Given the paucity of President-elect Donald Trump’s clear views on the Middle East’s myriad crises and challenges, after a long campaign of contradictory positions and since he has not fully staffed his National Security team, it is difficult to analyze with great certainty how the 45th American president will deal with a rapidly changing region that has been accustomed to strong American leadership. The president-elect will soon realize that his outlandish claims and demands during the campaign, such as taking over the oil resources of countries where the US is engaged militarily or extracting protection money from other allies, are not feasible or realistic.
But, Mr. Trump knows, or should know, that the Middle East he will inherit from President Barack Obama is figuratively and in some places literally unraveling and that just as he has expectations and demands from the major players in the region, they in turn have hopes and expectations. Mr. Trump knows, or should know, that one of the reasons officials in most capitals in the Middle East welcomed him cautiously is because they were alienated in varying degrees by the Obama administration which they criticized, also in varying degrees of harshness, blaming it in part, for failing to contain Iran’s regional interventionism, the sudden and destructive rise of the ISIS and its most glaring failure in acting on its threats to punish the Assad regime in Syria following its use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians. In the last year or two, the mood in some capitals in the region turned decidedly sour against President Obama and the motto became “anybody but Obama,” and by extension, some felt the same way about Hillary Clinton’s “third Obama term.”
Mr. Trump’s views on Middle Eastern crises and problems are vague, incomplete or simplistic declarative sentences such as “we will bomb the hell out of them.” However, he has stuck to few positions during the campaign and based on what he said and did not say, one can make some preliminary, tentative observations. Somewhat surprisingly, some of his views are in sync with the Obama administration. Mr. Trump, like President Obama, does not see the removal of the Assad regime as America’s first priority in Syria, but rather to continue the fight against ISIS until it ceases to be a “governing” authority. One of the few consistent views of Mr. Trump during the campaign was his lavish praise of the leadership of Russian President Vladimir Putin, including in Syria, where he would like to collaborate with Russia to “knock out ISIS together.”
Mr. Trump repeatedly and erroneously claimed that Russia, the Assad regime and Iran are carrying out joint military operations against ISIS. But in fairness to Mr. Trump, the Obama administration was seriously negotiating with Russia until last summer the ways and means of conducting joint air strikes against ISIS and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, previously known as the al-Nusra Front. But given the American military’s reluctance to collaborate militarily with the same armed forces that occupied Crimea such a collaboration in the future will require a major re-alignment of the stars, a task beyond Mr. Trump’s powers perhaps.
One potential problem that could impede close American-Russian collaboration in Syria could be Iran, whose role is still crucial for the survival of the Assad regime. But it is not inconceivable for President Trump in the future to invoke the common goal of defeating ISIS and enter into some sort of cooperation over Syria where he will essentially sub-contract the task of defeating ISIS and pacifying some segments of the population, like the Kurds in the north, in a way that would appeal to Turkey while placating and balancing Iran. What can be said with some certainty is that Trump will be looking toward the Eastern skies, and at least initially, be deferential to Russia in Syria. Balancing the interests of Russia, the US, Iran and Turkey in Syria will require Machiavellian dexterity.
Mr. Trump’s views on Middle Eastern crises and problems are vague, incomplete or simplistic declarative sentencesHisham Melhem
Candidate Trump’s tough and hostile rhetoric against Tehran and the P-5 + one nuclear agreement with Iran is one the reasons some Arab and Israeli leaders are welcoming the arrival of the Trump era. But those hopes may be dashed relatively soon. During the campaign Trump issued statements of varying degrees of opposition to the deal. It is the “worst deal ever negotiated” vowing at times to get rid of it, or re-negotiate it, while his top advisors like Newt Gingrich were urging him to tear it apart on his first day in office. But to propose opening the thorny negotiations will give the hardliners in Tehran the opening they need to seek maximalist demands, thereby scuttling the re-election chances of President Rowhani next year. Unilateral withdrawal from an international agreement will have serious consequences on the US and will create tension between the US and its French, British and German allies. Such a move will not sit well with President Putin, the same leader Mr. Trump is trying to convince that his election should be, to paraphrase Rick’s memorable words to Captain Renault in the movie Casablanca, “the beginning of a beautiful relationship.” But instead of scuttling an agreement that is being implemented, President Trump could become more critical of the Iranian military’s role in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, but more likely he will not object to congress maintaining and ratcheting up sanctions on Iran, a position not taken by the Obama administration. Earlier this month, the House of Representative approved bipartisan bills to crack down on states supporting Assad’s regime (including Russia) and renewed a decades-old Iran sanctions law.
A confederacy of autocrats
The game of exaggerated Arab expectations from American presidents should be tempered by the disillusionment of Arabs with both the Bush and Obama administrations. Arabs were hopeful when George W. Bush was elected, thinking that he will be like his father and continue the search for an Arab-Israeli peace. But the 9/11 terrorist attacks changed everything and led to America’s two longest wars in its history. The same can be said about the high expectations from a man whose full name is Barack Hussein Obama, who vowed to start a new beginning with the Muslim world. Then came the season of Arab uprisings, followed by another season from hell, this time when the uprisings were exploited by the powers that be and turned into vicious civil wars and ultimately encouraged the rise of ISIS.
President-elect Trump shares President Obama’s refusal to get involved more deeply and militarily in the Middle East. President Obama is tired of the Middle East and has been critical of the Egyptian government’s violations of human rights and issues across the region. President Trump, on the other hand, wants to restore relations with Egypt including restoration of economic support. The initial studied welcome of Arab, Turkish and Israeli officials of the election of Mr. Trump is also due to the fact that Trump rarely spoke about the need to foster and support human rights and human dignity in the world, including the countries of the Middle East. The election of Mr. Trump, whose autocratic tendencies are well known and documented, has coincided with the rise of a confederacy of strong men and/or autocrats all over the world, including a number of them in western Europe, catapulted by populist movements and right wing parties and strong opposition to new immigrants and refugees from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. President Putin is actively supporting this worrisome phenomenon and is familiar with the major players in it. Democracy as a system of governance is in a state of retreat. The silence of Mr. Trump during his campaign in the face of violations of human rights in Middle Eastern societies and beyond can only be welcomed by the autocrats who will not be subjected in the next four years to the usual cajoling and pressure that previous administrations imposed on America’s allies.
That’s in part what the Trump presidency means for the Middle East.
Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem