Since he took office, US President Donald Trump has upheld the “America First” doctrine. On the one hand, he hopes to shrink the US troops in the Middle East to save funds, and on the other hand, he worries that this move may cause Washington to lose the leading position and practical interests in the region. In addition, the US’s Middle East policy full of uncertain ties escalates regional turbulence, and also undermines the US’s international status and diplomatic reputation. Arguments on the US military retreat from Syria testify that Washington's Middle East policy is trapped in a contradiction and dilemma.
In general, the tendency of Washington shrinking strategically its military presentence in the Middle East will continue, but it will not completely leave the region.
On the one hand, the US considered containing Iran as one of its core goals. While reducing military investment in the Middle East, the US is also struggling to maintain the regional strategic balance and its leading position in the region. Therefore, it has promised to its allies that it wouldn’t leave the Middle East and constantly demonstrated its determination to contain Iran. In his speech in Cairo, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stressed that Washington wouldn’t retreat from the Middle East until the end of the anti-terrorism war, and once again pointed the finger at Iran.
On the other hand, the Trump administration hopes to get away from unnecessary regional conflicts as soon as possible and achieve a sustainable strategic shrinkage while urging its Arab allies, Israel and Turkey to play a greater role through its limited military intervention, so as to maintain the US' leading position in the Middle East.
Considering the drastic changes of the Middle East situation, complex and intricate relations among relevant parties and the unstable policies and administrative style of the Trump government, the US strategy concerning the Middle East is facing multiple obstacles.
The US hopes that Turkey and Israel will take the main responsibility for the Syria issue after its military retreat. Meanwhile, it intends to protect Kurdish armed groups in Syria, resulting in strong dissatisfaction from Turkey which considers Kurdish militants a key threat. During his visit to Turkey, US National Security Adviser John Bolton didn’t get a chance to meet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. This implies that there is a huge divergence between the US and Turkey and the former’s policy coordination is unsuccessful.
In the Persian Gulf, the haunting Qatar diplomatic crisis has yet to be settled. This verifies that there are huge contradictions among Arab states, making it hard for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to successfully consolidate its internal forces. Arab states vary in the attitude and relations with Iran, making it impossible for the US to implement the plan to establish an “Arab NATO” to contain Iran.
Arab states in the Gulf, Turkey and Israel are all allies of the US, but they conflict each other in many aspects. Particularly, Turkey and most Arab states don't exactly coincide with the interests of the US in the Middle East. Moreover, they don't want to fell into a full confrontation with Iran and Russia.
Therefore, in the event that the US continues its strategic shrinkage and lacks the intention to carry out enough intervention and effective investment, its strategy of depending on regional allies to achieve its strategic goals is destined to fail, and may even push the Middle East into more violent conflicts.
(The author, Zou Zhiqiang, is an associate research fellow at the Middle East Studies Institute, Shanghai International Studies University. The article was published in Chinese on the PLA Daily on January. 26, 2019. It is translated from Chinese into English and edited by China Military Online.)