Trump and the Middle East
Asad and Sisi look set to be the biggest regional beneficiaries of a Trump presidency; losers include the Syrian opposition and Saudi Arabia

By Abdel Bari Atwan

Since Donald Trump defied the pollsters, pundits and the entire political and media establishment to win election as the next US president, Arab commentators and analysts have been exerting themselves trying to assess the implications for the Middle East and the rest of the world.

It is somewhat premature to predict with any confidence the foreign policies which a Trump administration is likely to pursue. For one thing, there were many contradictions and inconsistencies in the foreign policy pronouncements Trump made during his election campaign, and his declared stances are bound to be modified to a greater or lesser extent once he is in office. His administration’s actual policies will also depend substantially on the aides, advisors and senior officials he appoints, and the process of selecting them has only just begun. Moreover, Trump’s focus was primarily on domestic issues, mainly jobs, and immigration, and it is the domestic agenda that will drive his administration’s stance on international issues. He sees the rebuilding of the US economy – rather than specific foreign policy measures as such — as the key to restoring American power and ‘greatness’ abroad.

Nevertheless, it is possible, based on the available evidence, to offer tentative forecasts of how a Trump administration can be expected to break with aspects of Obama’s policies in the Middle East, and of who the main winders and losers in the region are likely to be.

Topping the list of prospective winners is Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, as a consequence of Trump’s declared admiration and respect for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his stated desire to work with him and improve relations with Russia. Trump sees Putin as fighting ‘jihadists’ in Syria and is willing to fight them alongside him rather than trying to topple the regime. He has refrained from joining the chorus of US denunciation of Russian military actions in support of the regime in Aleppo and elsewhere.

Fighting with Russia against Islamic State and other ‘jihadist’ groups would be tantamount to fighting alongside Asad, implying his effective re-legitimization in the eyes of and a more stable relationship with the incoming US administration. Trump has spoken out against the invasion of Iraq and the Nato intervention in Libya and affirmed that he is not interested in exporting American democracy to or changing regimes in the Middle East. This attitude benefits a number of regimes in the region, but none more directly than Syria’s.

Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi may also count himself among the prospective winners. Trump praised him when the two men met on the side-lines of the UN General Assembly and promised to strengthen relations with Egypt, while criticizing the Obama administration for allegedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood government which Sisi overthrew.

Iran, for its part, could be said to have a foot in both the winning and losing camps. As a regional ally of Russia, it would gain from a prospective US-Russian rapprochement, strengthening its hand in both Syria and Iraq. But if Trump tries to amend or scrap the Iranian nuclear deal as he promised during his election campaign, this would place him in a direct confrontation with Tehran. Yet it is unlikely he will live up to his pledge in practice: the deal is not a bilateral agreement with Iran but a UN-endorsed international agreement involving the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany. Abandoning it would free Iran to pursue its nuclear options and put the two countries on course for a possible military confrontation, a prospect Trump would presumably not want to face.

Prominent among the losers from a Trump victory are the various components, armed or moderate, of the Syrian opposition. They have been waiting impatiently for the Obama administration to serve out its remaining days in office and be replaced by a more hawkish one, almost certainly led by Hillary Clinton. She had promised to supply the armed opposition with more sophisticated weapons and to set up no-fly zones in Syria as a step towards overthrowing Asad and his regime, and to take a more confrontational approach towards Russia. But Trump’s unexpected victory has dashed all their dreams and left them abandoned. Instead of the hoped-for decisive increase in American support, they face the prospect of the US teaming up with Russia to destroy them.

Saudi Arabia had been looking forward to a Clinton victory in the expectation that she would take a harder line against Iran and Syria than Obama. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states know that Trump has little regard for them, despite the diplomatic niceties he exchanged with the Saudi monarch over the phone.  Obama may have complained – in his famous interview with The Atlantic magazine —  about Saudi Arabia trying to free-load on the US and make it fight its wars for it. But Trump went further. He wants it to pay back the costs of all the US military protection it has been accorded over the years and has pledged there will be no further free-loading or protection. He is also one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the JASTA law which encourages Americans harmed by the 9/11 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia for financial compensation potentially amounting to many billions of dollars.

It remains hard to tell based on Trump’s statements to what extent the Israelis and Palestinians will find themselves — in relative terms – in the losing or winning camps. Initially, he said he would adopt a neutral stance in the conflict, but later began expressing unconditional support for Israel – as did Clinton — and pledged to move the US embassy in Israel to occupied Jerusalem. This was presumably designed to woo or at least neutralize the Israel Lobby in the US. The Lobby did not get play an active part in supporting his campaign or providing it with donations. Its power, however, ensures that Israel will remain the favored and pampered ally of any US administration. So it is a safe bet to place the Palestinians in the losing camp until further notice.

I cannot agree more strongly with the view that the Arabs should stop banking on the outcomes of US presidential elections and rely on themselves to act to improve their condition. It may have made more sense to say this when there were strong and stable states in the Arab world and independent-minded leaders. The fact that it now seems inconceivable is a painful reflection of the extent of its decline.

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