The Outlook on Trump’s Middle East Policy in 2019

How Sanctions on Iran and Syria Withdrawal Could Unfold

The possibility of conflict between the United States and Iran in 2019 warrants heightened focus. Following the withdrawal of the US from the Iran Nuclear Deal last May, Washington unilaterally re-imposed sanctions on Iran in two rounds: the first one started in August and the second and toughest started in November, targeting Iran’s oil, banking, shipping and other sectors. The sanctions were originally lifted by the Obama administration as part of the 2015 JPCOA deal, which barred Iran from seeking a nuclear weapon. 

Fearing a price hike, the Trump administration gave six-month waivers to  eight countries importing Iranian oil - including six of its biggest oil-buying customers (including china)- that allowed them to continue some trading without sanctions. This sparked some criticism among hardline conservatives that are normally aligned with the White House who saw that the decision was not inline with the “maximum pressure” advertised by John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor. Several Republican lawmakers have chastised the administration for offering waivers to China and other countries, arguing there should be no exceptions to the sanctions. They have also sharply questioned the administration's decision not to completely block Iran from an international financial messaging system known as Swift.

The waivers were limited and would expire after 180 days. However, the exemptions could be renewed. “Every 180 days we will assess our progress of getting to zero [oil imports] while ensuring a stable oil market,” Brian Hook, Iran lead at the US state department told the Financial Times. “That gives us more freedom to reduce the import of Iranian crude without increasing the price of oil. We are very focused on a path to zero as quickly as possible.” 

If Trump decides not to renew the waivers when they expire in May, Iran, which sees the US waivers as a partial victory for the country, could take a more aggressive stance towards the West and retaliate by closing the strait of Hormuz, the world’s busiest sea lane for oil shipments. 

In an interview with Iranian State TV President Hassan Rouhani was quoted as saying: "if someday, the United States decides to block Iran's oil [exports], no oil will be exported from the Persian Gulf.” If Rouhani follows through with his threats which sent oil prices up,  this would effectively block other Gulf states from accessing the oil market. 

In recent developments Iran’s revolutionary Guards said they have plans to boost their speed boats in the Gulf with stealth technology.  Tehran’s elite forces  said that it would equip the boats with radar-evading technology and new missile launches as it continues to patrol the  waterway that is cubical to global oil transfers. The IRGC launched war games in the Gulf at the end of 2018 and warned that its moves were ready to respond to any hostile US action. The Guards’ naval arm lacks a strong conventional fleet. However, it has many speed boats and portable anti-ship missile launchers, and can lay mines.

In addition the possibility of Iran confronting U.S. vessels in the Gulf, the Islamic Republic is likely to intensify attacks on American interests by increasing support to for its regional proxies - Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, Shia militias in Iraq, and the Houthis. Tehran has already urged its allies in the Iraqi parliament to try to abrogate the 2008 treaty which made the US military presence in Iraq legal. Pro-Iran Shia militias have also threatened to target US troops in the country. The resumption of the US-Iran conflict in Iraq could benefit the ISIS and could therefore drag Iraq into further political and security turmoil in 2019.

The US is also bracing for retaliatory Iranian cyberattacks. As the United States reinstated the economic sanctions, American banks were gearing up to prepare for Tehrans’s most flexible and immediate form of retaliation. Bank executives believe Iranian hackers could attempt to disrupt financial services, perhaps as they did between 2011 and 2013 -- with denial-of-service attacks that interrupted bank websites and other internet financial services.


Despite opposition from his top security advisors, namely John Bolton and recently resigned Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis (who resigned over disputes on the withdrawal decision), Trump made the surprising announcement that he would pull out all US troops from Syria, citing that the American mission of defeating ISIS was more or less done. One of the reasons as to why the announcement came as a shock was due to past statements from Trump’s closest aides in which they implied a more prolonged stay in Syria and other non-ISIS related matters that still needed to be taken care of. For instance, last September John Bolton announced that US forces would stay in Syria until Iran and its proxies withdraw. 

Naturally, the Kurds residing in Northeastern Syria and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who allied with the US military to defeat ISIS, are the most nervous about the plans to withdraw the 2,000 US troops, as it could make them susceptible to Turkish military forces right next door. Moreover, reports that Trump made the decision after a phone call with Turkish president Erdogan is raising even more alarm bells among the Kurds.  

Trump has been criticized over the decision for a number of reasons; for one thing it will leave Iran with a stronghold in Syria, thus posing a threat to US allies in the region namely Israel and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, ISIS insurgents will likely resort to guerilla tactics rather than well planned military attacks, thus giving the group a chance to re-emerge as a result of the vacancy left by the US. Finally, Kurds in the Northeastern area will likely face attacks from both Turkish forces and Assad forces. 

Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has responded to the decision by stating that Israel would not allow any Iranian encroachment in Syria. He further said: "we do not intend to reduce our efforts on either of these fronts (the other being the Israel-Lebanon border), we will escalate them, and I know that we do so with the full support and backing of the U.S."Putin has so far not shown any willingness to engage with Israel on the ground and is unlikely to do so now. As such, if Trump delivers on his troop withdrawal promise, then it is likely that Russia will take much more of a disengaged approach to Syria. Thus, the wider proxy war in Syria between the US and its Middle East allies against Russia and its Middle East allies, might be reduced to a regional proxy war between Iran and Israel. 

Despite the stir that the announcement caused, and Trump’s initial calls for a quick withdrawal it does not seem that we will see US troops out of Syria soon. On December 31, most reports indicated that Trump will allow the Pentagon four months to withdraw all the troops from Syria, a stark contrast to when he initially gave a 30 day timeline for the withdrawal. However, Trump has just announced during cabinet meeting that he never specified a four month timetable and he did not specify a timetable when talking to reporters: “We’re getting out and we’re getting out smart, I never said I’m getting out tomorrow.”  

Senior Republican senator and Trump ally, Lindsay Graham was another major figure who opposed the decision. However, after a meeting with the president on December 30, Graham was more optimistic about the decision saying that the president is committed to ensuring the complete defeat of ISIS before withdrawing.  He also said that Trump’s recent trip to Iraq was an “eye-opener” for the president as he recognized there was still unfinished business with regards to ISIS.  Later that day Graham went to twitter and announced that Trump’s plans will be done as to ensure ISIS’s complete destruction, no vacancy for Iran to fill and a guarantee of protection for the Kurds.

With all these factors in mind, it seems that if any US withdrawal from Syria will be a long goodbye rather than an abrupt farewell. 

If a US withdrawal from Syria does happen, then the biggest winners would be Iran who would find itself free of a strong opposition force and Turkey who would be free to launch attacks on the Kurdish stronghold in Northeastern Syria. Moreover, the Assad regime will be in a much more stable and comfortable position, as British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced that Assad would remain in power for the foreseeable future. In anyway, Kurdish forces don’t seem willing to take any chances, as the Syrian regime announced on December 30 that hundreds of YPG fighters (SDF fighters according toSyrian Observatory for Human Rights) withdrew from Manbij, a Kurdish stronghold bordering Turkey, as they appealed to the regime to deploy there to protect it from the Turks. 

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