Trump Administration on the Middle East: what strategies?

The election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of United States is changing the worldwide equilibrium set up by precedent administrations.

On one side, if Trump showed to be fierce in proposing harsh measures, such as building a wall between the American southern borders and Mexico, on the other his interests and policy preferences in the Middle East are not clear yet. Even during his campaign, Trump did not spend so much time on this compared to Hillary Clinton.[1]

One of the topics to which Trump is dedicating his attention is the defeat of DAESH. More than once, especially during the campaign, Trump vowed to destroy the terrorist group. In particular, he repeatedly criticized the battle to free Mosul from DAESH since, according to him, there were no benefits for the U.S. He also accused the military leaders to mistakenly decide to alert the enemy before the battle. But apart from these statements, his future plans to “knock out DAESH” remain confusing. Recently, on January 28, Trump signed a statement ordering to the Pentagon to destroy DAESH within 30 days. The idea is to develop a comprehensive plan that would include the identification of new partners to work with and to set up a series of policies to strengthen the coalition partners to fight DAESH and its affiliates.

It is highly relevant to notice that the new order arrives after a phone call with the Russian President Vladimir Putin: probably thanks to this order, Trump would have a major justification to cooperate with Russia. Trump’s plan is to find an agreement with Russia, to trade the al-Assad regime in a joint effort against DAESH.[2] In the meantime, Trump signed other executive orders including a ban on refugees entering the US and a temporary ban on allowing individuals from seven Middle East nations to enter the country. On February 4, the US appeals court judged the ban illegitimate and, after a week of chaos in the biggest airports of the world, the Department of Homeland Security decided to resume the normal procedures. On Sunday February 5, the US appeals court denied the Justice department’s request to restore the travel ban.[3]

In the list of the hot topics that Trump has to deal with, there also are the Iran-U.S. relations.

It is obvious that what the US President wants is to reduce the influence of Iran in the region. The first step is to delete the nuclear deal. After just two weeks of mandate, Trump administration enacted new sanctions on Iran, defined as the main sponsor of terrorism. In particular, the US Treasury Department affirmed that these sanctions are applying on 25 individuals and companies related to the Iranian ballistic missile programme and to those offering support to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force. These new measures found a response from Iranian Foreign Ministry, which will implement legal measures against U.S., accused to be the creators and the major supporters of extremist terrorist groups in the region.[4]

The restoring of the Russia-U.S. relations is also relevant for the Libyan issue. Libya has, both for U.S. and Russia, a strategic importance for three reasons:

  • Libya is the starting point of the Central Mediterranean route used by migrants to reach Europe;
  • Libya is one of the major oil producers;
  • The country is a so-called “terrorist safe haven.”

If the refugees are a priority for the European Union, especially for Italy, they are not for Russia. What Putin wants is to reaffirm its supremacy in Libya. Here it is Trump. The collaboration between the two countries would help U.S. to have the role of pacificator and allow to weaken DAESH and will culminate with the return of Russia in Libya, cutting Europe out of the scenario.[5]

Turkey will be an important partner for U.S.. Trump already set out the conditions of this relationship, but some knots need to be untied. Among these the support of U.S. to the Kurds. In September, US officials affirmed that the Department of Defence was supplying light weapons to the Arab contingent of the Syrian Democratic Forces. But after the instalment of Trump at the White House, Washington denied this. The Turkish Prime Minister, Binali Yldrim, asked for a clear cooperation between the two states requesting the halt of the supply of weapons to the People’s Protection Units (YPG), classified as a terrorist organisation by Turkey.[6]

Then, there is Israel.

The long relations between the two countries are controversial. Trump criticized Obama’s administration attitude towards Israel because this relations need to be boosted. Both countries have similar interests in the Middle East, from the fight against terrorism to a delimitation of the role of Iran in the region. But this is not the reason why Trump’s election was well welcomed by Israelis. The real reason is the beginning of a new era of settlement expansion in occupied territories, even if no official statement was issued regarding this so far. On the contrary, Trump announced that he would move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This is not the first time this topic appears on the presidential agenda. However, it never happened yet that the promises were kept: Jerusalem is not considered the capital of Israel by the international community, which consider the city as an open issue as well as the focus of future peace talks with Palestinians. Trump administration has to move carefully on this point: a possible new location for the US embassy would ruin the relations between the U.S. and the other Middle East partners. Furthermore, this would also undermine the Israeli-Sunni relation more focused on Iran.[7]

What emerges from this overview is that Trump’s foreign policy in the Middle East is basically moved by the uncertainty and the need to keep the promises made during the presidential campaign. But this is not how it works. U.S. has always played the role of leading country in international politics. A foreign policy based on instinct will give much more space to Russia or China that will elaborate a more lucid policy. As in the Trump domestic context, where “make America great again” sounds as the principle of a protectionist policy, in a foreign setting this protectionism find its root in the motto “America first.” The distance that Trump takes from the globalization is, on a long-term basis, insufficient to guarantee the right protection and relevance to the country.

The relations with Russia would not save US.

The measures adopted until now will not contribute to stabilize the Middle East. Reducing the presence of U.S. in the area will have negative consequences for the U.S. themselves, for their allies, and for the international system. Trump will probably have to contend, for instance, with DAESH and other extremist groups adopting insurgency tactics in the region that would increase the chances of missing a ceasefire in Syria and would not help in the decision about the future of al-Assad’s regime. Likewise, the travel ban will not protect U.S. from the external dangers, but will contribute to increase the hate against U.S. from the terrorist organizations and will culminate in another form of extremism: an endogenic extremism that will affect the social order.

*Photo of the Yemeni mural on the side of the Sheeba Restaurant in Hamtramck, MI, USA.

[1] Klieman, A., & Guzansky, Y. (November 17, 2016). “Reading Trump’s Middle East Policy. Could Retrenchment Trigger a Realignment?,” Foreign Affairs. Retrieved from

[2] Madaus, R., Papagiorcopulo, S., & Yue, G. (November 10, 2016). “Trump’s world: foreign policy under the next president,” Foreign Brief. Retrieved from

[3] Farrer, M. (February 5, 2017). “US appeals court rejects White House request to reinstate travel ban,” The Guardian. Retrieved from

[4] Dewan, A. (February 5, 2017). “How Iran-US relations plummeted in a week,” CNN, Retrieved from

[5] Bershidsky, L. (February 3, 2017). “Watch Libya for the First Sign of Trump-Putin Collaboration,” Bloomberg. Retrieved from

[6] Wintour, P. (January 3, 2017). “Turkey urges Trump administration to turn back on Syrian Kurdish forces,” The Guardian. Retrieved from

[7] Marcus, J. (February 3, 2017). “What will the Trump presidency mean for Israel?,” BBC. Retrieved from

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