Middle East Ticker

Trump’s Big Middle East Trip, U.S. Targets Assad Forces in Syria, and Iran Goes to the Polls

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, May 23, 2017, 12:33 PM

Trump Visits Saudi Arabia and Israel

Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia over the weekend on his first foreign trip as president. The two-day visit included an eclectic range of events, including a Harley Davidson motorcycle rally and a joint concert featuring country music star Toby Keith and Saudi musician Rabeh Saqer, but the centerpiece of the trip was Trump’s speech at the Arab-Islamic-American summit on Sunday.

Trump’s remarks were more muted than the bombast for which he was known on the campaign trail; rather than suggesting that Muslims were seeking to harm the United States, Trump praised the United States’ partnership with countries in the Arab world to fight extremism and encouraged them to do more to “drive out” extremists from their societies. “This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations. This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it,” he said at one point -- a clear break from the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric he had previously espoused. It was a marked pivot, but his position on human rights remained the same in his remarks, which were delivered to an audience that included King Salman and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. “We are not here to lecture—we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership—based on shared interests and values,” he said.

As Daniel Serwer wrote for his Peacefare blog, the speech signaled two things: “It abandoned U.S. advocacy of democracy, rule of law and human rights” and “rallied Sunnis to an anti-Iran alliance intended to include Israel.” Members of the Trump administration told a Washington Post opinion writer last week that the administration is trying to lay the groundwork for an “Arab NATO.” Contrary to the report, nothing formal was announced on this trip but on Saturday Trump and Salman signed a “Joint Strategic Vision” document that expressed a shared interest in a “robust, integrated regional security architecture.” What that might look like is up for debate: Would the United States just seek a role in Saudi Arabia’s still-nascent Islamic counterterrorism alliance—which has been criticized from the start as being directed more toward Iran than jihadis—or does the Trump administration have a more active role in mind? Either way, it seems the Trump administration is hoping to use the growing partnership to secure more lucrative arms sales to its Arab partners like the $110-billion deal with Saudi Arabia signed while Trump was in Riyadh.

Oh, and there was a weird glowing orb. If you’ve seen one picture from Trump’s trip, it was probably the much-memed image of Trump, Salman, and Sisi touching a bright ball of light. The photo-op was part of a ceremony at the opening of the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology, a high-tech counterterrorism data analysis organization. The three men touched a light-up globe, which initiated a video presentation about the new center. It was not a dark ritual—at least according to the (actual, verified) Church of Satan account on Twitter. The sinister lighting and general weirdness made for a bunch of great and extremely nerdy jokes comparing the scene to Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, Star Wars, Marvel comics, and the card game Magic: The Gathering.

The thing is, no reports had suggested Trump had revealed the source of the intelligence, as he inadvertently seemed to yesterday.

On Monday, Trump continued on to Israel, where he was met by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump prompted an awkward moment early in the visit yesterday when he interrupted a photo-op to tell reporters that he “never mentioned the word or the name Israel” in his disclosure of sensitive intelligence to Russian officials. The thing is, no reports had suggested Trump had revealed the source of the intelligence, as he inadvertently seemed to yesterday; rather, news stories had noted that Russia could have identified the sources and methods based on the city where Trump said the intelligence was collected.

Trump made some history by becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Western Wall yesterday and attended a ceremony at Yad Vashem today. In a speech today, Trump said that he is “personally committed” to reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. After meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem and with Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Trump said, "I had a meeting this morning with president Abbas and can tell you that the Palestinians are ready to reach for peace… I know you've heard it before. I am telling you—that's what I do—they are ready to reach for peace. And my meeting with my very good friend Benjamin—I can tell you also that he is reaching for peace." However, Trump omitted any mention of the two-state solution and offered no specifics about what shape an agreement might take.

