President Donald Trump delivered a 36-minute speech in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to the audience of more then 50 Arab and Muslim leaders.   He told his audience that "We are not here to lecture you". He also emphasized the renewed cooperation both economic and military as well as fight against the proliferation of terrorism.

SDF or Syrian Democratic Forces is an alliance of the several ethnic groups including Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and Assyrians. Their main goal is to protect Kurdish Federal region call Rojava  in the north as well as to  displace ISIS and other jihadi groups. They are operating in partnership with U.S. Air Force and ground troops.

PMU stands for  Popular Mobilization Units a loose Iraqi-Iranian sponsored organization made up out of several dozen Shia militias with sometimes competing agendas. It was formed in 2014 after the top Iraqi Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's call to arms against the Islamic State.

In September of 2014, the Zaidi-Shiite Houthi minority took over the control of Yemen’s capital Sanaa. At this time they are  being supported by the Islamic Republic of Iran, who have provided the Houthi rebels  with arms, training, and money.  Yemen is just another flashpoint in the ongoing proxy war waged between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia over regional power and influence. 



Trump & the New Middle East

A new Middle East order or rather a disorder has been developing for the last few years right in front our eyes. We are witnessing one conflict after another morph into several new ones where multiple parties all shooting at each other with no end in sight. Unfortunately the United States proved to be utterly unprepared for it at best and contributed to the empowerment of some of our adversaries at worst.

The pivotal moment for emergence of the New Middle East can be traced to the Iraq war and the Arab Spring but the more recent contribution was made on September 10th, 2013 when in response to Bashar Assad's use of the chemical weapons, President Obama has delivered a nationally televised address where he laid out the reasons why U.S. responce to this war crime is necessary. Only a year earlier, he famously declared that any use of chemical weapons by Syrian regime would cross our "red lines".

His initial impulse was correct, we should have done something, even marginal, in order to send a message that this kind of behaviour will not be tolerated. Logic has very little to do with internal U.S. politics. At the time the idea of even a minimal attack on Syria was not very popular in the Congress and Obama administration was not too keen on it either. Everyone was looking for a face saving solution that would make this problem go away.

The White Night everyone was hoping for emerged in the form of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who offered to take all chemical weapons off the Assad's hands in exchange for forgiveness for the Syrian regime implicated in this unfortunate mistake. It was thought to be a win win situation for everyone involved. Russia would do all the heavy lifting while our responsibility will amount just to the verification process.

  So what if this agreement opens up an invitation to Russia to re engage in Middle Eastern politics after pretty long absence. Let Mr. Putin break his neck in the Syrian quagmire if he wants to! Except he did not break his neck and with the assistance he provided, Bashar Assad reclaimed a lot of Syrian territory back while Iran, Hezbollah and regional Shea militias are enjoying a great success unthinkable just a couple of years ago. In the process Russia has become the most influential player in the region and completely changed the balance of power in the region.

With Russia's not so subtle entrance into Middle East politics via direct military assistance to the murderous Assad regime left U.S. aimlessly wondering about their role in the place where the new conflicts are born almost on the daily bases. For the superpower like U.S. a questionable policy is better than no policy at all. Obama's Middle East philosophy of leading from behind and disengagement produces many unpleasant consequences such as the emergence of the Islamic State, empowerment of Iran and Cold War 2.0 with Russia.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump talked about improving the relationship with Russia and Vladimir Putin seemed to send signals that he was open to such overtures. Unfortunately when Trump unexpectedly won the election the Russia collusion accusations have become the main weapon of the Democratic opposition against the new president. The liberal media went on the Russia probes binge that is not likely to go away any time soon.

The choices Vladimir Putin made in Syria and Ukraine coupled with unprecedented political divisions in U.S. especially when it comes to questions of Russian interference in 2016 elections made it all but impossible to make any substantive progress in our relationship with this old foe. For all practical purposes the U.S. policy with Russia at this time is dictated mainly by internal politics that are borderline paranoid. When both U.S. and Russians are cutting down on each other's diplomatic presence it is pretty difficult to be optimistic for any near term progress.

