Middle East in Trump’s Security Strategy

Trump said many times throughout his campaign, that in terms of his foreign policy he would not focus on the Middle East. He has stated that he desires to focus on only one thing in the region: the struggle against ISIS. But it seems that it is not possible to fight ISIS by neglecting the other existing problems of the region. Besides this Trump, who criticized the foreign policy of the Obama Administration on every occasion,  promised to “shake the rust off of America's foreign policy” in his criticism of  Hillary Clinton, his opponent in the Presidency Election and former Secretary of State. At this juncture it is useful to consider: What was the security strategy of the Obama Administration criticized by Trump continuously? How much of a difference will he introduce during his presidency and what will be made different by him?

In the U.S. National Security Strategy document published in 2010 the Obama Administration set forth clearly both its targets and its methods. According to their strategy, maintenance of the national security was the primary target, where the security objective was not designed by starting from the distant regions and the outposts; on the contrary it was focused on internal security matters. The words which express that the security of the American People would be maintained on its own geography by not establishing front lines in the crisis regions at the four corners of the world revealed what foreign policy would be followed by the Obama Administration. In fact the security strategy of Obama was built on the unfavorable heritage of the Bush administration. Obtaining the psychological support of the American People and International Society after the 11th September attacks in 2011 the Bush administration exaggerated the intervention required in the international scene and increased it to the dimension of aggressiveness in the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. This was the first perception that the Obama Administration inherited and tried to change. When the security strategy of Obama is examined more closely it can be seen that distant, off-shore balancing was adopted in the Middle East and partially in Europe with the responsibility of establishing and maintaining order to be shared with the regional actors. With the adoption of these policies the Obama Administration had also aimed to decrease American phobia. After the policies imposed by Bush, trying to solve the political processes by application of unilateral military force, which were far from satisfying the regional needs, the messages of Obama were positive. Maybe for that reason the Bush-Obama contrast was emphasized in a caricatured manner. While the Bush administration accepted “hard power” as the principal instrument of security the Obama administration adopted a strategy based on “soft power”. Obama was going to change the world, he would put an end to the hatred against the U.S., he would fight injustice, he would be the pioneer of a global revolution. Obama made his first visit to Cairo, he tried to tear down the walls between the Muslim World and the West and gave messages about ending the Crusades targeting the Muslim countries. In Cairo Obama was sayingI am addressing the Muslim World, unclench your fist we will shake your hands”. But what was hoped for did not happen. Although the Arab Spring which started in 2010 is more determinative, the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in 2011 ran contrary to all the existing security, economic and strategic structures in the Middle East. The competition of the great powers and regional actors to become influential in the region converted the Middle East into a playing field on which multiple proxy wars took place. The terror organizations such as ISIS, PYD/YPG and PKK found living spaces there. The region fell into a deep crisis with a spiral of increasing violence during which time the Obama administration did not make sufficient efforts actively to stop the chaos.  

Trump, who stated that the “Obama administration made the Middle East more destabilized than ever, the acts of the U.S. in Iraq, Syria and Libya had caused the birth of ISIS”, will follow which policy? Will he continue the policies of the Obama administration under a different discourse or will he prefer to establish a new order notably in the ruins of Syria and Middle East. In the presidential race Trump said that he would support the regional stability. However it is not possible to predict from these statements what the Trump administration will do in the Middle East. It is possible only to produce scenarios. Many of Trumps’ speeches were full of contradictions and some of them were in the clouds. In other words some uncertainty is at stake in relation to the future policies of the U.S. and there are many causes of that uncertainty. Although the general attitude and ideas of Trump’s Team (Pence, Pompeo, Priebus, Sessions, Bannon and Mattis) implies a lot of things about the matters of the internal policy from the viewpoint of the republicans/conservatives it is not clear yet whether it would adopt an approach which prefers to put forward deterrence or a pragmatist behavior or it would develop a new conservative approach in foreign policy and security matters. It should be noted that in spite of the presence of inconsistencies in the discourses of Trump, because he is a Republican President those discourses are capable of finding some meaningful and consistent bases within the Republican Political Line. The points where the republicans differ from the democrats can be summarized as: hard power, unilateral determination- intervention and prioritization of Israeli’s interest to everything. From that point of view Trump is not contradictory to those principles, he is compatible although he seems in contradiction, and the republican political line is proceeding on its way without changing significantly.

