This week’s tableau of Israeli, Bahraini and Emirati leaders gathered at the White House was meant to convey the reassuring message that the United States remains a strong force for peace and stability in the Middle East. Unfortunately, it was a misleadingly optimistic picture.
The United States is treading water in this turbulent region. It maintains residual military forces in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan that are a check against terrorists, but the American presence is dwindling. The future of the Middle East is about the decline of U.S. power and new internal dynamics, positive and negative, that are filling the vacuum.
As President Trump nears the end of his term, he hasn’t met his goal of withdrawing U.S. troops entirely from “endless wars,” but he has come close. By Election Day, the United States will have 4,500 troops in Afghanistan, about 3,000 in Iraq and fewer than 1,000 in Syria. Trump may wish the numbers were zero, but if he pulled the plug completely, he would make bad situations there worse.
The scorecard of winners and losers in the new Middle East is telling. Israel is perhaps the biggest beneficiary, increasingly breaking free from its past isolation with this week’s normalization agreements. The Emiratis are big gainers, too, moving toward their vision of a Europe-like region with open borders for trade and investment.
One Emirati official sums up the pragmatic logic this way: “What we are trying to say is: Enough with the ideology nonsense. We need to be focused on the future, on science, on technology, on being a trading partner for everyone.”
A third winner is Turkey, a surprising and potentially dangerous beneficiary of the retreat of U.S. power. Some Arab leaders now regard Turkey as a greater threat than Iran to regional stability. The Turks and their proxy forces have been on a roll — in Syria, Libya and Iraq. Arab leaders who once complained about Iran’s domination of Arab capitals now bemoan Turkish influence in Aleppo, Mosul, Tripoli, Doha and Mogadishu.
The White House surely noted that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was among the loudest critics of Trump’s “Abraham Accords.” Trump has been Erdogan’s chief enabler, but this deference may be ending — and not just because Trump could be defeated in November. Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo both appear increasingly peeved by Erdogan’s headstrong push for regional hegemony and his flirtations with Russia.
A big loser in the new Middle East is Saudi Arabia, whose decline is the flip side of Turkey’s rising power. The kingdom has less influence in the region today than at any time in the past generation. Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudis are unpopular in Washington, but they have also suffered reversals in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan and other countries where their money and ideology were once a potent (if sometimes toxic) combination.
The war zones of the region remain fragile, caught in a tug of war between Trump’s desire to withdraw troops and the Pentagon’s determination to stay until conditions are more stable.
In Afghanistan, the winners may be the bad guys. A Taliban that’s “drunk with victory,” as one official puts it, hasn’t yet delivered on its promises to reduce violence and suppress al-Qaeda, even as it begins peace negotiations with the Kabul government. Trump has pledged to withdraw all U.S. troops by May if conditions allow — but U.S. commanders are skeptical this test will be met.
Trump has had some welcome success in Iraq. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, a former intelligence chief and political unknown, is proving to be one of the best Iraqi leaders since America invaded in 2003. He’s walking a tightrope between the United States and Iran — agreeing to host a reduced force of about 3,000 U.S. troops to train an Iraqi military that seems strong enough to suppress the Islamic State and is even standing up (occasionally) to Iranian-backed militias.
The Syrian nightmare persists, with the United States having lost most of its leverage because of Trump’s eagerness to invite Erdogan to invade the north. Turkey now controls a large swath of the country. The government of Bashar al-Assad is increasingly corrupt and disorganized; his Russian allies don’t have the resources or patience to clean up the mess.
Invisible in Washington this week were the Palestinians, the perennial losers in the Middle East game. Their remaining bargaining chip may be sheer obstinance — a refusal to accommodate a Trump peace plan that ratifies their defeat. The Palestinian issue, like the other endless wars of the region, will still be there to vex the victor in November’s presidential election.