Twelve months ago, many held their breaths, expecting the unexpected from the newly-elected, yet-to-be inaugurated Donald Trump. Indeed, it has been a roller-coaster year with Trump at the White House, especially when it came to the complex world of Arab politics. Not a single of the region’s multi-faceted problems have been solved — far from it, the war in Yemen drags on, Lebanon remains in political limbo, while Libya and Iraq are both in a shambles. The war in Syria is approaching its seventh anniversary next March, and although military operations are likely to end soon, thanks to the might of the Russian Army, Trump has seemingly given up on regime change in Damascus and is more focused on eradicating Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), empowering the Kurds, and clipping the wings, in anticipation of ejecting both Hezbollah and Iran totally from the Syrian battlefield. As 2017 is wrapping up, those looking for leadership are finding more of it at the Kremlin than at the White House.
True, Daesh is all but finished, militarily if not ideologically, and has been ejected from entire towns and cities throughout Syria and Iraq. History will not accredit Trump alone with this impressive feat, and at best, will allow him to co-share the honours with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. If a credible political settlement is not reached at the Black Sea resort of Sochi next month, then Daesh will soon re-emerge in Syria, perhaps in a different form and shape, feeding off the misery, poverty, and frustration of the people. A more radicalised terror group will likely rise, more radical than Daesh, just like the protracted war in Iraq produced something worse than Al Qaida. Handling the peace talks at Sochi is Putin himself, while Trump and his top diplomats are absent from Sochi, and the parallel tracks at Astana and Geneva, allowing Putin to hammer out an endgame to the Syrian conflict, tailor-made to fit his liking. Just a few months ago, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds seemed to be enjoying their moment of glory throughout the Middle East, signed off personally by Trump. With US backing, they ripped through the self-proclaimed Daesh capital of Raqqa on the Euphrates River, tearing down Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi’s “caliphate” months after overrunning his power base in Mosul. Trump saw promise in the Kurds, pledging to reward them for their contributions to the war on terror. Funds were withdrawn from all Syrian opposition groups, except the all-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Despite threats from Ankara and Baghdad, they were allowed to stage two controversial referendums in September. The first aimed at finalising their total independence from the central government in Iraq, while the second set the stage for municipality elections in Syria, scheduled for November, followed by parliamentary ones for a federal government, due for January 2018. Neither happened, of course — namely because Trump failed to pull through with his promises to the Kurds and because Putin agreed with Recep Tayyip Erdogan that no Kurdish state would emerge on his borders, at any cost.
On Iran and Hezbollah, Trump started his tenure on a very high note, threatening to renege on the nuclear deal while describing Hezbollah, in an address at the White House with Prime Minister Saad Hariri, as a “terrorist organisation”. Twelve months down the road, the Iran nuclear deal remains in-tact and Hezbollah stays on in Lebanon. When former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh broke away from Al Houthi militia influence earlier this month, he was accused of treason and shot dead by Al Houthis on the outskirts of Sana’a. Photos of his corpse went viral on social media networks — an outright warning as to what fate awaits defectors from Iran’s orbit. In Lebanon, Hezbollah is represented in government through two cabinet ministers. Hariri tried to break away in early November, lashing out against Iran and its “arms” in the region (in a clear reference to Hezbollah). He stepped down from the premiership, indicating that economic sanctions were in the pipeline for Hezbollah. That too did not happen and by the end of the month, Hariri had returned to his post and was back at the seat of power in Beirut. What differentiates Trump from Putin is the former’s loud words, no action, as compared to Putin’s hands-on approach to all matters that are Russia-related. Although he bombed Syria in April, wanting to show the world that he wasn’t another indecisive Barack Obama, Trump is seemingly not ready to sink into regional disputes any further, preferring to handle Middle East affairs at a macro-level, while letting the Russians handle all details.
In fact, if we look back closely at the past 12 months, we can see that Trump’s only action was the recognition of occupied Jerusalem, rather than Tel Aviv, as the “eternal capital of Israel”. A highly miscalculated move, all it did was kill the already stagnated peace process, making reliable allies like Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas look bad, and is threatening to spark another Palestinian intifada. The Jerusalem affair plays nicely into the hands of both Iran and Hezbollah — that will be milked to death to drum up anti-Americanism. Historic US allies such as the presidents of Egypt and Turkey are finding a very warm welcome at the Kremlin.
Last August, US Vice-President Mike Pence compared Trump to former US president Theodore Roosevelt, saying: “I think the United States once again has a president whose vision, energy, and can-do spirit is reminiscent of president Teddy Roosevelt. Pence failed to quote Roosevelt’s famous policy of speaking softly and carrying a big stick — since it certainly does not apply to Trump, who is doing the exact opposite. He seems to be speaking loudly than softly, carrying not a big stick, but a big Putin instead.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also the author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.