Personnel changes in Trump administration raise questions about Middle East strategy

Victoria Coates’s exit from the White House and John Rood from the Pentagon increase uncertainty about US stance

Shortly after he was sworn in at the State Department, Ambassador John Rakolta (left) went yesterday to confer with National security advisor at the White House  Robert O’Brien and Senior Director for the Middle East at National Security Council Victoria Coates.
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In the past week, two senior US officials at the Department of Defence and the White House who deal directly with Middle East issues have left their positions, raising questions about the administration’s policy on regional challenges.

Victoria Coates, the longtime deputy national security adviser at the White House, was reassigned to the Energy Department last week after whispers that she was the anonymous author of The New York Times piece criticising President Donald Trump.

Ms Coates's role was instrumental on Mena issues. She led a meeting with Libya’s Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar last November, drove a hawkish policy on Iran, and maintained good working relationships with Gulf partners and Turkey.

Also leaving last week was Undersecretary of Defence for Policy John Rood.

Mr Rood was fired from his position after disagreements with the White House on Ukraine policy and after briefing Congress during the impeachment process.

He played a key role in the inter-agency process between the Pentagon, the White House and the State Department on issues related to Gulf security, Turkey, and counter-terrorism.

Mr Rood's departure follows the resignation of seven defence officials since December.

Experts in Washington saw in the changes a red flag for the inter-agency process within the government and for the ability of the administration to formulate a coherent strategy on the roles of Russia, Turkey and Iran in Syria.

Aaron Stein, the director of the Middle East Programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said Mr Rood’s resignation would weaken the Pentagon’s hand on Turkey.

"The Pentagon and Mr Rood specifically have sought to tap the brakes on some of the more aggressive anti-Assad ideas floated in the US inter-agency process, arguing that the US government needs to focus on great power competition, not little wars of choice," Mr Stein told The National.

He said that with Mr Rood's departure, the Pentagon loses power in the Syria debate to more aggressive voices, but they still “have to filter up to Donald Trump, who, as always, is a wildcard".

Differences on Syria have been aired in the open between the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon.

While special representative for Syria James Jeffrey has pushed an anti-Assad and pro-Turkey line in pursuing US interests, he was contradicted by US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien and the Pentagon.

During Mr Jeffrey’s last trip to Turkey, in mid-February, he commemorated Turkish “martyrs” and stressed a unified front with Ankara in Idlib where Turkey is fighting alongside Syrian rebels against the Assad regime and Russia.

But back in Washington, Mr O’Brien told a US audience that Washington is not the policeman in the conflict.

“What are we supposed to do to stop that?" he said at the Atlantic Council.

"We're supposed to parachute in as a global policeman and hold up a stop sign and say, 'Stop this Turkey. Stop this, Russia. Stop this, Iran'.”

Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, expected this uncertainty, and for divisions to grow with Ms Coates's departure.

“There’s clearly a division within administration on Syria," Mr Lister said at an event hosted by the institute on Friday.

"James Jeffrey’s biggest challenge is that the President of the United States doesn’t really have a foreign policy. He doesn’t know Syria exists unless he sees it on Fox News in the morning.”

He said another division is between the Pentagon and the State Department.

The spokesman for the US-led coalition against ISIS, Col Myles Caggins, told Sky News last week that Idlib was “a magnet” for terrorist groups:

“He is parroting the Assad regime talking points,” Mr Lister said.

He said such statements and uncertainty from the White House undermine the State Department.

“There is no process, there is no structure,” Mr Lister said.

Another issue that is expected to be affected by the reshuffle is Turkey's possible acquisition of Patriot missiles. A Pentagon official told The National that no decision has been made.

James Anderson has been appointed as a temporary replacement for Mr Rood. The White House has not yet announced a replacement for Ms Coates.