Does Trump have any clue what he’s doing in the Middle East?

REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
People inspecting missile remains in the besieged town of Douma, in eastern Ghouta, on Friday.

Let’s hope someone in the Trump administration has a more sophisticated approach to the Middle East than simply bashing Iran, cozying up to Benjamin Netanyahu and sending Jared Kushner in to negotiate the ultimate peace deal.

Recent events show just how badly we’re going to need it.

The Syrian government bombardment of rebel-held Eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus this week is a humanitarian catastrophe, even by standards of a seven-year civil war that has left half a million people dead. But it also helps illustrate how the conflict has evolved. The Islamic State has been largely defeated and President Bashar al-Assad’s government is seemingly secure. But instead of winding down, the fighting is becoming more difficult to contain. 

Iran, its ally Hezbollah, and Russia are now entrenched in Syria. Besides helping Assad extend his grip, they can pursue their own interests. Russian mercenaries are dying in Syria, most recently in an attack on a base where U.S. troops are stationed. Turkey feels free to attack U.S.-backed Kurdish militias. Meanwhile, Trump seems no clearer than President Obama was about what he wants — or how to achieve it.

The BBC’s Sebastian Usher says of Syria in this comprehensive primer: “The increasing international commitment on its various battlefields runs the risk of shifting it from a war between proxies to one directly between the powers pulling the strings. And that is a highly dangerous development.”

Iran and Hezbollah can focus more attention on Israel. Iran sent a drone across the border earlier this month. Israel shot it down and attacked the launch site. When Syrian forces brought down an Israeli F-16, Israel responded with a massive bombardment. 

Mara Karlin, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says a new war between Hezbollah and Israel is now inevitable. When it happens, it will be bigger than their last conflict in 2006, she says. Neither side might want it now, but it’s only a question of when, where and how it starts. 

Hezbollah has suffered heavy losses supporting Assad in Syria, but it has gained valuable experience as a fighting force and built alliances with other militias it might be able to use against Israel.

There’s also another variable. While there’s no reason to doubt Israel is as resolute and militarily powerful as ever, it is suddenly faced with the prospect of long-term political uncertainty. Netanyahu, its prime minister, has been engulfed in multiple corruption scandals. Confidants are turning against him. And prominent commentators are openly declaring this to be the end of the line.

Netanyahu isn’t going down without a fight, and he might actually survive. Polls indicate many Israelis regard Netanyahu as corrupt. But if elections were held today, those same polls show his movement might actually gain seats in the Knesset. In a rough neighborhood with no obvious successor, Israelis could opt to stick with a leader they know.

In any case, Israeli politics will be dominated for the foreseeable future by questions of Netanyahu’s future. 

Perhaps in the age of “America First,” the U.S. no longer cares about the Middle East. But that’s not how Trump is acting. As opposed to his disdain for Obama, Netanyahu’s relationship with Trump could hardly be better. Trump rails against Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, which Netanyahu detests. He also recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — a move Israel has long sought — without extracting any concessions. 

The U.S. relationship with Israel will remain close, no matter who is prime minister. But something more is at work. While Trump took office saying he would pursue the “ultimate deal” between the Israelis and Palestinians, he has forfeited the traditional U.S. role as the indispensible broker in the Palestinian territories and beyond. Kushner apparently can’t even be trusted with a high-level security clearance.

If you’re making policy in Israel, you expect U.S. support. You need Washington to pressure, buy off or punish potential foes. And you may not like it, but you need someone who will tell to you plainly when it’s time to back off. That last part appears to be missing in the current approach. 

As Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues here, Trump’s policy is mostly a crude iteration of U.S. policy before George W. Bush and Obama. That means fighting terrorism, supporting Israel and opposing Iran. 

Obama may have been too willing to believe in the possibility of democratic transformation in the Middle East. His approach to Syria was a mess, but he got a one thing right: the U.S. did not have much of a chance to shape an acceptable outcome. His policy toward Iran wouldn’t have kept it out of Syria, but it might have offered a line of communication.

This is a new, even more volatile Middle East. Even ace negotiators like James Baker would be struggling. The Trump administration so far is relying on the junior varsity, equipped with little more than bombast and a clutch of shopworn ideas.

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Mike Downing on 02/23/2018 - 12:27 pm.


    Wow, what a simplistic “Obama was good and Trump is bad” article. Trump was elected partially due to Obama’s superficial, idealistic & naive deal with Iran as well as giving Iran money to support their global terrorism network.

    Trump recognized the U.S. needs to support Israel & Saudi Arabia as deterrents against Iran. The author ignores the speeches & the strategy of the Crown Prince to reform Saudi Arabia. The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia understands the start of the theocratic devastation of the Middle East began in 1979 and that he has pledged his support of reforming his country.

    I have faith in the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia as well as Israel’s Netanyahu. I have no faith in Iran or Turkey’s Erdogan.

  2. Submitted by ian wade on 02/23/2018 - 01:46 pm.


    This question seems to be more rhetorical in nature.

  3. Submitted by Solly Johnson on 02/23/2018 - 06:48 pm.


    “Obama may have been too willing to believe in the possibility of democratic transformation in the Middle East.”
    The United States has not been interested in democracy when interfering in the affairs of other nations; rather, they have generally been advancing corporate interests. The overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 and Allende in Chile in 1973 were examples of the USA toppling democratically elected governments because U.S. corporations were threatened. The Shah in Iran and Pinochet in Chile following the overthrow were extremely brutal people, so democracy and human interests were not a priority.
    Syria is a sovereign state that asked the Russians to come in. The USA had no invitation and is in Syria illegally under international law.

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 02/23/2018 - 09:40 pm.

      America overthrew Allende in Chile but failed to overthrow Castro in Cuba. Which country is now better off?

