TEL AVIV — In 2017, Donald “America First” Trump relinquished America’s 70-year role as global leader, a post already diminished by his two predecessors. Nowhere is the U.S. withdrawal more evident than in the Middle East.
Even in Israel, whose government lauds Trump for his strong support and recognition of Jerusalem as its capital, the president’s erratic behavior stirs caution. Trump’s admirers and detractors have both reached the same conclusion: The Mideast is entering a new era where Washington is no longer the major player.
And as the United States pulls back, Russia and Iran rush in (along with Turkey and even China). Their interests are in conflict with America’s – and guarantee future problems for Washington, unless Trump reverses his retreat in 2018.
Nothing symbolizes this ongoing power shift better than Vladimir Putin’s triumphant visit to Syria on Dec. 11, followed by whirlwind visits to Cairo and Ankara. Putin’s victory lap stands in sharp contrast to the negative international fallout from Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem the previous week.
The stunning video of Putin’s arrival at Russia’s Khmeimim air base in Syria rocketed around Arab social media. “Visiting Syria, Egypt and Turkey in one day, Putin establishes himself as the only world leader with real influence in the Middle East,” read the headline in the Israeli paper Haaretz.
As the Russian president stepped onto the tarmac, he was greeted not by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but by a Russian officer. Putin finally shook Assad’s hand but quickly walked ahead of the Syrian president. Another Russian officer held Assad back when he tried to walk alongside Putin.
The message was clear: The new master of Syria, whose air force (along with Iranian ground forces) saved Assad, was demonstrating who was now in charge. The spoils include large and long-term Russian air and naval bases near the Mediterranean Sea.
If the United States and Israel want to restrain Iranian expansion in Syria, they must now appeal to Putin, who is far less concerned about Tehran than Trump is.
“Now the feeling is that Putin is the king of Syria and the United States is in retreat,” I was told by former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.
How can this be, you ask, when Trump was welcomed warmly in Jerusalem and lavishly in Saudi Arabia? In contrast to Barack Obama’s muffing of red lines, Trump fired missiles at a Syrian base that used chemical weapons. He also sped up Obama’s war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
But, since then, Trump’s short attention span and unsteady performance have confused Mideast allies and cheered adversaries — just as he has done in Europe and Asia. His intense focus on personal relationships with autocrats – Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, and China’s Xi Jinping – has yet to deliver the rewards he seems to expect.
Having won a military “victory” over ISIS, Trump has shown little interest in a follow-on strategy to prevent a jihadi resurgence. Nor – despite his embrace of the Saudis — has he developed any clear strategy to contain Iran’s expansionism in the region.
But the president has shown himself willing to betray America’s Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish allies, who did much of the fighting against ISIS, in strong contrast to Putin, who stood firmly by his ally Assad.
Such inconstancy – and Putin’s toughness — has been well-noted by America’s Sunni Arab friends. They sense which way the wind is blowing: Russia and Egypt have now agreed that the military aircraft of the two countries can share airspace and air bases – nearly five decades after Anwar el-Sadat kicked the Soviets out.
Meantime, Trump’s disdain for tough diplomacy, his insults to his secretary of state, his gutting of the diplomatic corps, and tweeting taunts that undercut his team have muddied policies from Europe to the Mideast to Asia.
Indeed, in the Mideast, far from displaying a mastery of big deals, the president has given away key bargaining chips gratis. In recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital without distinguishing between Arab and Jewish sectors, he handed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a huge win, while requiring nothing in return.
At the same time, Trump squashed his own son-in-law’s efforts to concoct “the peace deal of the century”: The Palestinians now insist the United States can no longer act as an honest broker, and are seeking to internationalize any future peace talks.
When it comes to Russia, Syria, and Iran, Trump’s style has proved even more self-destructive. His obsessive belief in his (imaginary) close relationship with Putin has left him open to manipulation by a Kremlin leader who knows just how to play the president. Trump has approved “deconfliction” deals with Moscow that leave Iran free to expand its presence in Syria along the Israeli border.
Putin is on his way to becoming the major power broker in the region, the man whom leaders from Riyadh, Cairo, Libya, Ankara, Ramallah, and Jerusalem – and even Tehran — must consult to work out new geopolitical arrangements. “Obama opened the door for Russia and President Donald Trump is now keeping it wide open,” writes Anshel Pfeffer in Haaretz.
Israelis, Arabs, Kurds – all are trying to calculate how to operate in a new era where the United States is no longer the main player to turn to in a dicey region. And all are wondering (without much optimism) if American policy will rebound in 2018.