Since the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States in early November 2016, several reports have been circulating in the media regarding his possible stance towards the Middle East and the conflicts in the politically fragile region.
Many of the predictions about Trump’s attitude towards the Middle East are shaped by his pre-election statements about his support for Israel, his closeness to Russia, his criticisms of the Iranian nuclear deal, his Islamophobic comments and threat to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, and his comments about stealing Iraqi oil for the United States.
At this point nothing is clear regarding Trump’s Middle East policy; however since taking office on January 20th, 2017, Trump has found himself in a difficult position: should he keep the promises he made during his campaign or should he pursue a realist and pragmatic policy based on realpolitik in the region? Considering that Trump is a businessman and not a statesman, it becomes even harder to predict his steps. As many may remember, in one radio interview during his campaign he couldn’t even distinguish between Hezbollah and Hamas.
The Middle East, its people, media and leaders were caught by surprise with Trump’s success, some describing it as a “political earthquake,” while others a “miracle.” As it is still unclear how the change of administration in the White House will affect US policy toward the Middle East, the streets of Middle Eastern countries remain filled with people who have both fear and hope regarding the Trump presidency.
Trump has a having heavy file in his hands on the Middle East, a region that he will not be able to ignore. The region’s challenges range from the fight against ISIS in Iraq to the multi-sided war in Syria, from fruitless Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to the US’s strained relations with its other regional allies, and from the deal on Iran’s nuclear program to an increasingly assertive Russia in the region. The following paragraphs summarize just a few of the challenges he faces with specific countries in the region.
US approach toward Iran
Many expect the Trump presidency to be very troublesome for US-Iranian relations. During his election campaign, Trump repeatedly criticized the 2015 nuclear deal negotiated with Iran, the United States and five other major powers, calling it a “disgrace” and “one of the worst deals ever made,” and promising to either renegotiate the terms of the deal or simply scrap it. At the time, this offensive rhetoric electrified his supporters, but taking into account the already complicated situation in the region, the big question is whether he really will scrap the deal and risk activating conflict with Iran.
Israel was another major talking point in Trump’s campaign. He called Jerusalem “the eternal capital” of Israel and said that under his presidency he will be moving the American diplomatic mission there. Following his victory both Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas congratulated Trump on his victory and said they hoped to achieve peace and stability in the region. This month, the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas wrote a letter to Trump, warning him against moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and saying the move would have a “disastrous impact on the peace process.” Again, the move is still in question at this point, but for the region and in particular for the future of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, it would be best for Trump to avoid taking steps that could further escalate the situation in the region.
Relations with Egypt
One of the first Arab leaders to congratulate Trump was Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who overthrew Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, in a military coup in 2013. In a released presidential statement , Sisi said, “Egypt hopes Trump’s presidency will breathe a new spirit into US-Egyptian relations.” After having a special meeting with Sisi in September on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, Trump said that the Egyptian president was a “fantastic guy” and even praised Sisi’s handling of Egyptian politics after the bloody coup that killed more than a thousand people. Sisi returned the sentiment, expressing his confidence in Trump’s future presidency.
US stance toward Iraq-ISIS
Defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) will probably be the Trump administration’s top foreign policy priority in the region. He famously said the phrase “Knock the hell out of ISIS” and proposed to send as many as 30,000 American troops to fight the terrorist organization. US-backed forces are already carrying out a fierce fight against ISIS in Mosul to retake the Iraqi city from the terrorist organization, and so Trump’s presidency seems unlikely to de-escalate the ongoing battle in Iraq.
The Syria file
Trump has taken a different position toward Syria compared to Iraq. In Syria, Trump is expected to be less involved than the Obama administration. He has criticized the previous administration’s military involvement in the region (Iraq, Syria, and Libya) and has even said that the Iraq and Libya interventions were a “mistake” and a main reason for destabilization in the region. Another reason why the Trump administration may distance itself from Syria is Trump’s attitude up to this point toward the opposition forces fighting the Syrian regime. Trump has stated that he doesn’t know who the rebels are, or in other words, he doesn´t know who are the “good guys” and who are the “bad guys”. During his campaign, he also criticized the US alliance with moderate groups in Syria. Additionally, some have understood Trump’s measured and supportive tone towards Russia to mean that the American administration may want to leave the region and its problems in the hands of the Russians. Trump seems to look more positively towards cooperation with Russia and its allies, namely the Syrian regime, than the Obama administration. He has stated that forced regime changes have proven to be “failures” and have created vacuums for terrorist organizations. If his rhetoric turns to action, there will be a certain shift in balance in Syria.
Relations with regional allies, Turkey
In the past few years, the United States’ regional allies have expressed clear displeasure with the Obama administration’s passive stance towards crises in the region. Riyadh in particular was uneasy with the Obama administration due to its deal with rival Iran, which vies with Saudi Arabia for regional influence. Turkey, also a NATO ally, was frustrated with the policies of the Obama administration, which hesitated to act when necessary in Syria. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also slammed the United States for not standing firmly against a failed military coup and accused it of harboring Fethullah Gülen, a cleric living in self-imposed exile in the US state of Pennsylvania, whom it accuses of being behind the violent coup attempt. Erdoğan said earlier this month that he believed relations with the US would improve under the Trump presidency and that the two NATO allies would reach an easier consensus on regional issues. “I believe we will accelerate dialogue when Mr. Trump takes office,” Erdoğan told a conference of Turkish ambassadors on January 9th in Ankara. Turkey, along with other traditional US allies, wants to see a US commitment that sends clear signals to regional allies. With the hope that the incoming administration will change the Obama-era policy of leading from behind, regional countries, with the exception of Iran, offered their support to Trump when he was elected. At this point, countries in the region expect Trump to be more decisively ahead of challenges in the volatile region. But only time will tell how the Trump presidency will keep everything on track in the region, particularly with Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Almost all of Trump’s policies contain contradictions. He wants to stay away from the Syrian crisis and leave the Bashar al-Assad regime in power, but this would also increase the influence of Iran, Syria’s strongest ally, in the region – something that he also doesn’t want. Similarly, Trump wants to revoke the nuclear deal with Iran, but doesn’t seem to calculate the consequences of such an action for the region. During his campaign Trump said a lot of things, often using very strong language which was aimed at rallying his supporters, without thinking of the global ramifications. He has changed his mind so frequently on major issues that it is impossible to put much credence in his words. With his lack of knowledge in foreign affairs and his inexperience in politics, Trump was certainly not the best candidate to lead US policy in the region; but now the world has Trump, and the alarming part is that even with all the fodder he has given us up until now, we can still at best only speculate about the direction he will take in his policies toward the Middle East.
To complicate things further, it is likely that rather than Trump, his foreign policy team and advisors will be making decisions about the Middle East. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is expected to become a senior White House adviser and will play an important role in Middle East issues. The grandson of Holocaust survivors, Mr. Kushner is said to be friends with the mayor of Jerusalem, and has known Israel´s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since childhood. However, until Trump’s team is fully formed, it will remain unclear exactly what strategy they may decide to pursue. Trump’s recent nominee for US Secretary of State, Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, still needs US Senate confirmation, and many in the Senate are wary of his business relationships and potential conflicts of interest with Russia. In the meantime, the world is stuck watching and waiting. Trump took office on January 20th, 2017. The first few months of his presidency will clarify the answers to many of our questions regarding the Middle East in the era of Donald Trump.