By Adarsh Vijay
The US President-elect Donald J. Trump’s victory was invited with a shock and surprise by the Middle-East nations. Trump, who projected himself throughout his campaign as an Islamophobe, had hardly gained any acceptance across this Muslim-dominated region during the pre-election phases. Nevertheless, the landslide victory of Mr. Trump has altered the regional psyche towards the new presidency in the White House. Despite the rhetorical and natural readiness, how does the region see its western partner under the new leadership? What would be the priorities for the Middle-East leaders? Would they look forward to sustain the same synergy with the upcoming government?
An immediate concern of the Middle-East states would be the nature of Trump’s approach towards the region. Unlike the pre-election days, a change in terms of a pro-Muslim policy is anticipated by the eastern counterparts. The countries hope that new picks for the top-notch posts in Washington will convince the President-elect the need of winning the confidence of the region. Iran is cautious whether the new president will consider a plan to terminate the multilateral Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) inked in 2015. Though such a move could enable Iran to revamp its nuclear research geared towards weapons-development, Tehran would not compromise on the recently lifted-sanctions. Thus, Iran seems to exploit all options, especially the support of the remaining members of the UNSC and European Union, in its bid to ensure the survival of the deal. At the same time, if the hints surrounding the growing proximity between the US and Russia is real, Iran would enjoy an enhanced hand in materializing a regional hegemony.
The region has yet to witness how the Oval Office will tackle the Syrian crisis, particularly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). Nonetheless, the emerging geopolitical discourse in the region shows signs of cooperation with other extra-regional players like Russia. Syrian government is also seeking a shift in Washington’s stand through an inclusive policy against the ISIS. With the primary target being the elimination of the Islamic State, a democratic transition at Damascus seems unfeasible. Since the Obama administration’s stance is at crossroads with the Syrian regime and Russia, there is a room for deeper engagement with the two states through Washington’s withdrawal of support for the moderate stakeholders in the crisis. However, an assertive action against ISIS and a demise of support for the moderate groups do not promise an end to the ongoing conflict. As far as the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) is concerned, the crisis sees no climax unless a political transition is attained. If the new U.S. government restricts its Middle East policy to combating terrorism and extremist forces, it is likely that a democratic deficit will persist in Syria.
Trump’s anti-terror policy seeks to bring in Saudi Arabia under its cover in terms of “de-radicalization”. How Riyadh would respond to it is still uncertain. The forecasted shift in the US administration’s strategy in the Syrian crisis would sadden the Saudi establishments. If the US support for the rebel groups falls, it would be a direct hit on the Saudi national morale at a time when a “regional cold war” exists with Iran. Riyadh wants US backing for the Syrian rebel forces to be continued, while military action is insisted upon against the Iran sponsored Yemen’s rebel groups. Apprehensive of the possible US collaboration with Russia, the Saudi Kingdom worries over the consequential advantageous position for Tehran and its allies. If so, it would be undoubtedly be reflected in the region, particularly in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Trump’s call for US oil independence and its sceptic posture against the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are also unwelcoming for the Saudi royalty. In spite of this, given the strategic compulsions, ties are expected to be strong between the countries.
Trump’s Iraq policy might also assume a confined strategy within the aegis of anti-terror measures. In the case of a pro-Saudi outlook, it may favor Baghdad in the long run. A check on the Kurdish right to self-determination might fall under the policy choice of the upcoming government. The presence of approximately 6000 US forces in Iraq and the fear of Iraqi-state disintegration in the end of the Battle of Mosul induce a reliance on Washington by Baghdad. Iraqi ambitions also embrace a US backed national resettlement to prevent the nomenclature of a “failed state”.
Israel’s position after Trump’s victory is indicative of a favorable presidency in the West. The president-elect had even gone to the extent of providing a nod for Israel to establish settlements in the West Bank. Departing from his long-subscribed neutrality, he declared Jerusalem to be the “undivided capital” of Israel. Such a stand could hinder the peace process in the region, which is what the Palestinian circles fear. The fate of the Israeli-Palestine conflict also seems blurred in this direction. Turkey’s policy appears to be an extension of the prevailing concerns, with the extradition of Fethullah Gulen in particular. Ankara awaits the response from the President-elect on the suspect behind the recent coup attempt. The US approach towards Kurds would be also among the top priorities for the Turks. Finally, another important country to be touched at this point is Egypt. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the President of Egypt, is the only leader from the Arab world to meet Trump so far. Cairo’s demands, for the time being, range from military cooperation to a relaxed approach towards human rights violations.
Mr. Trump’s contradictory statements in the pre- and post-election stages confirm the fact that his government’s military role in the Middle East appears to be ambiguous. A reorientation with pro-active strategies is what the Middle East expects from the upcoming US government. The region looks forward to compensate the damages caused by his predecessors. Collectively, they favor more engagement at strategic and economic levels between the US and the Islamic world at large. However, as of now, it is arduous to assume the nature of outcomes from the Trump administration, that has vowed to restructure the outlook of his country’s policy for the Middle East.
Adarsh Vijay is currently pursuing a Masters Programme in Political Science at Madras Christian College, Chennai, India.