May 12, 2020
IntelBrief: One Foot In, One Foot Out: The Muddled U.S. Approach to the Middle East
The United States recently announced plans to remove two Patriot anti-missile systems from Saudi Arabia. The removal of the Patriot systems could be accompanied by a further drawdown of other U.S. military capabilities in the region, which initially ramped up in September 2019 after an attack on Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais. In the aftermath, the United States deployed approximately 2,000 troops to Saudi Arabia, ostensibly to strengthen U.S. military posture vis-à-vis Iran, believed to be the culprit behind the attacks. There were further calls to deploy more U.S. military assets to the region following the killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps- Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani in early January 2020. The announcement to remove the Patriot missile batteries from Saudi Arabia follows recent reports that U.S. President Donald Trump threatened the Kingdom that unless it cut oil production in the wake of its ongoing oil price war with Russia, Washington would reassess military support to the Saudis.
Many observers suggest that the removal of the Patriot missile batteries is further acknowledgment of how the Department of Defense views the threat posed by Iran in the region—receding, not accelerating. The move is also emblematic of the Trump administration’s schizophrenic Iran policy. The killing of Soleimani allegedly restored deterrence, according to high-ranking members of the Trump administration. Yet at the same time, continued offensive actions by Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq, including Kata’ib Hezbollah, and increasingly provocative actions by Iranian naval vessels in the Persian Gulf have led some Iran hawks to call for ratcheting up the ‘maximum pressure’ campaign. The administration repeatedly proclaims that its Iran policy is working, although it is unable to point to tangible examples beyond minor tactical gains, most of which are often reversible.
This is part of a broader inchoate Middle East strategy that has witnessed the administration withdrawing troops from Syria in October 2019, abandoning the United States’ only true ally in that conflict--the Kurds-- the most effective fighting force in the ongoing campaign to counter the so-called Islamic State. President Trump declared the Islamic State defeated and suggested that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was capable of dealing with any attempt by the group to reconstitute. With the Islamic State on the offensive again, the United States is now scrambling to regain military influence in Syria, especially in Deir al Zour. It remains unclear whether trust could be restored with the Kurds and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) active in northeastern Syria. U.S. rivals have consistently taken advantage of American missteps. The United States has been outmaneuvered by Russia in Syria and bested by Iran in Iraq—Moscow is expanding its military footprint in the region, while Tehran is working behind the scenes to minimize Washington’s influence with Baghdad.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—two of the United States’ closest allies in the region—have done more to complicate matters for Washington in the Middle East than most of its adversaries were capable of doing. Meanwhile, the United States has been watching from the sidelines as events in Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the region unfold without any input from an increasingly beleaguered Trump administration, understandably preoccupied with a crashing economy and a negligent response to the coronavirus pandemic. The Trump administration’s approach to, and assessment of, the threat landscape in the Middle East has been mercurial at best, and dangerously inconsistent at worst. Continued mixed signals from the United States increases the chances of miscommunication, which in turn could further escalate tensions with Washington’s adversaries, especially Iran, and lead to conflict between a range of actors vying for power in the region.
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