Azerbaijan and Trump’s Middle East Policy

Previous to his arrival in the White House, Donald Trump had intended to focus on resolving internal issues, which promised serious changes in the US’s foreign policies.

Previous to his arrival in the White House, Donald Trump had intended to focus on resolving internal issues, which promised serious changes in the US’s foreign policies.

This of course also applied to the Middle East as well, and the fact that Donald Trump appointed his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to the post of moderator for peaceful conflict resolution in the Middle East speaks to the fact that the White House does not plan to leave this region unattended to.

Jared Kushner (right) in a military helicopter above Baghdad

Perhaps Trump’s sudden order to attack the Syrian army’s Shayrat Airbase with 59 Tomahawk missiles, in response to the use of chemical weapons in a district of the Islamic State (IS)-controlled village of Khan-Sheikhoun in Idlib province, was an emotional decision, made on the bases of images shown on TV.

But it’s unclear what Washington intends to do next. Trump’s primary opponent, Senator John McCain, welcomed the action, but referred to it as ‘sloppy work’, since the airstrip was not damaged.

However, the head of the Pentagon, General James Matthis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Trump’s National Security Advisor Herbert McMaster all participated in the decision to launch the strike.

It’s impossible to imagine that not one of them thought about the airstrip. It’s likely that this action from Trump delineated the new contours of his Middle East policy and hinted that “the Russians are not king in Syria”.

One way or another, this operation irreversibly changes the situation in the Middle East and speaks to the fact that Trump must reconsider the USA’s policies in the region.

We’ve clearly left the primaries behind us, when Trump believed that the USA has ‘more important problems than Assad’ and called on Barack Obama not to launch strikes on Syria.

Michael Brenner, professor of international relations at the University of Pittsburg, even believes that “There is today no difference between the Obama administration view of the Middle East and the Trump administration view of the region”.

But Obama’s policies led to disappointment among Arabs. This was facilitated by the Syrian War and Russia’s growing strength in the region, a lack of progress in the Israel-Palestine negotiations, a softer position towards Iran, and the activities of the Islamic State. Meanwhile, Trump’s Middle-East policy has not yet fully taken shape, and exists in the form of stand-alone, draft fragments. However, it’s clear that Tel Aviv and Riyadh’s key demand for Washington is to limit Iran’s influence in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Bahrain.

In the case of an escalation of tensions in the region, the international community might find itself faced with a global military conflict which will drag in both the countries of the Caspian region and the countries of the South Caucasus, especially Azerbaijan, which is geographically situated such that it might turn out to be important to put pressure on Tehran.

Azerbaijan is located between Russia and Iran, and is a long-time ally of Turkey, and Iran’s rival, Saudi Arabia, wields fairly strong influence in Azerbaijan. In the first half of 2016 the number of tourists in Azerbaijan from Arab countries exceeded 25,000. Some experts see in this a danger that radical Islam will grow among the Azerbaijani population. All the more so because Arab tourists are attracted not only to Baku, but to the countryside as well, especially to north-western Azerbaijan, in particular Qabala, which directly borders with Russia.

There are concerns in Azerbaijan about the acquisition of real estate by Arab businessmen, among whom might be supporters of IS, the leaders of which have, on multiple occasions, declared their interest in the Caucasus region. However, these concerns cannot overshadow the fact that the Arab countries in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation supported Azerbaijan’s candidacy to become a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, and they share its position on the Karabakh conflict.

Today Azerbaijan receives no mention whatsoever in the Syrian context. But Riyadh proposed that Baku join its coalition against ISIS, and in 2016 Ilham Aliyev participated in the Supporting Syria and the Region conference in London.

President Ilham Aliyev speaks at the Supporting Syria conference in London in 2016
President Ilham Aliyev speaks at the Supporting Syria conference in London in 2016

Naturally, he was not simply invited to the conference. It goes without saying that there’s no point talking about Azerbaijani troops being sent in to the zone of military operations, since it is unlikely Baku will be comfortable with being dragged into the Syrian conflict. With a complicated internal situation, getting involved in the Middle-Eastern conflict as well would have damaging effects on the economy and social climate, not to mention the Karabakh problem. And here we might also need to search out a balance between Moscow, Ankara, and Iran. But indirect support might turn out to be significant.

It would be hard to call Azerbaijani-Iranian relations warm. Iran even provided Armenia with support in the Karabakh conflict. Moreover, the Azerbaijani population in northern Iran has great influence, and indeed the Turkic-speaking population of the north-western provinces actively participates in social processes and holds positions in politics, administration, and the economy. And we cannot forget about the Kurdish factor in Iran. Tehran, clearly paying attention to all of this, is doing lots of work to cultivate an Iran-oriented attitude in Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan.

One of the reasons for anti-Iranian sentiment is the Yemen conflict, in connection with the military actions of Saudi Arabia against the Shiite group Ansar Allah, which is closely tied to Iran and Hezbollah and consists of Houthi tribes living in the north and who have for many years been battling the Sunni government of Yemen.