There is one substantial difference between the current situation and Cold War I in that Iran and it's proxies have replaced the Eastern European Communist block as major Russian allies. It's hard to find any true Russian friends in Europe these days, maybe with exception of Belarus which features it's own dictator. What unites the new alliance is not an ideology or religion but rather their own individual ambitions and geographical interests for the Middle East that can only be accomplished through this unlikely partnership.

One of the main interests they share is putting a major dent in U.S. presence and influence in the region as we are the only ones who can foil their plans. That is why the world was so anxious to find out what the U.S. policies in Middle East are going to look like under Trump administration. Those policies began to emerge during Trump's widely covered trip to the region back in May of 2017. What came about was a strong push for renewed relationships with our traditional allies like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Israel at the expense of the non-existent relationship with Iran.

President Trump and Saudi King Salman sign a Joint Strategic Vision Statement

     President Trump and Saudi King Salman sign a Joint Strategic Vision Statement in Riyadh

The relations with our allies were severely strained under the Obama regime due to his desire to make a nuclear deal with Iran at any cost. For our allies this nuclear deal represents an existential threat and benefits only the Iranians. The best case scenario that the world can hope for is that Iran will not be able to build nukes for about twelve years as per nuclear agreement. The worst case scenario, they will lie and cheat as they have done in the past and will produce nuclear capability ahead of agreement terms.

Iranians are also known to have lots of patience and being very methodical in their approach. Providing Iran will honor the deal they can wait for twelve years standing on their head and if everything goes according to their plan by the time the nuclear deal will expire the Iranian mullahs will control a vast territory stretching from Tehran to Beirut. The nukes are going to be there to protect the conquest.

 Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been sounding off Iranian nuclear alarm for a long gone time and often times dismissed by Obama loyalists as being paranoid. If you thought Bibi's behavior was over the top, Trump's visit to Riyadh has revealed just how paranoid the neighboring Sunni states are. They rolled out a red carpet for the new American President and listened to him talk bluntly in a public setting about fighting the terrorism in the way that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

Not only did they listen politely, they even thanked him for it because above all Trump made it clear that Iran is the biggest threat to the peace in the Middle East. His sentiment was echoed by the chorus of Sunni leaders who now could breath the sign of relief. We never heard them so openly and harshly criticize the Iranian regime. It was as if the long suppressed anger and frustration has finally found its way out.

President Trump greets President of Egypy, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

       President Trump greets President of Egypy, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

The mistake Obama administration made with Iranians was to overestimate their interest in warming the relationship with U.S. Antiamericanism is one of the main pillars of the Iranian revolution and will remain as such for as long as the mullahs are in charge. Iranians have tried to convey that point to us many times, we just refused to listen to them. Every time the Iranians misbehaved, the Obama White House would brush off the criticism with the standard excuse that whatever Iranians did was not part of the nuclear deal.

The Arab Sunni block and Israelis, while at odds with one another, did not have any illusions about Iranian ambitions. Unfortunately their attempts to influence the decision making of U.S. administration were often met with disdain and never ending lectures. After the nuclear deal with Iran was completed, U.S. for all practical purposes withdrew from the Middle East and allowed the our nemesis like Russia, Iran and Islamic State fill the vacuum.

Islamic State will inevitably lose most of the territory they now control and the main beneficiary is going to be the Shia Crescent under the leadership of Iran. That kind of reality cannot possibly sit well with Iran's main rival in the region, the Saudis, who are currently the custodians of two holiest sites in Islam, namely Mecca and Medina. They will need some help if they want to remain in control of the most sought after real estate in the Muslim world.

The Saudi monopoly over the holy sites does not sit well with the Iranians, Turks and some other Muslim countries. In 2016, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for the ending of Saudi control over the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, after thousands of Iranians were blocked from participating. He appealed to the Muslim world to challenge the way Saudis manage the process. In July of 2016, Qatar allegedly has called for internationalization of Mecca and Medina after it's citizens were prohibited from visiting to which the Saudis promtly responded by calling it a declaration of war.

We can now understand why the Saudi hosts were so willing to overlook some of the criticism U.S. president delivered during his visit. The Obama years revealed to them just how vulnerable they are to the aggression from the other Muslim countries next door. The weapons deal between U.S. and Saudi Arabia worth over $350 billion without a doubt provided a confidence boost the desert kingdom needed in order to solidify their standing in the region.

