By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
One theory about the Trump admin in the Middle East is that it was tough on Iran. But let me propose a radically different take.Let’s go back to 2016 when the election was held. At the time Turkey had not yet invaded parts of northern Syria and hadn’t ethnic cleansed Afrin. The Syrian regime wouldn’t retake all of Aleppo until December 2016. The Houthis had not yet been able to reach as far as Riyadh with their ballistic missiles. Iran and its militia allies in Iraq and Syria were far from taking Albukamal and Al Qaim and creating the road to the sea. When Trump came to office Iran, Russia and Turkey were much weaker in the Middle East. Russia had intervened in Syria but the Syrian regime with its backing and Iran hadn’t retaken much of the country, and Iran had not yet established drone bases in Syria to strike at Israel. Hezbollah was no where near the Golan.
Trump inherited a complex Middle East policy, to be sure. The Obama admin had shifted from strong backing for Syrian rebels to the Iran deal and fighting ISIS. The Trump admin inherited a working relationship with the SDF which had just taken Manbij from ISIS. Turkey had launched Euphrates Shield to stop the US-backed SDF advance. Under the Trump admin every US adversary was empowered in the Middle East. First, Iran was able to encourage the Iraqi government of Haider Abadi to retake Kirkuk from the Kurdish Peshmerga. The Trump admin, which was deeply anti-Kurdish, ended up working with pro-Iranian elements in Baghdad to push the pro-US Kurds out of Kirkuk so that Qasem Soleimani and Hadi al-Amiri could celebrate.
It should be noted here that the admin’s first Secretary of State Tillerson had meekly tried to argue the PMU should go home, only to be summoned to Baghdad for a dressing down.
The US then sidelined the Kurdish KRG in the wake of the independence referendum in the fall of 2017, reducing its influence and power it had held.Next the administration looked on as Iran rapidly increased backing for the Houthis, until drones were exported to Houthis in Yemen and missiles raining down on Saudi Arabia. The badly handled Yemen conflict was highlighted by Nikki Haley who showcased Iranian ballistic missiles in Yemen, but the admin did nothing about it. It did set up the Iran Materials Display at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in DC, but did little else. Since the admin was supporting close ties with Riyadh, this seems to show how the rhetoric lacked substance. The admin didn’t care about human rights in the Middle East, but also didn’t want to do anything when Iran’s brazen attacks grew, such as the Abqaiq raid where Iran used missiles and drones against Saudi Arabia. Iran also carried out attacks from Iraq in 2019. Iran knew it had impunity. Other human rights abusers took a cue from these incidents.
Meanwhile Hezbollah massively increased its role in Syria. Soon Iran and its allies in Iraq and Syria had retaken Al-Qaim and Albukamal and set up a HQ for Kataib Hezbollah. By the summer of 2018 Iran was planning to build a base called Imam Ali there. It’s “road to the sea” was being put in place by May 2017. While the Trump admin would support Israeli strikes on that “road to the sea” and increase coordination, it would sit and watch as the Iranian tentacles grew across the region. Even Bolton’s promise that the US would stay in Syria until Iran left was an empty promise.
Ballistic missiles, drones and PGMs began to flow by 2019. Iran launched a drone from T-4 base in Syria at Israel in February 2018. The Trump admin had pushed a ceasefire for southern Syria in May 2017 in talks with Russia, but when it broke down in 2018 the admin did nothing but watch the south fall and Hezbollah and Iran move bases toward the Golan. Meanwhile the Trump admin didn’t bother to take part in other talks on Syria, sidelining America’s own partners in eastern Syria so that Russia, Iran and Turkey could hold their talks in Astana, Sochi and also push their own agenda at Geneva. The US didn’t even invite its own SDF partners to the meetings.
In a bizarre move, the more Turkey was anti-the US and buying S-400s, the more the US kept wanting to work with Turkey in Syria, even as Ankara threatened US forces and partners and ethnically cleansed Afrin. An entirely avoidable Turkish invasion was enabled in Oct. 2019, with the Trump admin taking near-weekly calls from Erdogan who even sent security to attack US protesters in the heart of DC. A US pastor was held hostage by Ankara, US personnel and journalists harassed. Turkey and Russia moved forward with Turkstream and Ankara hosted Hamas senior leaders more than ever in the past. Meanwhile Iran increased its role in Iraq, cementing the PMU as an official force and beginning attacks on US forces in the summer of 2019. The US withdrew from most facilities in Iraq in response. By the end of the Trump admin, Iran had total control of most of Iraq, hunting down opposition voices like Hisham al-Hashimi and moving drones and missiles to the PMU in Iraq between 2018 and 2019. By the summer of 2020 rockets were even fired at Erbil by pro-Iran militias in Nineveh plains. The Trump admin did nothing as Iraq was digested by Iran.
Although the Trump admin appeared to deter Iranian naval harassment, Iran downed a US Global Hawk drone and with Russia, China, Pakistan and Qatar began to maneuver the US out of Afghanistan. Iran called Trump’s bluff numerous times until finally the US did killed IRGC Quds Force head Qasem Soleimani. But Soleimani’s death didn’t roll back Iran’s growing power. The US worked with the Taliban in Doha to sign a deal to leave under the Trump admin. Bizarrely the Trump admin’s policy of America First, systematically eroded areas where the US had been influential in the region, harming US ties with the KRG and ALSO the SDF, leading to concern that the US could not be relied upon anywhere. While the admin didn’t care about Kurds and Yazidis being ethnically cleansed from Afrin, it also didn’t care about its own partners being attacked by Turkey in October 2019, and it even enabled the UN and others to isolate eastern Syria, cutting off aid routes.
The Trump admin took a relatively decent hand it had been dealt by the Obama admin, albeit with problems like the Iran deal, and systematically squandered US influence across the region. When it was over Iran was astride Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, more powerful than ever despite “maximum pressure” and despite some Trump admin officials being pro-Turkey, Turkey was more anti-US than ever and working with Russia, Iran, HTS and Hamas, and causing trouble in Libya and destabilizing the Caucasus and also northern Iraq. Key US partners like the KRG lost out on all fronts. With exceptions like the Abraham Accords, the US systematically backed itself into a corner and gave away key posts in the region, enabling Turkey, Iran and Russia.