Shadow Government

Trump’s Passive-Aggressive Syria Policy Risks Creating More Mayhem in the Middle East

The United States is pursuing a worst-of-both-worlds mix of hawkish confrontation and strategic retrenchment.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a briefing on Syria in the White House on April 9. From left: U.S. Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley, Vice President Mike Pence, Trump, and National Security Advisor John Bolton. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a briefing on Syria in the White House on April 9. From left: U.S. Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley, Vice President Mike Pence, Trump, and National Security Advisor John Bolton. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The addition of uber-hawkish fresh faces to President Donald Trump’s national security team raised justifiable worries that the president was assembling a “war cabinet.”

But as the limited targets of the U.S. missile strikes against Syria on Friday show, a continuation of the essence of Trump’s foreign policy in the Middle East is far more likely: a worst-of-both-worlds mix of tactical, hawkish confrontation and an underlying strategic retrenchment.

Call it a passive-aggressive Middle East strategy — aggressive enough to turn up the heat on the region’s conflicts yet passive enough to ensure that the United States does not really invest in addressing them.

Trump’s approach undercuts U.S. influence and ability to shape outcomes in the region:

Rip up the Iran nuclear deal, but make no serious plans to challenge Iran in the region. Crush the Islamic State militarily, but walk away from the aftermath. Launch limited strikes into Syria (which we support) without a strategy — all while barring America’s doors to Syrian victims. Then declare “mission accomplished” as Syria burns.

Roll out the red carpet for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s visit to Washington, but squander that leverage by writing him a blank check for continued regional conflict. Gain leverage, and then squander it. Rinse, repeat.

Delegate all meaningful follow-through down to the ghost ship of the nondefense national security bureaucracy. Strain the U.S. military by escalating tensions around the world and sending troops to a fake threat on America’s southern border at the same time. Trump has slapped the “America First” bumper sticker on a Middle East policy that does little to advance America’s interests or tackle its enduring challenges.

How will this approach play out on the ground?

The next two months will tell us a great deal. Just as Trump reshuffles his national security team, he has also arranged a series of self-imposed Middle East crises.

Over a single, head-spinning stretch in early May, Trump is likely to rip up the Iran nuclear deal and open a U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem — just as Iraqis head to the polls for national elections. And that was before Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s horrific chemical weapons provoked a U.S. military response — and raised the stakes of Trump’s musings on pulling U.S. troops out of eastern Syria.

Over the coming month and a half, Trump and his team could well make three unforced errors in the Middle East.


Trump seems ready to isolate the United States and undermine its leverage by pulling it out of the Iran nuclear deal. This would increase security tensions in the region while unilaterally removing from the United States a key tool blocking Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon in the coming years. European countries, China, and Russia might well stay in the deal, and it remains to be seen what Iran would do. There is little evidence that Trump’s team — including John Bolton, the new national security advisor, and Mike Pompeo, the CIA director and Iran hawk whom Trump has nominated for secretary of state — is prepared to deal with the range of outreach and contingencies required to mount a credible campaign of renewed international pressure.

Looking beyond the deal to the broader region, the gap between Trump rhetoric and reality is wider still. The United States is largely bereft of an active strategy to engage and compete with Iran in the fields where it matters most, particularly regarding political and security situations on the ground.

Seeing the Trump team’s failure to compete in the nonmilitary, non-palace-pomp dimensions of regional leadership, one gets the feeling it views the United States as another regional monarchy, whose only tools are its Special Forces, Air Force, and royal court. And the results are likely to be similarly underwhelming unless the United States changes its approach.

Anti-Islamic State 

The same brittle combination of aggressive militarism and strategic passivity may be also taking hold in the fight against the Islamic State.

Trump’s pledges, despite warnings from his team, to remove U.S. troops from eastern Syria “very soon” have been deferred, at least for now.

While we see the risks of continued presence, ultimately Trump’s proposed withdrawal would risk abandoning U.S. anti-Islamic State partners to Turkey, Russia, Iran, and the Syrian government. This could unleash a major new wave of fighting, mass displacement, and human suffering that might well breathe new life into the Islamic State.

Similar concerns exist in Iraq, where May elections represent a political inflection point. Whether the country can bridge its internal divisions is a key test of whether the military defeat of the Islamic State will be translated into a sustained political defeat. While attention is focused elsewhere, a great deal is at stake: Will Iraq’s next prime minister look to the United States, or will Iraq be dragged under Iranian domination? Will Iranian-backed militias be a problem to manage or coalition partners sharing the spoils? Will the Kurds unite to block a hard-line Iran-backed Shiite prime minister from dividing and ruling them?

The United States can have a significant impact in helping the new Iraqi government tackle the next phase in the fight against the Islamic State and define its relationship with its neighbors, particularly Iran and Saudi Arabia. But there is little evidence of such an effort underway amid all the churn at Trump’s National Security Council and the State Department. The risk is that, having invested so much into militarily defeating the Islamic State, the United States will needlessly fail to make a far smaller investment of resources and high-level attention to ensure that America can engage and compete. As an Iraqi told one of us, “He who does not show up has no influence.”

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict 

The Trump team has promised a peace plan for Israelis and Palestinians but failed to do even the bare minimum to cultivate a Palestinian partner willing to engage in the process. By unilaterally moving the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem — taking Jerusalem “off the table,” to use Trump’s evocative phrase, without asking for any constructive steps from Israel in response — Trump’s plan may be dead on arrival.

As events this past week — not just in Syria but in Yemen and the Gaza Strip — demonstrate, the Middle East remains a dangerous tinderbox where ongoing conflicts in particular corners of the region could easily erupt into wider conflagrations. Trump carries out episodic actions in a strategic vacuum. Scratch beneath the surface of his rhetoric and militarism and, in many instances, you find a shabby disengagement with the underlying drivers and challenges.

The actions the United States takes this May in the Middle East may set a new tenor for America’s engagement. Trump seems ready to add more fuel to the fire of the Middle East’s conflicts, with neither the will nor the game plan to put those fires out.

Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where his work focuses on U.S. national security. His past experience includes work at the National Security Council and the departments of State and Defense under the Bill Clinton administration. He also worked for Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, Freedom House, and former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey. He is the co-author of The Prosperity Agenda, a book on U.S. national security. Twitter: @Katulis

Daniel Benaim is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a visiting assistant professor at New York University. He served as a Middle East advisor to former Vice President Joe Biden. Twitter: @danielbenaim

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