Trump’s Administration Could Upend the Middle East
PDC’s analysis on the impact of the potential Trump Administration’s changes to American Middle East Policy
BEIRUT — The Middle East is bracing for an incoming American president who seems intent on radically reordering the regional balance of power, heralding new uncertainty and perhaps new turmoil for a part of the world already engulfed in multiple wars.
So vague and contradictory were many of the pronouncements made by President-elect Donald Trump on the campaign trail that governments and analysts are puzzling out which ones he meant and how he would be able to implement them all.
According to the more consistent of his statements, and conversations his advisers have had with analysts and officials, however, Trump will seek to bring about a significant recalibration of the existing order in the Middle East — in favor of Russia, away from Shiite Iran and to the benefit of Turkey and the Sunni Arab states of the Persian Gulf.
Some of his declared goals are not so very different from Obama administration policies that were set aside or unfulfilled because they proved too difficult to accomplish — such as the failed push to cooperate with Russia against terrorist groups in Syria and the expectation that Arab states will do more, and pay more, for regional security.
Others mark a major departure, notably the threats to renege on the Iran nuclear deal, President Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement, and suggestions that Trump will cut support for Syrian rebels and align the United States with the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
The blitz launched against Syrian rebel-held territory on Tuesday by a newly assembled Russian flotilla in the eastern Mediterranean offered a taste of what may lie ahead. The attacks came hours after Trump spoke on the phone for the first time with Russian President Vladimir Putin about ways to improve U.S.-Russian ties, including a settlement for the crisis in Syria that will likely free up Russia to crush the rebellion against Assad’s rule.
Yet other positions are hard to reconcile, such as Trump’s promises to do more to fight the Islamic State while also pledging to further disengage the United States from adventures abroad. Will Trump be an isolationist, continuing the risk-averse instincts of Obama? Or an interventionist, more in the mold of George W. Bush, whose global war on terrorism took the United States into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
He will be a bit of both but radically different, too, predicts Theodore Karasik, a senior adviser with Washington-based Gulf State Analytics, who has discussed the future of the region with Trump’s advisers in recent months. Trump’s chief priority, he said, will be to fight the Islamic State, while outsourcing the rest of the region’s security to Russia and to Arab states.
“There is the potential for a chaos factor,” he said. “But the idea now is to shake up the arrangement of nation-states in the region in order to move forward and allow them to police themselves.”
Words like “moderate” and “democracy” won’t feature in a Trump administration’s Middle East vocabulary, he added. “We are now engaged in realpolitik.”
For the region’s strongmen, most of whom had fraught relations with the Obama administration, that is welcome news. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi have hailed Trump’s election as a chance to reset their badly frayed relationships with Washington.
Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Arab states in the Persian Gulf region, despite initial reservations regarding his views on Muslims, are mostly relieved to have a Republican back in the White House and are hoping Trump will be tougher on Iran than his predecessor was, analysts in the region say.
“Certainly, we are not expecting Mr. Trump to be worse than Mr. Obama was,” said Abdullah al-Shamri, a former Saudi diplomat and analyst. Most members of the royal family, he said, “are happy with the result. We are closer to Republicans psychologically.”
Assad’s government is exulting over Trump’s election because of his pledges to join forces with Russia against the Islamic State and Syrian rebels, according to Bassam Abu Abdullah, a professor at Damascus University who supports Assad. The expectation in Damascus now is that Washington will sever support for Syrian rebels, join in bombing them alongside Russia and perhaps restore diplomatic relations with Assad, he said.
“Absolutely this is good for Syria,” he said. “This means the U.S. will not be looking for regime change.”
Even Syrian rebels, who appear set to be big losers, are finding solace in the wide range of opinions expressed by his associates, said Bassam Barabandi, who works with the Syrian opposition in Washington and has met with Trump advisers. The prospect of collaborating with Russia is anathema to many Republicans, as was expressed in a statement by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Tuesday calling any attempt to reset relations “an unacceptable price for a great nation.”
Much will depend, Barabandi said, on whom Trump chooses for positions in his administration. Some members of his inner circle have been hawkish on Russia and others on Syria, including Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who is heading Trump’s transition team and who proposed a no-fly zone in Syria, and Stephen Hadley, who has advocated using cruise missiles to rein in Assad.
Though Trump has disparaged Syrian rebels as “worse than the people,” the Syrian opposition is hoping to bring him around to the current administration’s view that the moderate Syrian opposition serves to counter the influence of extremists in areas Assad no longer governs, he said.
“The war on terror is very important to Trump,” he said. “I don’t feel his foreign policy will be very different from Obama’s. He is not interventionist. He is very much like Obama but in a different way. Obama has his own philosophy. Trump is a businessman, and he’s looking for where he can save money.”
Implementing all of these goals and satisfying all of these expectations without unleashing new conflicts and perhaps embroiling the United States even more deeply in the region’s rivalries will, however, be a challenge.
Iran is Assad’s closest ally in the war against Syrian rebels and provides the bulk of the ground forces confronting the anti-Assad rebellion. Assad’s army is depleted, Russia does not have troops on the ground, and it would be the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, Iranian-backed Shiite militias and Lebanon’s Hezbollah who would move into any areas reconquered by the regime, said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
So, he asked, how does a Trump administration that wants to curtail Iranian influence also align itself more closely with Russia and Assad without empowering Iran?
“I don’t see how you do it,” Tabler said. “It’s in the cauldron of contradictions in his statements that I don’t see being resolved.”
Taking a tougher line with Iran could also further inflame tensions across the region, emboldening chief rival Saudi Arabia and prompting pushback against U.S. interests from Iran and its many regional proxies. That would put at risk U.S. troops deployed against the Islamic State in Iraq, in proximity to the Iranian-backed Shiite militias responsible for many of the bombings that killed American troops before the U.S. withdrawal in 2011.
Anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Iraqi militia once fought U.S. troops, issued a veiled warning to that effect last week. He declared “eternal hostility” toward Trump, condemned the president-elect’s attitude toward Muslims and urged him to abide by existing U.S. international commitments.
“He does not know that his radicalism will in turn result in radicalism,” Sadr cautioned in a statement. If the United States changes its policies, he added, “we will not be silent, and we will resist it as before.”
Likewise, Turkish expectations that a Trump administration will reverse the Obama administration’s reliance on Syrian Kurds to fight the Islamic State may lift some obstacles in the war but throw up new ones, because Syrian Kurds control most of the front line against the militants in Syria.
Reconciling all of these conflicting goals is not impossible, said Imad Salamey of the Lebanese American University in Beirut. Trump might bring about reconciliation between Turkey and the Kurds, he said. And a Trump administration that stood up to Iranian military expansionism, in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, could persuade Saudi Arabia to acquiesce to Assad in Syria and bring about a broader regional reconciliation.
Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and commentator, described that as “wishful thinking,” at odds with Trump’s apparent determination to ally more closely with Russia.
“When his advisers show him the map, will he realize supporting Putin means supporting the Iranian agenda? And this is what Saudi Arabia is concerned about, to stop Iranian hegemony,” he said.
Perhaps the biggest losers, however, will be the ordinary people who have been agitating for more democracy in the region.
“For us, Trump’s election feels like a winter wind,” said Ahmed Saleh, an engineer who joined in the 2011 uprising in Egypt. “How can you hope for freedom when the most powerful man in the world doesn’t believe in our democracy?”
Hugh Naylor and Louisa Loveluck in Beirut; Mustafa Salim, Loveday Morris and William Booth in Irbil, Iraq; and Zakaria Zakaria in Istanbul contributed to this report.