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Trump's Middle East Strategy

by Berry Friesen (March 21, 2017)

President Donald Trump appears to have decided on a plan to reverse the Middle East failures of his predecessors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Alas, the President’s plan embraces the Bush-Obama goals, albeit via different methods. And it abandons campaign promises to end the interventionism that has cost America so much in blood and treasure.

Since early 2007, the US has partnered with Sunni-dominated members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates) to pursue imperial objectives in the Middle East via terrorist proxies.

Here is Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Seymour Hersh's March, 2007 description of then-president George W. Bush's decision:

“To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush Administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the Administration has coƶperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by Iran. The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.”

This approach depended on the support and deployment of “Sunni extremist groups” (I routinely use the term “Salafist” to describe such groups) against the three largely secular states of the Middle East and North Africa:  the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki, the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and the Libyan government of Muammar Gaddafi. Thus, the US-led empire covertly collaborated with al-Qaeda and with ISIS in those places, equipping them with arms and supporting them with money and imperial intelligence (e.g., satellite surveillance, etc.). *

As Donald Trump repeatedly said during his campaign, the results of the Bush-Obama strategy have been disastrous.  Three once prosperous nations (Iraq, Libya, Syria) are in chaos, ISIS has become entrenched in all three, millions of refugees have been cast adrift upon the world, the moral credibility of the West has been shredded, the US treasury has been depleted by $6 trillion, and US companies did not get the oil.

President Trump’s new approach is now coming into focus.  The goals are unchanged from the Bush-Obama years:  (a) isolate Iran and effect regime change there;  (b) entrench the dictatorial governments of the six nations in the Gulf Cooperation Council; and (c) give Israel freedom to colonize occupied territories (the West Bank and Golan Heights) and perhaps beyond.

But consistent with Trump’s character and preferences, the new approach depends more on intimidation and “direct action” than nuance and misdirection.  There will be less subterfuge, more in-your-face brute force.  

The new approach also gives a leading and very visible role to Israel, which reportedly fears the presence of independent nations in the region, but does not fear Salafist militias such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, even though they operate very near Israel’s borders.

Here is some of the evidence pointing to this new approach.

     ---Trump has doubled US troop levels in Syria (from 500 to 1000) and reportedly has deployed another 4,000 US troops to staging bases in the Middle East. According to the Washington Post, the Pentagon intends to send an additional 1,000 US troops into Syria to join the fight to seize al-Raqqa and expel the Islamic State.

     --- Trump has declared sections of Yemen to be “areas of active hostility” and thus has authorized the Pentagon to make air strikes there without presidential approval. Since making this change, air strikes by US drones and manned aircraft have jumped dramatically.  Rather than pulling back from Obama’s support of this cruel war, the Trump Administration is demonstrating unyielding support for the corrupt Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

     --- Various Trump Administration officials have spread falsehoods about Iran’s role in the Gulf region (see here and here and here and here), including accusations that Iran is to blame for the effort of the Houthi people to defend their country against Saudi invaders, that Iran threatens Israel existence, that Iran’s ballistic missile tests are a violation of its agreement not to pursue the development of nuclear weapons, and that Iran is the source of terrorism in the Middle East.  Completely absent has been acknowledgement of the fact that Iranian forces are directly engaged in the fight against ISIS in northern Iraq and eastern Syria.

     --- In mid-February, Trump met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu at the White House. In their joint press conference, Trump expressed support for moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, described United Nations actions related to Israel as “unfair and one-sided,” described Israel’s security challenges as “enormous,” and ditched the long-held US commitment to a Palestinian state on the West Bank.

         In the most notable exchange between the two leaders, Netanyahu described Arab countries in the region “increasingly as allies” and then said this:  “I believe that the great opportunity for peace comes from a regional approach from involving our new found Arab partners in the pursuant of a broader peace and peace will the Palestinians.”  In a direct response, Trump said this:  “We have been discussing that and it is something that is very different, hasn't been discussed before. And it's actually a much bigger deal -- much more important deal in a sense. It would take in many, many countries and would cover a very large territory.”

     --- On March 9, Netanyahu traveled to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Netanyahu’s agenda reportedly included a loosening of Russia’s ties with Iran and assurance that Russian air defenses would not be deployed against Israeli air force operations over Syria. Apparently, Israel wants a free hand to operate militarily within Syria against Hezbollah, which is deeply engaged in battling Salafist forces there.

     --- On March 14, Trump met with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the White House.  The conversations were largely off the record with no opportunity for the press to question the two leaders.  But bin Salman described his conversation with Trump as “an historical turning point” in which the two men agreed that Iran “represents a regional security threat.”

     --- Just last week, the Trump Administration, working closely with Israel, reportedly forced the resignation of the executive secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia because she refused to withdraw findings that “Israel has established an apartheid regime that dominates the Palestinian people as a whole.”   As noted by Glenn Greenwald, “Thanks to the Trump administration’s self-destructive devotion to Israeli interests—an odd posture for a president who ran on a platform of ‘Putting America First’—it is impermissible for U.N. officials to note this reality lest Israel be offended.”

     --- A March 17 US missile attack on a mosque in the province of Aleppo reportedly resulted in the deaths of 40 civilians and the injury of hundreds more.

     --- On March 17, four Israeli jets entered Syrian airspace and attacked a convoy of vehicles carrying supplies to Hezbollah militias fighting ISIS near Palmyra in eastern Syria.  In response, Syria triggered its air defenses, which fired missiles at the intruding planes and perhaps struck one. In response, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman reportedly threatened to destroy Syrian air defense systems if Syria attempted to defend itself against future Israeli attacks.

All of this points to some sort of grand bargain among the US, Israel and the Gulf States to continue the carving up of Syria, the crippling of Hezbollah, the isolation of Iran and the imposition of an Israeli-defined “peace” on the Palestinian people.

A wider war is likely to follow this grand bargain, especially if Syria and Russia defend Syrian airspace against Israel’s hostile intrusions.  Indeed, journalist Tony Cartalucci sees a wider war as a purpose of this new approach:

“Regardless of the details of each incursion, the ultimate purpose is to escalate the conflict continuously until Syria and its allies react and provoke a much larger, direct military conflict the US and others amid its axis of aggression can openly participate in.”

James W. Carden puts the matter more charitably in “Trump Slips into ‘Endless War’ Cycle:”

“President Trump, in the space of two months, has proposed a budget that slashes funding for diplomacy, spends lavishly on military, has committed thousands of troops, conducted dozens of airstrikes, and cemented the U.S. commitment to the wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, he and his team have signaled to the Saudis that they fully share the Kingdom’s obsession with Iranian ‘expansion’.”

However we assess the President’s motives, it appears that rather than pull back from the disastrous Bush-Obama legacy in the Middle East, Trump has decided to go for broke.
*  This entire scam is covert and top-secret.  Here is how it works.  The Salafist militias are funded by oil-rich individuals and large Islamist political organizations, which are supported covertly by the intelligence services of Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. These intelligence services in turn take direction from American and Israeli intelligence services.

A portion of the militias consist of fundamentalist Muslims who flatly oppose Gulf Cooperation Council governments because of their corruption and collaboration with Western governments.  When we hear of drone attacks on al-Qaeda in Yemen (for example), it is likely Gulf governments have provided intelligence about the location of Salafists who are not reliable proxies.  The US destroys them via drone attacks while praising the Gulf government that provided the intelligence on the target’s whereabouts.

Thus, ultra-religious Salafists are weeded out, the Salafists who can be bribed with money and weapons remain available as proxies, and Western publics are convinced their governments as well as Gulf governments are serious about fighting “Islamic Terrorism.”