America in the Middle East in 2019


There is every chance America’s half-in half-out posture in the Middle East will create massive confusion this year.

As of December 31, Donald Trump’s America was positioned as follows:

** It is scheduled to withdraw troops from Syria, but not any time quick. After a year-end lunch with President Trump at the White House, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said the withdrawal was in a “pause situation”. What that means exactly and whether it will really stave off a Turkish assault on the Kurds remains to be seen.

** The US seems to want to use Iraq as a base for Syrian operations precisely at a time when Baghdad is calling for American troops to withdraw. During his three-hour visit to Iraq, President Trump suggested making greater use of Iraq, evidently without consulting the Iraqis. This is probably unwise, considering they’re narked off by Mr Trump’s high-handed fly-in-fly-out, his take-it-or-leave-it last-minute offer to meet the Iraqi prime minister.

** And finally, before Christmas, the US president claimed ISIS had been defeated. On Christmas Day, Mr Trump said the terrorist group had suffered near elimination. Which is it? And what is the US strategy? No one knows.

The New Year may see partial accords negotiated in Yemen, Libya and Syria but possibly no lasting settlements except in the last. Tightening US sanctions on Iran will push it deeper into chaos but probably not dislodge its clerical regime.

Meantime, there’s a grave risk of Turkey being drawn into fighting against Syrian forces (and their Russian and Iranian allies) if it tries to retake the rebel-held enclave of Idlib. Turkey is a NATO member. What will the US and NATO do if an ally is embroiled in a hot conflict?

The “pause situation” in terms of US troops’ withdrawal from Syria is a metaphor for the two-year pause on sense and sensibility in American foreign policy.