      • Submitted by Solly Johnson on 02/24/2018 - 05:56 pm.


        You failed to address the subject. I said the USA has overthrown democratically elected governments and installed totalitarian puppets. Ask the thousands of people who had relatives killed brutally by Pinochet if they wanted USA and CIA involvement.

        • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 02/25/2018 - 10:32 am.

          You just ignore the reality: A democratically elected government may become totalitarian and all democratically elected far-left governments do become totalitarian – just look at Venezuela or Zimbabwe. So you may ask thousands of victims of Castro or Chavez regimes if they wished CIA’s involvement… And you can ask millions of people who ultimately benefited from Pinochet’s taking power… Interestingly, all socialist revolutions proclaim to ultimately bring better life to most people at the expense of the few suffering during revolution.

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/24/2018 - 05:50 pm.

    Well, “no”.

    That Trump doesn’t know what he’s doing is obvious. The only serious question is how far back he is setting the peace process.

  5. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 02/24/2018 - 07:16 am.

    When you’re surrounded by barbarians, the only defense is a strong offence. Toppling Assad is 100% guaranteed to create another power vacuum like Iraq, which Iran will again move quickly to fill.

    We should leave Syria to decide it’s own fate, working only to thwart other outside influences (like Iran) from having an effect.

  6. Submitted by BRYAN KIRBY on 02/24/2018 - 10:33 am.

    Things are shifting in the Middle East

    Eastern Ghouta (east Damascus) is under heavy bombardment.

    What can we expect to see?

    Let me surmise what we can expect based on how it was done some months ago in Aleppo.

    At this time there are negotiations. Faced with a choice of fighting to the last jihadi or bugging out the, rebel fighters will board government buses north.

    I expect we will discover warehouses full of food, medicine and munitions left behind, along with civilians lucky enough to have survived the rule of al-Qaeda over their neighborhoods

    This time the buses will not going to Ghouta, but further north, to Idlib. .

    This will save civilian lives and put off the final battle in Idlib to some future date.

    In the meantime, when the Ghouta boys meet the Idlib lads, a hungry-rats-in-a-bag will thin out the jihadi ranks without SAA (Syrian Arab Army) losses.

    Recently, in the south, Russian mercenaries rolled past the ancient Roman ruins of Palmyra and on past Dier Azir. They were headed east, past the Euphrates to where tribes who had a few months ago been ardent ISIS supporters had seen their error and thrown in their lots with the USA (who are frankly unwelcome guests in Syria, but can hand out suitcases of cash).

    There is oil near Dier Azir, lots of it. And the Russians moved a deniable armored column with Wagner contractors to see the USA reaction. They were answered with overwhelming American air power and suffered proportional casualties.,

    And what is the Russian reaction? They deployed the SU-57, the newest and best air superiority combat aircraft to Syria. No hysterics, just put another piece on the board.

    Moving to the other big air development, Syrian gunners were able to shoot down an Israeli F-16 which was loitering over Lebanon.

    This is the first aircraft downing (not counting helicopters) in decades.

    And this must be causing reassessment of Israel’s future war plans.

    In 2006 American officers who were posted in Israel, reported on their return, that the Israeli ground forces were amateurish and despite quite a bit of armor, were stopped in their tracks by Hezbollah before they could drive deep into Lebanese territory.

    Israel also created lily pad bases further into Lebanon to fight from but when Hezbollah shot down a helicopter at its’ maximum altitude it made it obvious that the lily pads would not be resupplied and needed evacuation. Hezbollah let them march south to home unmolested.

    This time Israel would face an enemy who knows how to defend (which they did in 2006) and how to attack after years of learning to win pitched battles against al-Qaeda and ISIS.

    Now the formidable air power of Israel (really all they’ve got) is in play. Syria is protected by a multi layer anti aircraft defense that has effectively established a no fly zone over Syria and can be easily extended over Lebanon.

    With Israel on a short leash in the north and with Hamas in Gaza counting on bloodying anyone who comes in thru the fence, there is little Israel can do with its’ usual enemies.

    If Israel can stay put in the occupied Golan Heights, a long term détente is possible.

    The USA sits with the Kurds in the north, wondering how fighting Turkey, which has the biggest army in NATO, might go since Erdogan’s forces crossed the border into Kurdish territory.

    The situation is strange but may work out with the Kurds dropping their hope of a new nation and returning to the arms of Syria with a promise of a bit of autonomy in return for Turkish withdrawal.

    Which leaves the USA. What shall we do? Friendless and alone in the north and paying rent for loyalty in the south.

    Surrounded and largely ignored, I believe we will fade away.

  7. Submitted by Britter Ritter on 02/24/2018 - 01:46 pm.


    The writer fails to understand the truth of the Middle East and its history. If only because of Jared Kushner, Trump actually does seem to understand it and be willing to speak the truth. It’s a shame liberal types would rather cling to the lies and falseness than accept the truth, the reality. Anti-Semitism is in no way fashionable, nor ever acceptable, even if you are “Palestinian.”

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 02/26/2018 - 12:10 pm.


      Trump and the Trump In-Law share the belief that the best referee in Mid East policy has a Ref’s zebra stripes on the front and a Star of David flag on the back. Until we gain some amount of credibility as a “fair bargainer” all we will be doing is throwing money at our friends and insults at everyone else, all to no avail. Thomas Friedman said it best on the endorsement of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital: Trump could have negotiated significant compromise from Israel regarding the settlements, etc… in trade for this recognition. Instead he just paid back the campaign gratitude of Sheldon Adelson. So; back to our headline:


      No; but he sure knows how to monetize it….

  8. Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 02/24/2018 - 07:42 pm.

    Compared to whom?

    Because the problem is so simple and past presidents have done so well over there…

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