How Will Trump Reshape the Middle East?

Roundup
tags: Middle East, foreign policy, election 2016, Trump



Juan R. I. Cole is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. For three and a half decades, he has sought to put the relationship of the West and the Muslim world in historical context. His most recent book is The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation is Changing the Middle East (Simon & Schuster, July 2014). 

Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential race has more than domestic implications. The Middle East has been a major focus of US policy-making in the post–Cold War period. George W. Bush arguably engaged with it more than any other part of the world. Despite Barack Obama’s desire to rebalance toward East Asia, he was repeatedly pulled back into the Middle East by the 2011 youth revolutions and their aftermath, and by the rise of ISIL in Iraq and Syria. What impact will Trump’s policies have on the region?

One difficulty in answering this question lies in the quixotic character of Trump himself. He has often taken both sides of a controversial question. For instance, he criticized his predecessors for becoming too entangled in the Middle East, then at one point last March suggested sending in a division (20,000-30,000) of US troops to fight ISIL. As it happens, ISIL as a territorial state could already have been defeated by the time he takes office. Another question is whether, given his erratic statements and behavior, Trump’s cabinet and the permanent Washington bureaucracy (the “deep state”) will actually let him change the direction of US foreign policy radically. But let us assume for the sake of argument that where he repeatedly voiced a sentiment, he will have a policy bias toward it, and that he may actually be allowed to implement it.

Trump has said that the Iraq and Libya interventions were a mistake, and that he would prefer to leave Bashar al-Assad alone in Damascus. He has also repeatedly urged that the United States collaborate with the Russian Federation against ISIL in Syria. If he follows through on these sentiments, then he could pull CIA support for the 30 or so “vetted” rebel militias it now supports in Syria, who are trying to overthrow the Baath regime of Assad.

Many of these Syrian militias are fundamentalist in character, and some have occasionally formed battlefield alliances of convenience with the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, which now styles itself the Levantine Conquest Front. The LCF is a prime target of Russian president Vladimir Putin (much more so than ISIL is), and Moscow tends to view all the fundamentalist rebel groups as “terrorists.” It is possible that the Trump administration will adopt this Russian definition and will turn on the vetted groups. Since the CIA allegedly uses Saudi Arabia for pass-through purposes in funding and supplying the fundamentalist rebels, any such abandonment of them by Trump is certain to create frictions with Riyadh. 

The Saudi monarchy and its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council will view a Trump administration capitulation to Putin in Syria and a hands-off policy toward Damascus as, de facto, acquiescence in Iranian dominance of Syria and Lebanon. This outcome may not be Trump’s actual goal, but it would be a side effect of forwarding Syrian policy to Moscow, since Russia and Iran both want to keep Assad in power. This stance, as well, will raise hackles in the GCC, the members of which already feel that Barack Obama has abandoned them in seeking a rapprochement with Iran. Further, Trump’s threat to revoke the American security umbrella over Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman unless they actually pay for it has already provoked a good deal of anxiety. They may respond by diversifying their security relationships. Saudi Arabia has already opened up lines to China and recently for the first time held joint military exercises with that country. ...




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