Under Trump, MENA policies likely to change

Sunday 13/11/2016
Lot of anger and frus­tration

WASHINGTON - US allies in the Middle East can expect new assurances from Wash­ington but also new demands as President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take over the US government.

Under US President Barack Obama, relations between the United States and players such as Israel, Gulf counties and Turkey suffered while the “Arab spring” revolts shook up the region. Russia established itself as a major military and political force with its interven­tion in Syria and Iranian influence is growing.

Ending the Syrian conflict, de­feating the Islamic State (ISIS) and stabilising Iraq rank among the dif­ficult challenges for the Trump ad­ministration. Convincing the Unit­ed States’ partners that Washington is still with them might turn out to be the most pressing project of all.

“There is a lot of anger and frus­tration,” said Dan Arbell, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings In­stitution in Washington. “Rebuild­ing trust and partnership with Gulf countries and moderate Arab gov­ernments and improving the atmos­phere in US-Israeli relations” were among the new president’s top pri­orities, Arbell said.

Andrew Peek, a professor of in­ternational relations at Pepperdine University in California, also said the new administration should work to build up the confidence of US partners in the region. “US al­lies should view American power as the means to achieve their policy goals,” he said.

Trump was well-positioned for that task, both Peek and Arbell agreed, but US partners such as the Gulf countries would probably find that this rebuilding of trust will not be an easy process, Arbell warned.

“He will set expectations or even demands,” he said about Trump, a billionaire businessman. “They will be expected to perform and to chip in”, financially and otherwise, as the United States and its allies ad­dressed issues like the reconstruc­tion of Syria or Iraq. “There will be new dialogue, but it will come with a price tag.”

Peek pointed out the expectation that “American allies pay their fair share” had been a consistent part of Trump’s message throughout the presidential campaign.

US-Israeli relations could also be in for a change. A day after his elec­tion victory, Trump invited Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netan­yahu to Washington, news reports said.

Arbell, however, said the Israeli right was probably celebrating Trump’s victory too early, just as there was not necessarily much rea­son for Palestinians to be “mourn­ing”, as he put it.

“Trump could surprise both Is­raelis and Palestinians,” he said. The position of the incoming ad­ministration in the peace process was unclear. “It is not sure where he is going to go,” Arbell said.

In the first years of his presidency, Obama tried to forge a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians and his relationship with Netan­yahu soured. Some observers say Obama could use the transitional period until his last day in office in January to launch a new initiative that would anger Israel even fur­ther.

US-Israeli relations are not the only chapter of Washington’s Mid­dle East policy in which low lev­els of trust mark the twilight of Obama’s tenure. Arbell said US partners around the region were shaken by the US president’s refusal to respond militarily in 2013 when Syria’s government crossed his “red line” by using chemical weapons.

Peek says the Syrian “red line” in­cident was one of several that hurt America’s image. “A major power should do what it says it would do,” he said.

Obama’s refusal to arm moderate Syrian rebels after publicly stating that the United States was seek­ing the removal of Syrian President Bashar Assad from power was an­other mistake that reduced Ameri­can credibility in the region, he said. It also left the field wide open for more radical rebel groups.

Major Sunni players, such as Sau­di Arabia, along with Israel, were angered by Obama’s determination to reach a deal to limit the nuclear programme of Shia power Iran last year. That approach, coupled with a perceived tendency by the Obama administration to turn its back on Middle East matters, was a depar­ture from Washington’s traditional positions.

“The next president will have to show more presence in the region,” Arbell said. “Moving away from the region doesn’t mean it doesn’t haunt you.”

Some observers said they ex­pected Trump to continue the US withdrawal from the region, a de­velopment that could lead to new tensions between Washington and its partners.

“As the American disengagement from the Middle East continues and even accelerates and Trump’s un­predictability inevitably begins to materialise, tensions are likely to re­appear,” Perry Cammack of the Car­negie Endowment for International Peace wrote in an analysis.

As the Trump administration picks up the reins, it will face the immediate question of how to han­dle the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Obama has sent warplanes, drones and a limited number of special forces to help allies, such as Iraqi and Kurdish forces, to push back the jihadists. During the cam­paign, Trump promised at one point to send 30,000 troops to defeat ISIS but it is unclear whether that is his official position.

The president-elect promised a tougher stance towards Iran and has said he wants to cancel the deal aimed at preventing Tehran from developing nuclear weapons but Arbell said Trump might find that more difficult than he thought. Tearing up a multilateral agreement “is not so easy”, he said. “It remains to be seen how his campaign slo­gans will be translated into actual policy.”