Trump’s Middle East policy: Reinforcing the military

By Stephen Bell

In recent weeks it has become evident that US President Trump’s policy in the Middle East primarily involves reinforcing the military presence and activity of US armed forces. Despite his campaign rhetoric about $6 trillion spent to no result, he has moved swiftly to increase the size and rate of US deployment. With a current account deficit of $469 billion in 2016 US imperialism can offer concessions only to its most favoured allies. For the rest, which includes the majority of Arab countries, there is simply the presence of US military might.

The US urgency is a response to the recent victories secured by the axis of the Syrian, Iranian and Russian forces in the wars in Iraq and Syria. US Defence Secretary Mattis is extremely hostile to Iran, and has been playing down options to collaborate with Russia against ISIS. Trump also believes that Iran has gained influence, suggesting it ‘controls’ Iraq and Yemen.

To confront this, a much stronger US presence is deemed necessary. This is in contrast to Obama’s alleged indifference towards the US’s regional allies. Since January there has been a notable increase in US military presence and air strikes. There have been no major diplomatic initiatives launched towards resolving exiting conflicts.

Inside Iraq, there were previously 5,262 ‘authorised’ US troops. Additional temporary deployments have now raised this figure to 6000, with large numbers of armed private contractors also operating.

This week the journal ‘Military Times’ reported that an unspecified number of 82nd Airborne Division have been ordered to northern Iraq. The 82nd is composed of a force of 4,000 operating out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina. 1,700 of these are currently deployed in Iraq and Kuwait. It is unclear whether the full remainder will have received the deployment order. On 28 March it was made public that 300 paratroopers from Fort Bragg have been deployed.

Equally significant has been the big increase in air strikes. Last week, US air strikes killed over 300 civilians in Mosul. The Pentagon says it is preparing an investigation. Strangely, it has admitted levelling buildings full of civilians, without admitting to civilian deaths.

In the current offensive the civilian death toll accepted by the US is less than 10 per cent of that reported by NGOs like Airwars. On 23 March alone, according to Iraq Body Count, there were 354 civilian deaths. The Iraqi government has implemented a temporary halt to operations in West Mosul following last week’s deaths. Inside West Mosul there are between 400,000 and 600,000 civilians, with a reported 2,000 ISIS fighters. Reports from liberated East Mosul suggest it is a ghost town with hardly any buildings undamaged. The contrast with Western media reporting on Aleppo could not be more stark.

The US is seeking to secure a long term occupation of Iraq. Despite the collapse of ISIS in Iraq, according to Mattis a continuous US presence is necessary because, ‘The Iraqi security forces will need that kind of support for years to come’. Iraqi government officials have estimated that they need $50 billion to rebuild Iraq. Doubtless ‘that kind of support’ won’t be forthcoming. After all, the Trump administration is seeking $30 billion increase on planned military spending in the fiscal year, whilst looking for a 37 per cent reduction in the budget for the State Department and Agency for International Development.

Inside Syria, the US has 503 ‘authorised’ troops – although, unlike Iraq, their presence has not been endorsed by the government. Additional temporary deployments take the figure to around 1,000. The Pentagon had been weighing up plans to send a further 1,000. On 9 March the New York Times reported that an additional 400 troops had been deployed to Syria. On 21 March apparently newly deployed US troops supported the Kurdish backed Syrian Democratic Forces in launching a major offensive to retake Tabqa town, Tabqa Dam, and a local airfield. Since then, the Dam and airfield have been captured by YPG forces and US troops. This had been preceded by a big rise in air strikes. In January and February there were 7,000 instances of ‘weapons released’, this compares to a previous high of 3,242 in November 2015. These figures exclude strikes from helicopters and drone strikes.

Generally, the new initiatives are a result of the White House removing constraints on operational commanders. Complaints had been common that under Obama commanders had to seek White House permission for tactical combat moves. Doubtless some of this was military arrogance bristling at civilian accountability. But it has paid off. US African Commander General Thomas Waldhauser told a press conference last Friday, that changes proposed to the White House would ‘streamline decision making, moving it to combatant command level’. US Commander in Iraq, Lt General Stephen Townsend had earlier stated that ‘… we are operating closer and deeper into the Iraqi formation… ‘. Trump has encouraged this development from the very start. On the 28 January he requested from the military ‘recommended changes to any United States rules of engagement’. Such growing autonomy from political control may offer greater military initiative, but it also threatens to drag US policy into greater and more difficult conflicts. It is notable that in response to the furore over the Mosul bombings the Pentagon is insisting it has not changed its rules of engagement.

The risks are considerable, but the difficulties of the US economy are driving Trump to take them. As John Ross wrote in the article ‘The economic logic behind Trump’s foreign policy – why the key countries are Germany and China’ – ‘… during the Great Recession, the US was able to use foreign savings/capital creation to cushion and lessen the negative effect of the fall in the US’s own savings. This use of foreign savings/foreign capital creation helps determine the foreign policy choices for Trump’. Before the collapse of world oil prices in 2013, the Middle East oil producing countries had a balance of payments surplus worth 94 per cent of the US current account deficit. That position does not immediately exist, as the current oil prices have created a current account deficit of $142 billion for these countries in 2016. How far and fast this will be turned around is unknown. But it is certain that the US administration wants to remain in a position to take advantage of any turn around in the fiscal position of the oil producing states.

