23 August 2019

Increasing disequilibrium between the US military and diplomatic presence in the Middle East

Sergiu Medar

The US involvement in Middle East’s security had, for quite a long time, economic reasons, given that this area was the main gas and oil source for US’s economy. After the US developed its own schist gases exploitation and started to provide its own energy, the interest for Middle East decreased. It is still high thanks to area’s potential to raise terrorism. This is the reason why US keeps and even increases its military presence in the region concurrently with diminishing State Department’s funds for area’s reconstruction programs.

Image source: Mediafax

Middle East was and still is an important area for world’s great powers. Natural resources are essential, but US thinks that its presence here is, most of all, a national security interest, because it controls the fight against terrorism.  

President Donald Trump’s frequent position changes on US’s military presence in Middle East have created some confusion and decreased allies’ trust in Washington’s decision. 


The White House leader stated, in one of his first speeches, after taking power, that he will oppose an “interventionism and chaos” foreign policy, talking about all the areas US conducts missions in. Also, Trump stated that, by December 2018, he will withdraw the US troops from East of Syria, as their objective – defeating ISIS- was accomplished. After making this announcement, a series of military leaders showed their opposition on the measure the president took. The US Secretary of Defence and special representative in the anti-ISIS coalition resigned.  

The US allies in the area have warned that such a measure could lead to a new war, while others stated that this measure could be equal to a “post-American era” in the Middle East.  


Giving up the decision to withdraw the forces in Syria, Trump did not, however, change its forces dislocation map in the region too much.  In other words, there were no essential modifications. The American presence in Syria no longer has a deadline. Although the basic mission is not the same anymore, American militaries will remain there for other missions. One of them would be creating a security area between the Kurdish and the Turkish forces, along the border with Turkey. This was the result of the Washington-Ankara negotiations. Agreeing on an American-Turkish Operative Center presence on Turkey’s territory can be the first step towards normalizing these countries’ relations. 


Among the changes related to the American military presence, we can see the US attitude change on Iran, hereof the actions of the Persian state on its allies in the Persian Gulf. To that end, we can mention the return of hundreds of American militaries at the Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia, as well as the increase of military ships’ number in the Persian Gulf. US permanently has an aircraft carrier and its escort group, as well as other warships.  


In the US National Security Strategy, according to US president’s political commands, the armed power should focus on the “competition between world’s powers”. However, the American military power in Middle East remains consistent and, at least apparently, permanent. What did change is civilians’ presence supporting the military forces. Many jobs were left available as the Trump administration stopped funding them. 


Wanting to stimulate the American military presence continuity, as well as personnel’s increase, the allied states in the area are launching alarming and preventive news according to which US would want to withdraw from the Middle East, to get the reverse effect. To that end, they offered as example Trump’s decision to withdraw forces from Syria.  

When US withdraw its troops from Iraq, no one in Obama’s administration (at that time) used the expression “Middle East withdrawal”, but the expression “rebalancing the presence in the area”. 


US kept its valuable infrastructure as initially, as well as its presence. These are placed, in 14 countries in the region, tens of thousands of militaries, including in military bases from Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar or Bahrein. 


The American military presence increased in Jordan, where many Jordanian military bases were offered to US’s army, when no one thought they would withdraw from Syria. In fact, Washington wants to keep in Middle East as many military infrastructures as it can, even if it does not use it, due to region’s volatility and the many active or possible conflicts.  US’s active presence in the area includes thousands of militaries in Kuwait, which is the quick reaction force if an unexpected conflict would emerge, fight flights from Qatar for targets in Afghanistan or ISIS, the fifth fleet presence in Bahrain to keep the Hormuz Strait opened for the trade line, as well as other 500 approved flights from Oman or the 80 presences of US ships in Muscat. 


In January 2019, it was signed an agreement with Qatar for the construction at the Al Udeid air base of US Central Strategic Headquarter‘s new general district.  


In an article published in Foreign Affairs, Barry Posen calls this combination between military presence and diplomatic efforts, as the “illiberal hegemony” applied by US in some international relations. As an expression of this new concept we can mention US’s diplomatic efforts to create a naval forces group in the Hormuz Gulf, along with other European states too.  


If the US military presence in the Middle East is increasing, getting White House’s special attention, the State Department diplomatic efforts in the region were left behind. A proof to that end is that a series of important states did not have an US ambassador to their capitals:  Egypt for 25 months, Saudi Arabia for 27 months, United Arab Emirates for 16 months and Turkey for 18 months. Jordan and Qatar do not have and ambassador at the moment. When Khashoggi journalist was killed in Turkey, leading to a diplomatic crisis between US and Saudi Arabia, Washington did not have an ambassador to Turkey, nor to Saudi Arabia.  Given these conditions, the US political stances were not expressed through ambassadors, like the diplomatic methods, but by Trump or his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, White House’s special representative. This centralization of the diplomatic decision is unusual for US.  

Following the funds decreases for region’s diplomatic actions we can mention also the cancellation of the State Department programs about area’s stabilization. In Syria, it was cancelled Syria’s stabilization fund, used to adapt the local authorities to the new conditions, wherein ISIS forces were removed, and the installed authorities had to find solutions to prevent the terrorist groups’ return. 


Although, now, in Iraq, US still has a diplomatic influence, this seems to decrease thanks to the fact that Washington invested in the stabilization programs of religious minorities, but it did not support Iraq’s reconstruction programs financially. This country has major political unit problems, given that it is composed of three regions with different religions and cultures. Hence, informing the US government, as well as Washington’s diplomatic presence to solving these issues was fully necessary. Therefore, it is hardly to argue the decision to close the US consulate from South of Iraq, in September 2018.  


In Egypt, although the government is militarized, US accepted the democratic slipping and kept the security assistance program, worth of 1,3 billion dollars, intact. The economic assistance program has gone down, however, in the past 20 years, from 800 million dollars to 120 million, the last decrease phase taking place recently. 

The most dramatic support withdrawal in diplomatic fields is the one regarding the Palestinian Territories. US closed the East Jerusalem consulate and cancelled all the economic assistance programs for Palestinians. USAID reduced with 85% its personnel, freezing any program, including the support funds for an East Jerusalem hospital and those hosting Palestinian refugees in the area. 


Keeping and consolidating the US military presence in Middle East concurrently with reducing the diplomatic costs for area’s stabilization are revealing US’s intention to deploy a forceful policy in the region. It will be difficult to reduce the civilian funds and not affect states’ governments support in the area or solving the security issues. 

Translated by Andreea Soare