Anasar Allah (Houthis) has been fighting a war against the Yemeni military since 2004
Ansar Allah (Houthis) has been fighting a war against the Yemeni military since 2004

In October, 2016, this group seized Al Hudaydah, one of the key ports on the Arabian Peninsula, and effectively established control over maritime traffic in the Bab-el-Mandeb, via which almost four billion barrels of raw oil enter the Suez Canal each year: practically a fourth of all oil shipped by tanker from the Persian Gulf. At present, the South Caucasus and its hot-button issue, Karabakh, are of little interest to Trump. But if the USA has to find levers for influencing Iran, interest might take shape. Azerbaijan might serve as a factor distracting Tehran from its activities in Yemen.

Iran is also of concern to Turkey, which is not interested in a deterioration of relations with Iran, but will take a wait-and-see position, considering the possibility of problems springing up in its provinces.

Turkey is seeking a more significant role in the Middle East. But President Erdogan, sharply criticizing the USA for supporting the Syrian Kurds, simultaneously got into a quarrel with Moscow over Syria. And Azerbaijan, which is ethnically close to the Turks, might play a mediating role. President Aliyev stated this in 2016 in Baku at a meeting with Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, the head of Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Because of deteriorating relations between Russia and Turkey, Azerbaijan has found itself in a difficult situation. It is tied to both states by partner agreements. And Israel, an ally of Azerbaijan, might prefer closer cooperation with Turkey on the Iranian question.

Which, by the way, Israel’s policy in the Middle East has become a significant problem for the USA. Under Obama the USA’s relations with Israel deteriorated because of the compromise freezing Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting of sanctions, and Washington’s support for a UN Security Council resolution condemning the construction of Jewish settlements and demanding they be removed from Palestinian territory.

The novelty of Trump’s approach to resolving the problems of the Middle East has put Saudi Arabia on alert as well. It goes without saying that the Saudis welcome the resurrection of the talking point, forgotten under Obama, about Tehran’s ‘destabilizing role’ and Trump’s intentions to tear up the Iran nuclear deal, which, strange as it might seem, brings Saudi Arabia and Israel closer. The situation in Syria is also coming together in Saudi Arabia’s favor, where a whole layer of problems emerged not just for Iran, but also for Russia, which is uneasy about Trump’s initiative to create a ‘zone of safety’ for peaceful residents from the combat areas, the creation of which, in his opinion, will be paid for by the countries of the Persian Gulf themselves. But it’s doubtful whether they would go for this. Clearly Trump hopes in this way to avoid a stream of refugees to Europe and the USA. And indeed, Russia contested that the implementation of this plan would require the creation of no-fly zones, deployment of land troops, and deployment of anti-aircraft capabilities.

There is also no certainty in the issue of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, adopted by Congress in September, 2016. It worried the monarchical family of Saudi Arabia, since US citizens who had suffered in the September 11 attacks, and their legal guardians, received the right to directly bring lawsuits against the Saudi government. The question of whether Trump will cut off financial flows to extremist groups in the Middle East also remains open. And indeed Washington’s support for Israel is creating issues for Saudi Arabia. If this support involved strengthening Israel against Iran, there wouldn’t be a problem. But talk of moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem are of concern for the king of Saudi Arabia, who has the title Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques; the Al-Aqsa Mosque, third most important after Mecca and Medina, is located in Jerusalem on the Temple Mount. And the Council of the Arab League’s 1991 resolution demands that relations be broken with any government that moves its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The oil-rich Middle East is traditionally one of the USA’s key areas of foreign policy, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office. Washington invariably remains an important player in the Middle East arena. But it’s clear that it is not capable of solving the region’s problems on its own. This is why it’s necessary to cooperate with other superpowers that have influence in the Middle East, including Russia. That being said, the attack on the airbase has complicated relations between Russia and the USA. Commenting on the attack, Dmitri Peskov, press-secretary for the president of the Russian Federation, stated that, “Against a backdrop of missile strikes, it is doubtful that one can speak of some sort of escalation of risk: risk has been escalated to a maximum”.

But, one way or another, Trump will have to clearly establish his position on the Middle East. And if not support, he will inevitably require at least neutrality from Russia. It’s possible that this was the primary goal of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow. All the more so because, according to expert opinion, it was precisely Middle-East policy that served as a factor in the defeat of Hillary Clinton in the presidential elections. She is associated with regime change in Arab countries, and other problems including the migrant crisis in Europe. And in Washington there are rumors that Trump’s order to launch the missile strike is a consequence of the fact that on multiple occasions recently he has been reproached for being too soft and indecisive regarding challenges and threats to national security. On this basis, there is no doubt that Baku is extremely attentively studying Trump’s every word. Any move in Azerbaijan’s direction by the new president of the USA will signify his involvement in the problems of the Middle East.

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