US imperialism needs to reinforce a grip that has been loosened by policy failures in Iraq, Libya and Syria. This, and the logic that follows from choosing a confrontation with Iran, are pushing Trump to strengthen Saudi Arabia. It is the third largest investor in US Treasury securities. Saudi investment in US securities and assets are estimated to be around $750 billion. Trump’s sharpest policy turn yet, on the Yemen war, reflects the promotion of Saudi Arabia.

Obama had supported the Saudi-led coalition war upon Yemen. Yet it was obvious that the policy was to press the Saudis towards a negotiated settlement. During the summer of 2016 he publicly withdrew the large majority of US military personnel from the Saudi operational command centre. Secretary of State John Kerry made extensive visits and efforts to maintain Saudi involvement in the peace negotiations. And in December 2016, Obama blocked the delivery of precision guided weapons to Saudi Arabia.

Trump immediately moved to change this. Drone strikes were authorised in his first week, as was an ill-fated operation involving US Navy SEALs. Despite this early setback, he supported an escalation in drone attacks. A week long blitz at the start of March eclipsed the annual bombing total for any complete year of the Obama presidency. The State Department approved the sale to Riyadh of the same munitions that Obama blocked. Most dangerously, Mattis has asked the White House to lift restrictions on US military support for the Saudi coalition. Previously US military action has been focused on action against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The sole exception being an instance of Tomahawk missile strikes against some coastal radar installations, after an alleged missile strike from territory controlled by AnsarAllah (Houthis) on USS Mason.

Reportedly, Mattis is proposing US participation in a planned United Arab Emirates (UAE) offensive to take the Red Sea port of Hodeidah. It would be a difficult military objective, as AnsarAllah are well entrenched there. But it threatens to turn a terrible humanitarian crisis into a catastrophe. The port is a key entry point for humanitarian aid. UN figures, published on 16 March, show that 18.8 million of Yemen’s 27.4 million population are in need of humanitarian assistance. 51 per cent of those in need are children. Only 30 per cent of the medicine that used to enter the country is reaching it. Only 16 per cent of the monthly fuel needs were met in January 2017. 17 million Yemenis are unable to adequately feed themselves. 1.1 million pregnant women are malnourished, and 462,000 children under the age of five are suffering severe acute malnutrition. According to UNICEF, ‘Every ten minutes, a child under five dies in Yemen from preventable diseases such as diarrhoea, pneumonia or measles because the health system is on the verge of collapse’.

Into this situation the US government is considering a serious military escalation. The forces it is supporting are incapable of making independent progress. The Saudi military spokesperson General Assiri told the press that ‘Saudi Arabia has launched 90,000 air strikes on Yemen since 26 March 2015’. This has been to no strategic military effect, other than to destroy the infrastructure and create over 50,000 casualties. The Saudi regime is refusing to deploy its 150,000 strong army in the north against the popular militias for fear of the result. UAE forces have been supposedly making progress in the south. Yet according to a recent report from the International Crisis Group, AQAP is stronger than ever before in Yemen, and this is in the areas under nominal control of the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Undeterred, the popular opposition to the Saudis expressed itself in an enormous demonstration in Sanaa on 26 March, the second anniversary of the start of the war. In a city consistently under bombardment for two years, an uncountable number of people stood defiant.

Of course, this new military assertiveness is not confined to the Middle East. General John Nicholson, commander for the US/NATO forces in Afghanistan, over the weekend of 24/25 March, told the press that 5,000 extra US/NATO troops were necessary to ‘break the stalemate’. The general isn’t a chess player, where stalemate is the end of the game. Nor is it an original sentiment that one more injection of troops will solve imperialism’s impasse in Afghanistan. Currently there are 8,400 US troops and 6,000 NATO troops, the latter includes 500 British troops.

Despite 16 years of uninterrupted war and occupation, UN figures show that 2016 was the record year for civilian casualties; that opium cultivation is the highest since 2001, and that the Taliban control more territory than at any time since 2001.

Doubtless there are those in Britain who believe that the British government could add some ‘restraint’ on this new US military assertiveness. But the impact of Brexit upon Theresa May’s government is to push it into an ever more suffocating embrace of Trump’s administration. In response to earlier speculation that the US might increase troop presence in Afghanistan, Minister of Defence, Michael Fallon offered immediate support from Britain. Framing this with customary racism he said, ‘There could be three to five million young Afghan men waiting to migrate westward’. Further, the embarrassing quality of the ‘special relationship’ was demonstrated when within a day of the US implementing the laptop ban on some Middle Eastern countries, the British government, without any prior statement of concern about the question, introduced a similar ban. And, it now has been admitted that RAF planes were active in Mosul at the time of the death of civilians on 17 March.

Despite the complexity of the situation, it is clear that the anti-war and anti-imperialist movement must be preparing for action against the military assertiveness of imperialism in the Middle East. Building the Stop the War Coaltion, CND and anti-Trump initiatives must be a crucial priority for the left in Britain.