Never mind the traditional first hundred days. Within US President Trump’s first twenty days in office the broad outlines of his policy for the Middle East had emerged. It clearly has two over-riding objectives – to defeat Islamic State (IS) and to cut Iran down to size. In the Trump world view, both IS and Iran represent clear and present dangers to the stability, values and way of life of the civilized world in general, and the US in particular.
Both on the campaign trail, and once he was in office, Trump has reiterated his intention to eliminate “radical Islamic terrorism”. Back in 2015, at the height of the Syrian and Iraqi refugee migration into Europe, the London Daily Express reported an IS operative claiming that more than 4,000 covert IS gunmen had been smuggled into western nations – hidden amongst innocent travellers, refugees and migrants. The report continued: “The operative said the undercover infiltration was the beginning of a larger plot to carry out revenge attacks in the West in retaliation for the US-led coalition airstrikes.”
Objectionable as his proposed travel ban may be, as well as inept in its execution, the disruption and mayhem caused by IS in Syria and across large areas of Iraq, as well as its pernicious activities in Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen, must be presumed to be the rationale for his controversial and disputed travel restrictions on the citizens of those countries as well as of Iran.
As regards Sudan, IS militants have been active ever since they infiltrated the country in 2015. A senior IS figure, accused of helping to plan the terrorist attack on the Bardo museum in Tunis in which 21 people were killed, was extradited to Tunisia in December 2016.
Libya, war-torn since the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi in 2011, was soon penetrated by IS jihadists intent on toppling the UN-backed Government of National Accord. Khalifa Haftar, the government’s military commander, is currently seeking Russian support in an effort to overcome them.
In Somalia the extremist terrorist group al-Shabab was once strongly aligned with al-Qaeda. In 2015 a large segment defected, pledged their allegiance to IS, and turned on their erstwhile comrades. Al-Shabab is intent on disrupting the country, overthrowing the administration and establishing Sharia law – one group favouring the al-Qaeda version; the other pledged to IS and the pretensions of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to be the caliph of all Muslims worldwide. With al-Shabab controlling large areas of the country, it was only by decamping to a heavily-guarded former air force base in the capital, Mogadishu, that legislators felt safe enough to elect their new president, Abdullahi Mohamed Farmajo, on 8 February 2017.
Yemen’s civil war, which began in 2015 between two factions claiming to constitute the Yemeni government, quickly morphed into a hydra-headed monster. Not only did the Shi’ite Houthi forces clash with the Sunni forces loyal to the legal government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, but IS militants moved in to oppose the Islamist terror group calling itself AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), already active in the conflict. Saudi Arabia, fearful of the Iranian-backed Houthi seizing control of the country, then joined the fray in support of Hadi, and Iran responded by intensifying its support for the Houthi rebels.
“The support that the Houthis enjoy from their northern neighbour Iran,” wrote Sir Graeme Lamb, former head of UK Special Forces, in September 2016, “is very real, be it political, propaganda, psychological, hands-on training, specialist advisors, weaponry, sanctuary or financial support. Without it, the rebel cause would probably slump.”
As for Iran, Trump has made no secret of his distaste for the regime in general and the nuclear deal struck under the leadership of his predecessor, Barack Obama, in particular. On the campaign trail Trump variously pledged “to dismantle the disastrous deal” and to “force the Iranians back to the bargaining table to make a much better deal.” After taking office he described it as “the worst deal I’ve ever seen negotiated.” In a lengthy TV interview, he described Iran as “the number one terrorist state”, maintaining that the nuclear deal had weakened America and emboldened Iran’s leaders.
When Iranian-backed Yemeni Houthi rebels began planting mines in the strategic waterway at the straits of Bab al-Mandeb, Trump personally warned the Islamic Republic that it was “playing with fire.” As a counter measure he not only despatched the destroyer USS Cole to the area, but announced a fresh round of anti-Iran sanctions, targeting 13 individuals and 12 organizations.
The tit-for-tat continues. Iran’s test-firing of ballistic missiles on 1 February provoked then US national security adviser Michael Flynn to announce that he was putting Iran “on notice”. The result? A deliberate snub by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and a second round of missile firings on 8 February. Trump believes his predecessor, ex-President Obama, obsessed by his desire to conclude the nuclear deal, gave away far too much both diplomatically and in hard cash (“we gave them $1.7 billion in cash, which is unheard of, and we put the money up and we have really nothing to show for it”). In due course Trump may seek to renegotiate the terms of the nuclear deal, though the obstacles to doing so are formidable given that five other world powers were signatories in addition to the US – the UK, Russia, France, China and Germany.
Set against Trump’s twin objectives of defeating IS and reducing the power and potential nuclear capability of Iran, other aspects of US-Middle East policy take second place. Washington’s reaction to Israel’s renewed settlement building programme was restrained, and Trump’s declared intention of moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem seems to have been put on the back burner. He and Benjamin Netanyahu hit it off on a personal level during the Israeli prime minister’s visit on 15 February, but references to a possible resumption of peace negotiations were indeterminate.
To achieve his major objectives in the Middle East Trump will need the cooperation, overt or covert, of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The price to the US will be to endorse an even stronger Russian presence, both physically and diplomatically, in the region. Believing Russia to be less threatening than radical Islamism, it is a price Trump may well be prepared to pay.