Syria Strikes Signal More Pro-Arab Policy Under Trump

Unlike his predecessor, Donald Trump does not worry about being drawn into the Arab cold war with Iran.

Egypt's Abdul Fatah Sisi shakes hands with American president Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, April 3
Egypt’s Abdul Fatah Sisi shakes hands with American president Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, April 3 (EPA ISP/Olivier Douliery)

Friday’s missile strike against Syria came at a time when America is aligning more closely again with its traditional allies in the Middle East.

Sunni-majority nations have long urged the United States to do more to topple Bashar al-Assad, who they see as a proxy for their nemesis, Iran.

Barack Obama balked at becoming an instrument of the Arab states. But Matthew Yglesias writes for Vox that Donald Trump shares their worldview.

Iran deal

Obama drew the ire of the Gulf monarchies by doing a nuclear deal with Iran. The Arabs made common cause with Israel in opposition to the agreement, which is meant to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

Trump campaigned against the Iran deal and appointed Iran hawk Michael Flynn as his national security advisor. (Who was fired one month later for hiding contacts with the Russians.)

He has yet to tear up the agreement, as he promised to do.

Style over substance

Indeed, Yglesias argues that Trump’s overtures to the Arab world have so far been more style than substance.

He hosted Egypt’s strongman, Abdul Fatah Sisi, at the White House, something Obama deliberately avoided in order to signal America’s displeasure at how he had come to power.

Trump did drop human-rights demands for the sale of nineteen F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain.

But talk of stepping up American support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen remains just that — talk.

Shift in policy

Friday’s attack on Shayrat may not herald a shift in Syria policy either.

The Council on Foreign Relations’ Steven A. Cook writes for Salon that Obama’s team couldn’t find a magic solution for the country that simultaneously punishes the Assad regime, forces the Russians to back down, relieves suffering for ordinary Syrians and restores American credibility without putting troops in the Levant for many years. It is unlikely Trump’s people will.

But there is a risk that the United States will gradually be pulled deeper into the Arab cold war with Iran.

That is precisely what Obama wanted to avoid. He didn’t see vital Americans interests at stake in this contest. Trump has no doubt that Iran is a threat to the United States.