Trump's Middle East policies foment a shift in regional alliances

  • Murat Sofuoglu
  • 24 May 2018

Washington's embassy move to Jerusalem and withdrawal from Iran nuclear deal is helping Russia and Iran generate more leverage across the conflict-ridden region.

US President Donald Trump holds up a proclamation declaring his intention to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement after signing it in the Diplomatic Room at the White House in Washington on May 8, 2018. ( Jonathan Ernst / Reuters )

In a single week, US President Donald Trump made two crucial international moves, lightning fast, to change the country’s agenda in the Middle East, and in doing so, flip the balance of power in the region.

First, Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, one of the major diplomatic achievements of his predecessor, Barack Obama, and he promised broad sanctions against Iran and the countries that continue to deal with Tehran.

Six days later, the US embassy made the highly controversial move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, resulting in the formal recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel by the US. 

As more than 60 Palestinians were killed in Gaza by Israeli forces, the US diplomatic corps, accompanied by Trump’s daughter Ivanka, a convert to Judaism after her marriage to Jared Kushner, celebrated the opening of their Jerusalem post.

During the protests, thousands of Palestinians were also injured, with the US backing the violence and ignoring the protests from many nations in the UN.

More than 60 Palestinians were killed in Gaza by Israeli forces. A wounded Palestinian demonstrator uses a sling to hurl stones at Israeli troops during a protest against the US embassy move to Jerusalem and ahead of the 70th anniversary of Nakba, at the Israel-Gaza border east of Gaza City on May 14, 2018.(Reuters)

Israel had strongly lobbied for the embassy move, as it sought to strengthen its influence in the Middle East against growing Iranian reach.

Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran had angered the Israeli government, and as such they were hoping for a policy shift in Washington with the new president, who received support from American Evangelical Christian communities during the 2016 presidential elections.

American evangelicals have traditionally been strong supporters of Israel, believing the Biblical prophecy that indicates Jews would be in the promised land, Israel, as God’s chosen nation during the apocalypse. Thus they have worked to lobby Trump to align his policies with the prophecy.

Robert Jeffress and John Hagee, two prominent US evangelical leaders and strong Trump supporters, were present during the embassy opening in Jerusalem, praising the move as the fulfilment of the Biblical prophecy. David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel and a Jewish American, told the New York Times that evangelical Christians “support Israel with much greater fervour and devotion than many in the Jewish community.”

David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel and a Jewish American, says that evangelical Christians “support Israel with much greater fervor and devotion than many in the Jewish community.” Israel’s hardline Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks past Friedman during the dedication ceremony of the new US embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018.(Reuters)

But the embassy move and the withdrawal from the nuclear deal caused fissures between the US and some of its other allies, including Turkey, who have explicitly expressed their opposition to both moves.

Many analysts think that Trump’s new Middle East policy, influenced by American evangelicals and Israel, will make decisive changes in the region, leading to further instability and shifting alliances.

“Developments like Trump coming to power [in the US], increase risks related to existing systematic problems [on a global scale],” said Cevat Ones, the former deputy director of Turkish national intelligence agency.

“Trump’s unbelievable evangelical steps create risks for the whole world system. It appears that recent US moves will also considerably affect Turkey’s political positions,” Ones told TRT World.

Trump’s new hardline policy is evoking bitter memories of US’ poorly planned and terribly implemented Iraq invasion in 2003. John Bolton, one of the architects of the Iraq war and a hawkish political operator, is now a national security advisor to the president, the third person in the role since Trump took office.

Trump’s new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who was also previously the nation’s CIA director, has also been known for his evangelical beliefs. Defender of Israel, he advocates hardline policies against Iran. He promised this week that the US will impose "the strongest sanctions in history" against Iran.

"It is becoming clear these guys [Americans and Israelis] want to pick a big war in the Middle East. They want to make Iran kneel down,” said Avni Ozgurel, a Turkish political analyst and author.

"Turkey and Iran have an alliance in Syria to end the conflict, attempting to bring peace there. The US and Israel have a definite objection to our alliance."

In order to resolve the Syrian conflict, Iran and Turkey have joined the Russian-led Astana peace process against the US-led Geneva peace process. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Russian FM Sergei Lavrov and Turkish FM Mevlut Cavusoglu came together for a meeting in Moscow on April 28, 2018.(Reuters)

Shifting alliances?

Turkey, though, has been a fierce critic of Iran’s sectarian agenda in the Middle East, particularly since the beginning of the Syrian civil war. Under the Erdogan-led AK Party, Ankara has also had good relations with the Sunni-dominated Gulf countries since the early 2000s. But now, Turkey and Qatar are cooperating in different areas with Iran in the face of a growing Saudi-led Gulf alliance, which is also developing secret relations with Israel.

In the absence of substantial US support in Syria, where Turkey defended the need for regime change following Arab Spring uprisings, Ankara felt abandoned by the US, its NATO ally. Furthermore, since late 2014, Washington chose to ally itself with YPG, a PKK affiliate in Syria, against Daesh. Although the PKK is recognised as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and the US. Washington did not hesitate to fund and arm the YPG, which came to control most of northeastern Syria along Turkey’s Syria border. 