Just as Trump administration celebrated the "historic visit" to the Middle East, they got a reality check on what a tightrope walk the politics in that part of the world are when the multiple new conflicts emerged. The new president unexpectedly found himself in the position where instead of concentrating on confronting the enemies he had to mediate the harsh differences that nave emerged amongst the allies.

In June, the Saudis, along with Egypt, UAE and Bahrain launched a diplomatic and economic blockade on neighboring Qatar while issuing a 13-point ultimatum to which the tiny Qatar is yet to adhere. The main demands are to stop support of the terrorist groups, stop any interaction with Iran and curtail the broadcasts of Al Jazeera, the Qatari media mouthpiece.

Many analysts believe that this unprecedented bullying of the fellow GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) member was a payback to Qatar for it's role in support of disastrous Arab Spring. In response to Saudi actions Iran, Turkey and Russia rushed to offer the immediate assistance to the embattled kingdom. The problem for our administration is that Qatar hosts the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East and moving it at this time is not an option.

In recent months Turkey ratcheted up the their campaign against YPG, the Syrian Kurdish militia, which also happens to be our main and most effective ally against the Islamic State. Turkey considers them to be an extension of the PKK, a Kurdish insurgent group operating in Turkey and Iraq. Currently YPG in partnership with some Syrian Arab rebels opposed to both Islamic State and Assad regime are fighting ISIS forces in Raqqa and around Deir az-Zor in Eastern Syria under the name of Syrian Democratic Forces.

Turkey is a member of NATO, but lately they have been acting more like a foe feuding with Europeans who do not approve the dictatorial ways of their president and flirting with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. American-Kurdish YPG alliance drives Turkey's President Erdogan insane as he is bouncing between US, Russia and Iran are trying to figure out which country is best suited to be his lose an ally. Unfortunately for him none of the above share his vision for the region. He went completely rogue when in July he agreed to buy S-400 systems, the most advanced Russian missile defense batteries not at all compatible with systems used by NATO.

IFew weeks ago, Turkey has engaged in negotiations with Iran, who happens to be their historic nemesis. In the Middle East you will sometimes find the most unlikely bedfellows. Both countries are on the side of Qatar in their conflict with other Gulf States and both are vehemently against Iraqi Kurds holding the referendum for independence on September 25. They will do everything in their power not to allow the emergence of "Second Israel" In their midst.

Truth to be told, President Erdogan is ideologically closer to Muslim Brotherhood, then he is to Western democracies. He openly supports Hamas and initially was the conduit for the rapid success of the Islamic State. Unfortunately for U.S. they are also an important NATO ally and just like our dependence on Qatar to house our troops and equipment we use Turkish airbase in Incirlik for a good portion of our operations in Syria-Iraq war theater.

The above mentioned examples are just a sample of what is a long list of often intractable conflicts and shifting alliances plaguing the Middle East. Where are the good old days when the main source of contention in the region was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For many decades it has covered the internal problems of the Muslim world that can be traced as far back as 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement and subsequent partitioning of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. What we are seeing today in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen is realignment of the region, but unfortunately the way it is being done so far will only lead to more conflicts and more misery for the people who do not control the outcome.

Speaking of Israel, President Trump's Middle East trip also involved visiting the Jewish State where he was met with the great expectation. He may not have delivered there all that his hosts were hoping for but it still was a huge departure from the previous eight years of the most contemptuous relationship these close allies ever had. Just the fact that first sitting American President has visited the Western Wall, the hollies the site in Judaism, was worth the price of admission for the Israelis.

President Trump and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem, Israel

                     President Trump and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem, Israel

While the State of Israel is a thriving democracy and a military power, they are still a tiny country surrounded by multiple enemies of both Sunni and Shia denominations. The drumbeats of war sounding off by their enemies are difficult to ignore because the calls for the Israel's never stop. Consider that on the daily bases Israeli soldiers are staring at the likes of Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic State, Al Nusra Front, members of the Iranian military and Iraqi Shia militants.

