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Under Trump, a trial and error policy emerges for the Middle East

Regional players scramble to understand latest US escalation in Yemen, Syria

Image Credit: AFP
US President Donald Trump
Gulf News

Dubai: When Donald Trump was running for president he was quick to point to the mistakes of the Obama administration for lacking a clear policy in the Middle East.

He criticised US involvement in Syria, Libya and said the way the US pulled out its troops in Iraq was a “disaster” which helped create the security vacuum for Daesh to emerge.

But, two months into his presidency, observers are scratching their heads over the latest US moves in the region, which seemingly contradict his hands off approach.

Stepped up military action in Yemen against and Al Qaida and a more bold and visible presence in northern Syria has many questioning, “just what is the US trying to do?”

There is seemingly no direct answer to that, but statements from various US administration officials have indicated that the US could be prioritising its efforts against Al Qaida.

“AQAP is the organisation that has more American blood on its hands,” Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis was careful to point out recently.

But are the latest developments carefully calculated moves or just a haphazard testing of the waters?

While it might be too soon to tell, most indications point to the latter.

Already Trump has seemingly backtracked or softened his stances on several issues he campaigned on.

When he suggested that the US would not focus on the two-state solution in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which caused an international stir, he later said that a two-state solution would be the better option.

America is clearly unsure who its allies are in fighting “extremism” in the region.

Retired Army Colonel Derek Harvey, who is said to be heavily influencing the current US foreign policy in the Middle East, cannot seem to decide who is an ally and who is not. He criticised Obama for undermining Washington’s ties with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel.

Many in the pro-Al Assad camp cheered when Trump came to power. They assumed that he would take a hands-off approach in Syria leaving it to the Russians.

But US activity in Syria only seems to be increasing, although it is unclear whether that action will help bolster the regime or whether the US has more narrow interests.

Trump’s new CIA director, Mike Pompeo, did not visit London, Paris, Beijing or Tokyo on his first trip abroad.

Rather, he went to Ankara, the Turkish capital, a staunch opponent of regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad which just recently patched up relations with Russia after a year of frosty relations over conflicting interests in Syria.

The move largely confused the parties to Syria’s conflict which may have prompted the Syrian opposition to offer to partner up with the US in Syria to fight terrorism.

Just last week in Geneva, Syria’s opposition said it was counting on the new US Trump administration to play a “positive” role to end the country’s six-year war, after “catastrophic” policy mistakes under President Barack Obama.

The High Negotiating Committee (HNC), the main opposition group at UN-sponsored talks in Geneva, said it can help rein in Iran’s influence in the conflict, which has killed over 400,000 people.

Trump has long criticised Iran’s role in the region, which sat well with many Arab countries who share the same view.

But with Trump’s cosy relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a staunch supporter of the Al Assad regime, it remains unclear whether the US will take the opposition up on its offer.

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