Moreover in spite of the general inconsistent discourses of Trump, three points have been continuously repeated in his speeches related to the Middle East. First is the struggle against ISIS. But it should be stated that; it is being emphasized that the U.S. will not undertake a land operation in its fight against ISIS. It is possible to infer from this information that no military intervention, similar to those of the Bush administration period, will be made and an attitude closer to the Obama administration is in fact preferred. From that viewpoint the second priority is to struggle against terrorism without introducing the military force of the U.S. to the Middle East. Trump who said that the U.S. had started quarreling with its old friends who have consequently moved away towards other allies has spoken to those friends as follows: “I am addressing our friends and allies. The U.S will be a powerful and reliable ally again. Ultimately we will have a consistent foreign policy on the basis of American interests and common interests with our allies”. It is understood from these words that the third priority is to be in collaboration with the states of the region in the Middle East. It is probable that Iran will not be included in the list of collaborative states of the region. The trenchant words Trump has addressed to Iran, which have continued after being elected as president: such as referring to Iran as the number one terrorist state, his approach criticizing the nuclear agreement with Iran and the travel ban imposed on seven countries including Iran, can be taken as first signals of that probability. Most likely Trump will prefer to not accept the inheritance of the Obama administration which allowed Iran to become an active actor in Iraq and Syria and meant that the Shia Crescent Discourses started gaining recognition so causing the loss of trust on the part of traditional allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. One of the main causes of the instability and chaos in the region was the Obama administration policy of getting closer to Iran at the cost of being contradictory to their traditional allies and playing a role in facilitating the regional interventions of Iran notably in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. When viewed from that aspect the threat of Iran has made many countries of region, most notably Israel and Saudi Arabia, get closer and caused the formation of a regional bloc, although it cannot be described as strong and has increased the tension in the region.

As the discourses of Trump become the new policies of the American Administration, the severe approach of the U.S. may prompt Iran to get closer to Russia and it can be predicted that this will have positive reflections in U.S.- Turkey relations. Of course Russia prefers an Iran forced to get closer to itself therefore it will not contest the American approach barring a military intervention. Russia said “yes” to the international sanctions imposed on Iran in the nuclear crisis event because it aimed to make use of Iran more easily by being a spectator to the international isolation of Iran. Although Trump clearly expressed many times that he could develop better cooperation with Russia, the latter’s expansionist behavior in Syria and its claim of being a global super power bears the possibility of confrontation between these two global actors. In such a case a U.S.-Turkey axis is probable against the Russia –Iran axis. The unique actor who could act as an ally in the activities of Trump targeting a solution in Syria and limitation of the Russia-Iran expansionism is Turkey. Therefore the new American administration will be obliged to make a choice between PYD/YPG and Turkey. While PYD/YPG had become a natural ally of the Obama administration, who desired instability and controlled tension in Syria, it is not possible to exclude Turkey from the probable solution scenarios. But it should be stated that in the case of U.S. withdrawal of its support to PYD/YPG Russia would support those groups in order to enlarge the options of its activities in the Middle East. It is essential to be ready for that possibility. The Obama administration’s policy of openly supporting PYD/YPG and aiming at the creation of an autonomous Kurdish formation led Turkey to confrontation with the U.S. In this situation Turkey started searching for alternative solutions. Turkey- Russia rapprochement in the recent period can be viewed as being caused by the Syria crisis. When the historical experiences of Turkey from the last period of the Ottoman Empire and Cold War are considered it is seen that the recent rapprochement has got its limits. Conversion of that rapprochement to an alliance, as in the example of Turkey – U.S, is not probable. When the conditions are reinstated Turkey will make its choice by preferring the distant global power not the close global power posing a threat.

As is well known while Turkey is currently trying to normalize its relations with the countries in the region it simultaneously has problems in its relations with the U.S. and EU. At the moment, because of the positive atmosphere created by the change of the president of the U.S. and the unpredictable policies of Trump, a cautious optimism is being observed in Turkey. Furthermore although Turkey emphasizes that its relations with different parties are not in conflict it is possible to notice an inverse proportion between its Russia-Iran relations and U.S.-EU- Israel relations. But a solution to the Syria crisis became a basic priority and a security – existence problem for Turkey. It does not seem possible for Turkey to solve the Syria crisis together with Russia and Iran alone, because it is not realistic to expect to put an end to the present crisis by an international cooperation which does not include the U.S. When viewed from that aspect, Turkish policies in the Russia – Iran axis in the recent period can be interpreted as an attempt to force the U.S. into a solution in Syria.  As a result of the discourses of the Trump administration about support for the stability in the Middle East, development of collaboration with the countries in the region is important and positive for Turkey and the region. But his promises on moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem and his approaches supporting Israel unconditionally are worrisome. From that viewpoint the Trump period bears some risks together with some opportunities. Of course it should be emphasized once more that this prediction is based on the assumption of a Trump who prefers change and stability to the existing instability in the region. The most important foundation of our view is that the candidature of the Trump administration is an anti-thesis of the Obama administration just as the latter was an anti-thesis of the Bush administration. Indeed the influence of the failure of the foreign policies of the Obama administration in the election of Trump as president is highly significant.

The Syria Safe Zone and the US Policy towards the Syrian Kurds

İsmail Sarı

It is possible to say that the US has never had an impressive strategy towards the Kurds, which are scattered in four countries: Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria.