Since replacing the British Navy as the guarantor of regional peace after World War Two, the United States has had a heavy presence in the Middle East. Now, as the U.S. comes closer to net oil exports, the country’s engagement with the Middle East, especially under President Trump, is diminishing. Even more than the Obama pivot to the East, the Trump Administration is moving the United States out of the region. That will implications for U.S. influence in the region, not to mention military conflict.
ISIS appears to have lost its last territorial base in Syria, defeated by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, largely consisting of Syrian Kurdish fighters. In December, President Trump announced that U.S. ground troops were being withdrawn from Syria, but U.S. military commanders tempered that statement at the time arguing that the mission of U.S. forces in Syria was to defeat ISIS, or at least its territorial power. With ISIS’s last territorial bastion in Syria gone, the U.S. force withdrawal, while its timeline is still vague, is now much more certain. Continued slow-rolling by either the military or the national security advisors will have less purchase with a President eager to reduce U.S. presence and costs abroad. A meeting in Munich of troop contributors to the anti-ISIS coalition in Syria and Iraq broke up without any agreed strategy on the way ahead or on a timeline for U.S. forces leaving Syria.
In addition, recent attempts by the Trump administration to press European allies to further pressure Iran over the nuclear deal have stalled. Similarly, Washington stumbled diplomatically when it suggested the other week that it would keep its forces in Iraq not to hedge against an ISIS resurgence by the keep an eye on Iran. The Baghdad government, close to and reliant on Iran to help keep the peace within its borders, pushed back hard against that justification for continued U.S. force presence. All in all, the United States’ diplomatic and military position in the Middle East is under pressure, and a combination of the Trump administration’s policies have regional allies and partners concerned – probably for good reason.
The first concern of U.S. regional allies and partners is the long-held preferences of President Trump, which tend toward a fortress America approach to national security with fewer forces deployed abroad. The U.S. President has spoken about the costs of U.S. deployments and military commitments overseas on numerous occasions. His sudden announcement of U.S. troop withdrawals from Syria, as well as his demand that U.S. forces in Afghanistan be drawn down, took place suddenly, without consultation with regional partners, and in the face of opposition within his administration. One can see how the taking of ISIS’s last territory in Syria could lead President Trump, who was speaking about this eventuality over the weekend, to order his military to speed up its withdrawal.
A second concern for regional partners is the U.S. policy towards Iran. On the one hand, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel at the very least have been pleased with Washington’s harder line against Iran under the Trump administration. None of those states were pleased with the Obama administration’s negotiation of the nuclear agreement with Iran. On the other hand, Washington continues to have trouble bringing its European allies and others along on increasing economic pressure on Tehran. This leaves an angry Iranian government and people, but not one crippled by universal sanctions. The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, when it comes, will leave Iranian presence there without a major check – other than periodic air strikes by Israel – leading to a major expansion in Iranian influence across the “Shiite crescent.” The Baghdad government will not allow U.S. forces in Iraq to target Iran or indeed even conduct open reconnaissance against Tehran. This, combined with pressures on deployments of U.S. Naval forces brought about by the accidents in the Pacific leave Washington with fewer forces in the region with which to either pressure Iran or respond to its provocations on short notice. While air forces remain deployed in Qatar, the overall U.S. force posture in the region is likely to continue to dwindle over the next year to two years.