As if the Israelis did not have enough headaches, the recent agreement reached between Russians and Americans to create the safe zones in Southern Syria placed 2000 Russian troops, made up from Ingush Muslim minority out of Caucuses region, to police the area. In addition the Iranian sponsored Shia Militias will be free to operate just within a few miles of Israeli border. Mr Putin assured Bibi Netanyahu, who was initially asking for a sixty mile buffer zone, that they can control the situation, but it's doubtful that his promises eased an Israeli Prime Minister's anxiety because he knows full well that in the Middle East there is no such thing as controlled situation.

Americans administration should have known better then agreeing to these terms. US and Russia will sooner or later move on, leaving Iranians in full control of the territory within a spitting distance from the Israeli border. It will be the Israelis who would have to deal with the consequences of this ill advised deal in which they had no hand.

Netanyahu works very hard at maintaining good relationship with Russia, but the national interests of these two countries are at the opposite sides of the spectrum. As for Iranians the current situation is a dream come through. Once they are done with an Islamic state and whatever is left of the Syrian opposition they will move on to the next target which is going to be the state of Israel. Destruction of the "Zionist Entity" and the conquest of Jerusalem are part of the doctrine introduced by the father of the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini himself. Iranians have not spent all that blood and treasure just to sit tight, look straight at their most coveted trophy and do nothing.

United States could use as many friends in the Middle East as they can get, especially if they are local to the area. It's not quite clear what is the reason for Trump administration's hesitation when it comes to supporting the Kurdish independence in Iraq when the Kurds are our loyal allies and most effective fighting force vs. ISIS. With exception of Israel, most other countries seem to be opposed to it as well. Just one day before the referendum the UN Security Council voted unanimously in "expressing concern". They seem to be concerned about everyone else but the Kurds.

If the Yazidi genocide in Iraq and Syria perpetrated by Islamic State or Saddam Hussein's chemical attacks in 1988 or other abuses by neighboring "brotherly" powers over hundreds of years has taught the Kurds anything it is that they must have their own state. Right now is as good time to go about it as they are ever going to have while Trump administration is in the White House.

For all the reservations Trump team publicly expressed about the Kurdish independence, they showed an unequivocal support for other allies such as Gulf States and Israel. It's hard to believe that they would leave the Kurds, our most valued partner in the war against ISIS hanging in the air the way previous administrations did. Who knows what the next U.S president is going to do. Free Kurdistan who is a staunch US ally and counterbalance to ever expending Iranian ambitions could be one of the Trump's major achievements in the Middle East.

When speaking about the Middle East, President Trump's indicated on several occasions that our goal is no longer an establishment of Western like democracies. In the aftermath of Arab Spring It is pretty clear that no such transformation is taking place. Trump seems to be resigned more modest goals such as the fight agaist terrorism, reapproachment of the traditional allies and seeking new friendships even if on temporary basis for specific situations. Is it an emerging Trump doctrine? It is probably too early to say yes. Time will be the judge.

President Trump at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Israel

                                  President Trump at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Israel

The Trump administration also needs to consider a more muscular presence in the region. It is currently dominated by Iran-Russia alliance plus the proxies. If the US will allow them to go about their business of conquest unchecked, the consequences could spell disaster for us and for our allies. Middle East is already on fire and leaving it's future in the hands of the ruthless dictators with imperial ambitions can not possibly be good for the so called world peace.

There is no question that many countries around the world expect a leadership role from U.S. and at the same time they will criticize us regardless of what we do. Real leaders accept that reality and make decisions that are in line with their convictions. President Trump's inexperience in foreign affairs has been discussed ad nauseum and he certainly makes occasional blunders. Unfortunately there is no such a thing as an expert in Middle East affairs. There are people who know the history and geography of the region really well but when it comes to policy making they can be just as wrong as the next guy.

 Presidents Bush and Obama had drastic opposite strategies when it came to the Middle East affairs and both have made many costly mistakes. Trump is no scholar when it comes to the subject but so far his administration has been able to avoid major pitfalls. He has surrounded himself with pretty experienced people, both in the State Department as well as Defense Ministry but the real tests still lay ahead of him.

Once the Islamic State is removed from the territories they currently occupy, that's when the big problems will emerge as the regional powers will undoubtedly challenge us and each other for the control and influence. The race is already in progress. Let's hope we do not fall too far behind.