On November 22, 2017, Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Hassan Rouhani of Iran joined President Vladimir Putin of Russia at his request. The leaders met in Sochi, Russia to discuss the future of Syria. Putin's objective was to convince them to support Bashar al-Assad, Syria's highly contested dictator, in what he positions as an attempt to restore peace to the region.
Iran and Russia have supported Assad from the beginning, railing against what they consider dangerous insurgents and terrorists. Russia, in particular, has defended its repeated air assaults in the name of 'fighting ISIS'. Their real reasons are less noble. Syria is one of their top allies in the region and it makes political sense for them to keep Assad in power. Similarly, Iran needs Assad in place to help protect them from Israel and Saudi Arabia, their sworn enemies. Russia and Iran have a shared interest in keeping the regime status quo, so Russia’s alliance is not surprising.
Turkey is the odd man out. A fierce critic of Assad, they initially fought in conjunction with U.S. efforts to both quell the forces of ISIS and their old enemies the Kurds. Euphrates Shield was a Turkish operation that achieved both objectives- pushing back on ISIS and also keeping the Kurds at bay. Their alignment with Putin and sudden support of the Assad regime is symptomatic of a massive global shift in power that has the United States weakening on the global stage. It’s also a direct response to Trump’s decision to arm the Kurds, which infuriated Turkey and cost the United States valuable diplomatic capital in the region.
Of course, Donald Trump is not fully to blame for the chaos in the Middle East. Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the West has been warring over the region's precious resources. During the Cold War, these games ramped up substantially and major powers began playing serious geopolitical chess. Dictators have been supported and ousted. Coups have been secretly funded. Weapons have streamed into the hands of some of history's most unsavory characters, including Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of 9-11. Most of the problems in the Middle East are direct creations of the West, like ISIS, which is full of ex-Baath Party members and rose out of the disastrous second Iraq War.
While U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has been less than successful in the past, Donald Trump has taken it to a dangerous new level by disregarding diplomacy completely, espousing hyper-nationalism and tasking unqualified staff members with solving complicated foreign policy problems in the Middle East.
Trump has what appears to be a personal grudge against Iran, unraveling his predecessor's Iran nuclear deal, hailed positively by many countries when it was first instated. Where Obama understood the importance of improving relations with Iran, using it as a counterweight against powerhouses in the region like Saudi Arabia, Trump seems hellbent on destroying any progress made by the previous administration.
Jared Kushner in Charge
Jared Kushner, Donald Trump's son-in-law, has no diplomatic experience whatsoever. Despite this, the current administration has decided to put him in charge of figuring out how to orchestrate peace in the Middle East. Whether it's an act of nepotism, gross negligence or sheer lack of regard for the severity of the problems that plague the region, it's a move that has our allies backing away slowly.
Lack of Diplomacy
Previous administrations have understood that a delicate balance of diplomacy and mutually beneficial outcomes are necessary to win in conflict-rife regions like Syria. Strategic locations, like the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, are necessary to ensure a smooth campaign. In May, there were calls to remove U.S. troops from Incirlik after Trump’s decision to arm the Kurds sparked a diplomatic firestorm between the two NATO allies. As a result, the United States lost ground in it’s fight against Assad and jeopardized an important friendship.
United States Hyper-Nationalism
The United States experienced a massive shift towards hyper-nationalism during the 2016 presidential campaign. Much of the Western world was also shifting in this direction and a Trump win came hot on the heels of Brexit and the near win of Marine Le Pen in France. Donald Trump ran on a platform of closed borders and isolationism, with a special focus on Islamic extremism that bled over into a distrust of non-extreme Muslims or people from Muslim majority countries. When he was elected, Trump imposed travel restrictions that many in the United States and around the world saw as specifically targeting Muslims. As Turkey is a predominately Muslim country, this could factor in with it pulling away from the United States and towards Russia.
With the United States heading further into isolationism and hyper-nationalism, power vacuums will begin to open up on the world stage. Old alliances will start to reposition themselves and the United States will lose valuable negotiating power. In November, Putin saw the opportunity to reshape Syria on his terms. The upcoming Astana Peace Talks, the result of the meeting in Sochi, could spell the end of the rebel uprising and the beginning of a new chapter of the Assad. Unless the United States drastically rethinks its Middle East policy and international foreign policies in general, we can expect more of the same.