarily. Instead the White House might choose to diplomatically and militarily empower its partners who are willing to pick up a fight with Tehran.

Avoiding direct confrontation with Iran through empowering allies comes at a cost, however. Donald Trump will not criticize Saudi Arabia for its human rights record and its military campaign in Yemen, something the Obama Administration continuously expressed concern about. Similarly he is unlikely to have Israel cease the expansion of settlements, something that John Kerry characterized as leading to “perpetual occupation.” In fact this is the price Donald Trump is ready to pay and may be willing to assist in diplomatically.

Engaging Russia

The level of engagement with Russia in the Middle East, or rather the level of positive engagement that Trump is willing to commit to, remains to be seen. Neither statements coming from his Administration, nor its decisions so far are indicative of a direction in which this dynamic will be developing. The level of expectations that Moscow has towards this engagement, however, is presently not shared by the White House despite initial promising signals coming from Washington.

The mix-up in messaging between the two sides likely occurred due to the non-political origin of the Trump Administration that sees diplomacy as a the process of bargaining in business that doesn’t match Russia’s habit of dealing with experienced diplomats of the Obama-era State Department. Barack Obama’s Administration was witness to the resurgence of Vladimir Putin’s Russia and found ways to gradually engage it on the issue of the Iranian nuclear program and the Syrian crisis. Donald Trump came to see a Russia that is ambitious and is not ready to play a supporting role in the region.

The relationship between Russia and the United States in the Middle East under Trump will be defined by Washington’s desire to restore its dominant position in the region. This may result in a combination of policies to push back against Moscow in some contexts and engage it in others. Donald Trump’s attempts directed at breaking the Russia-Iran partnership that to a large extent emerged during the Obama Administration are likely to be the center theme of the US-Russia relationship. Barack Obama’s indecisiveness in Syria and optimization of presence in the region arguably emboldened Moscow and encouraged it to fill this void, the trend that Donald Trump is determined to revert.

Despite reports about the existence of informal links between the Trump Administration and Moscow, communication is scarce, which is why the Kremlin has been seeking clarity on the new President’s Middle East policy. Campaign promises that President Trump gave, particularly to fight terrorism alongside Russia, have not materialized so far making Moscow more and more impatient about the intentions of the Administration, and could incentivize Russia to be slightly more provocative towards the United States in the Middle East seeking to encourage the new Administration to engage Moscow. The American strike in Syria, however, may have become a necessary reality check for Moscow given the fact that the Obama Administration was never prepared to send strong signals like this.

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  ["North America"]=>
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}

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