The US did not do much in the face of Russian intervention in Syria outside of protesting. Russian backing allowed Damascus to solidify its political position in the country, against Turkey’s wishes.

Incrementally, Turkey, which has historically had more political gripes with Russia and Iran than US and Saudis, has found it necessary to change its position therein.

The Saudi-led Gulf countries’ move against Qatar, initially backed by Trump last year, pushed Turkish policymakers to form a political alliance with Iran and Qatar, which traditionally has better relations with Tehran than other Gulf countries.

Eventually in Syria, despite its long-standing opposition to the Assad regime, Turkey decided to engage with Russia and Iran, the political backers of the Syrian regime, against the US-led Western coalition’s designs. Now, in order to resolve the Syrian conflict, Iran and Turkey have supported the Russian-led Astana peace process by sidelining the US-led Geneva peace process.

Against the backdrop of these developments, Tel Aviv increased its lobbying in the White House, through US evangelical groups and its notorious Israel lobby. 

“Israel is openly saying that it will do its worst to break up this new consensus [among Iran, Turkey and Russia]. Israel's defence minister [Avigdor Lieberman] directly said that they will kill Assad if he continues to allow Iran to use its own airspace. Notice that they are not saying they will hit Damascus or Syria,” Ozgurel said. 

"When I carefully listen to the words coming from Trump, I understand that he is saying 'We will ensanguine the region'."

Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman recently suggested that the country can kill the Syrian regime leader Bashar Assad if he continues to host Iranian bases in Syria.(Reuters)

Israel has already hit a number of targets on Syrian soil on the grounds that the Syrian military bases they targeted are hosting Iranian assets. Following heavy Israeli bombardments, some analysts have speculated that Israel and Iran have come close to war.

"[The] Israel-US axis is now putting enormous pressure on Iran, and the country’s power structure might come on the brink of collapse," said Mehmet Bulovali, a former adviser to the Iraqi presidency. Iran has had a powerful influence over Iraq’s Shia dominated Baghdad government since the US invasion of the country.

“There is a frontal assault on Iran. In the past, Americans were trying to break the hands of Iran. But now, they want to change the regime there,” Bulovali told TRT World

Ones, a former top Turkish intelligence official, agrees with Bulovali. “The US-Israel axis has been taking a definite political position against Iran. Tehran recognises that the axis wants to zero [in on] its own political gains in the Middle East.”

The global rise of authoritarianism

The increasing polarisation and Trump's strong-arm tactics are fast encouraging and normalising authoritarianism around the world.

"The Trump administration has made a sharp break from the political consensus of the last 70 years by casting aside democracy as the animating force behind American foreign policy," said Michael J Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, after his watchdog group published its report early this year, outlining the global decline of democracy thanks to policies of the Trump administration.

Syria is the easiest example of this.

"Both the US and the Russia-Iran alliance have heavily invested in supporting ideological, ethnic, sectarian minority dictatorships during the Syrian conflict," said Sener Akturk, a professor of international relations at Koc University and an expert on Russian politics.

Since 2014, the US has firmly backed the YPG, which mainly recruit Kurdish people, to exert influence on Syrian issues, even though the Kurds are a minority in Syria.

On the other hand, Russia continued to support Assad’s ruling authoritarian Baathist party, contrary to the wishes of a considerable number of Syria’s Sunni Arab population. The Assad family comes from the country’s minority Alawite community.

“I actually think both Russia and US, for different reasons, opposed majority rule in Syria,” Akturk told TRT World.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Syria's Bashar al Assad in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, on May 17, 2018.(Reuters)

Turkey’s mediating role

Despite Turkey’s rapprochement policy with Russia and Iran, Ankara still strongly defends the removal of Assad from power in Syria. Ankara backed the latest US strike against Assad’s chemical facilities in Syria following a chemical attack allegedly carried out by the Syrian regime on April 7.

“We welcome this operation that has eased humanity’s conscience in the face of the attack in Douma, largely suspected to have been carried out by the [Syrian] regime,” said a Turkish foreign ministry statement.

“Turkey alone remains the primary external supporter of the groups that can claim to represent the great majority of Syrian people, Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and Christians included,” Akturk said. Turkey remains the single foreign power that backs majority rule in Syria, a prerequisite for democracy, Akturk viewed.

Despite facing constant criticism over its democratic reforms from Western countries, led by Washington, Turkey now has a powerful and competitive election process in which various political forces from leftists to nationalists to religious-minded conservative groups participate.

Beyond that, when the political tension escalated between the US and Russia following the chemical attack in Syria, Ankara reportedly played a crucial mediating role between the US and Russia.

Russia's senior parliamentarian Vladimir Shamanov recently announced that a dialogue between the Russian military's leadership and the US has started, and it was Turkey that played the role of an arbiter.

"[Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan is, at the moment, the only man who can talk to both of these leaders," said Huseyin Bagci, a professor of international relations at Middle East Technical University. 

"On one side, he [Erdogan] is a close ally of NATO, and on the other side, he is a strategic ally of Russia. Erdogan also has leverage."