Middle East problems will still need local solutions
The monumental surprise package that has morphed into US President-elect Donald Trump has caught governments and analysts across the Middle East way off-guard. Most expected, and had been duly planning, to deal with a Clinton administration for the coming four years and all that it would exact.
Now, a series of fundamental issues needs immediate reassessment: Who will be nominated secretary of State? What will the United States look to secure from the Arab world and how? Is Israel back in from the cold?
Though all eyes have been firmly planted west, caught up in the enormity of what the American voting public has just done, the politics of the Middle East will most likely for the coming years be decided by local actors and interests, not by the new US president.
Take the Syrian political opposition. For years, the national coalition has been pulling on the White House’s coattails, asking for funds, weapons, political patronage and simple recognition with scant success. It has even deployed a chief of staff and fatally maintains its focus on attempting to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad when Washington — and the US public in general — is clearly far more concerned with dealing with the Islamic State (ISIS).
Now, the new administration has signalled it is likely to end US support for so-called moderate rebel forces. “We have no idea who they are,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal.
Even more bad news for defenders of freedom and human rights in Syria is that Trump is unlikely to oppose Russia’s military adventure there, meaning that Assad may very well regain control of much of the country over the coming years, although at massive civilian cost. Trump referred to Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, following a meeting in September, as “a fantastic guy”.
If Trump is to keep his campaign word, then the Middle East is set to enter a period when its problems necessitate local solutions. The Syrian opposition must come to terms with the fact that Turkey is its only real friend and abandon hopes of real Western help. Regimes that have excelled at repressing opponents — Turkey, Egypt and Iran — will have an even freer hand now than during Barack Obama’s tenure. That means bad news for Kurds in Turkey and Syria and for ties between Iran and Israel.
The one issue that Trump says would continue to bind America to the Middle East is the fight against ISIS.
His campaign website conveys how he would “work with our Arab allies and friends in the Middle East in the fight against [ISIS]… pursue aggressive joint and coalition military operations to crush and destroy [the group]” and “defeat the ideology of radical Islamic terrorism”.
Yet how does the new administration hope to do so without considering the reality on the ground, a reality that requires, to varying degrees, direct American involvement in a host of conflicts? Chances are that the United States’ role in the war against ISIS will continue as it has — drone attacks and air strikes and intelligence sharing but not much more.
On the other hand, Trump, a president with no political experience or ideology, could well find himself sideswiped by the same hard-line, pro-Israel Republicans responsible for the invasion of Iraq 13 years ago.
The caveat to that, however, is that Trump was elected on a mandate to retrench the United States from the world, to end its involvement in expensive and messy wars the American public understood and cared little about — not to engage in neoconservative fantasies.
The suggestion that Trump will be good for the region’s hard men may be down to nothing more than the idea of what Trump amounts to — a brash, misogynist opportunist — as opposed to his commitment to any real ideology.
There is little doubt that the United States affects the world more than any other state actor but right now, with so much uncertainty surrounding who will run the administration, unequivocal predictions of Trump’s Middle Eastern policy are a fool’s errand.