U.S.-led Coalition Bombs Assad Regime Forces in Syria

The U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Syria took a dramatic step last Thursday, bombing pro-Assad regime forces advancing toward the al-Tanf border crossing on the Syria-Jordan border. The United States has previously accidentally bombed regime forces last fall and carried out a punitive strike in response to a chemical attack in April, but this is the first time U.S. forces have targeted regime forces in the broader context of the civil war. U.S. military officials said the strikes targeted Iranian-backed militias that had been warned not to approach al-Tanf, which is held by U.S. partner forces. “We are not increasing our role in the Syrian civil war, but we will defend our troops,” Secretary of Defense James Mattis said. A U.S. military source told Al-Jazeera that the United States will take military action to prevent Iranian-backed pro-regime militias in Syria from making it to the Iraqi border and linking up with other Iranian-backed militias there.

The U.S. government has always asserted its right to strike jihadi groups that could pose a threat to the U.S. homeland; the strike last Thursday was something very different.

The Obama administration was often criticized by members of Congress for its reticence to defend U.S.-trained rebels in Syria with U.S. military force. But those partner forces—the handful trained under the overt, U.S. military train-and-equip program, at least, as opposed to those trained through the clandestine program—were mostly under threat from jihadi groups like Jabhat al-Nusra (which has since rebranded). The U.S. government has always asserted its right to strike jihadi groups that could pose a threat to the U.S. homeland; the strike last Thursday was something very different. For the first time, the United States struck regime forces not just on accident or as a one-off "pinprick" strike, but to define a zone of U.S.-enforced control.

“The apparent U.S. strikes against forces backing Bashar al-Assad on Thursday could mark a major shift in the Trump administration’s approach to Syria,” The Century Foundation’s Thanassis Cambanis wrote last week for The Atlantic. “If the presence of such fighters in the area is confirmed, the airstrikes, and the likely military escalations to come elsewhere, may mark an end to a long period during which the United States avoided direct military clashes with Iran or Iranian-backed proxies. If U.S. troops are now engaging directly with Iranian militias, escalation in the absence of a well-wrought plan could inflame the conflict in Syria and further afield.” As Justin Florence noted here on Lawfare, this is happening without an authorization for use of military force—in fact, authorizing strikes against the Assad regime is part of what has stalled AUMF legislation for Syria for years. Florence argues that the administration’s unauthorized strikes are informed by either a lack of sound legal counsel or a rationale that it is refusing to share with the public. Either possibility “would be disturbing,” he writes.

Iran Re-elects Hassan Rouhani for Second Term

Iran’s contentious month-long presidential election concluded on Friday with a resounding win for the incumbent, President Hassan Rouhani. He was aided by a strong turnout: more than 70 percent of Iran’s 56 million eligible voters came out to the polls, and polling places stayed open late to accommodate long lines. Rouhani received 57 percent of the vote, a solid majority despite a field of four other candidates and a strong challenge from hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi.

Rouhani’s re-election prompted celebrations among his supporters in the streets of cities across Iran on Saturday. Police tried to break up an unpermitted rally in Tehran’s Vali Asr Square, but eventually relented. Some chanted slogans in support of reformist leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who has been under house arrest since 2011.

As the Atlantic Council’s Barbara Slavin writes, Rouhani is “a pragmatic regime survivor” and his re-election “was a triumph of competence over ideology and of openness over isolationism.” He’s not a reformist, though he gestured in that direction during the campaign; his political agenda has focused on restarting Iran’s economy by lifting nuclear sanctions through the negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in his first term. That sanctions relief hasn’t paid the dividends he had hoped, but as Slavin notes, Raisi’s comments during the campaign about returning to a “resistance economy” did not promise a better alternative. Rouhani’s re-election has widely been understood as an endorsement of his efforts to reduce sanctions and integrate Iran into global commerce. In his first public remarks since the election, Rouhani said on Monday that the election result was a rejoinder “to those who wanted to take Iran backward or cease its current course,” and called for unity going forward. “I am extending my hand to all Iranians, all factions and all social groups,” he said.