Under Trump, MENA policies likely to change
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.”