Saturday,16 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1330, (2 - 8 February 2017)
Saturday,16 December, 2017
Issue 1330, (2 - 8 February 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Trump and the Middle East

In his first two weeks in office US President Donald Trump has overturned much US policy on the Middle East, and it seems there is more to come

Trump and the Middle East

Dealing with the new administration in the US will be tricky for the world and particularly for the Middle East in the light of the decisions US President Donald Trump has made during his two-week-old presidency.

Trump started his presidency with executive orders implementing his core principle of “America First” in the most confrontational way. He stirred up a storm with his order to ban entry to the United States of Syrian refugees and people, including US green-card holders, from seven mostly Muslim countries – Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Syria, Somalia and Yemen.

Worldwide condemnation met the decision, not only because of the alarming signs of disregard for international law and the plight of refugees, but also because of its negative undertone towards Muslims. Trump, it seems, was playing the “Islamophobia card” to keep his grass-roots supporters happy.


Trump and the Middle East

It is hard to justify the ban from a security viewpoint. The fact is that no major terrorist plot or attack in the US since 2001 has involved a perpetrator from six of the seven countries listed in the ban. Almost 80 per cent of terror attacks in the US have been committed by individuals who were American citizens whether by birth or naturalisation.

There are also countries that are potentially a greater threat to the US, such as Pakistan and in the Gulf, which were not included on the list. In terms of contemporary threats, Tunisia has the largest number of foreign fighters who have joined the Islamic State (IS) group over the last couple of years. However, Tunisia is not on the list.

Picking the seven countries on the list was politically convenient, however, as they do not have strong political lobbies in the US and they are not economically very important. The real problem with the ban is that it not only unjust, but that it could also be very costly if, as expected, it is used as a recruitment tool for extremists around the world.

The ban plays into the hand of IS, and it does enormous damage to the Middle East and US foreign policy as it tries to work with the governments in the region to fight IS and Al-Qaeda.

It is also problematic for US allies in Europe, where it makes fighting terrorism and extremism harder. No wonder British Prime Minister Theresa May was harshly criticised for her failure to condemn Trump’s ban on Muslims entering the US and for her hasty invitation for him to come on a state visit to the UK.

In the British House of Commons this week, she was blasted as “Theresa the appeaser” in fiery clashes during an emergency debate on the new US immigration measures, while tens of thousands of people joined protests across the UK over Trump’s ban on Muslims and his planned state visit.

A petition calling for May to cancel Trump’s planned visit has gathered more than 1.5 million signatures in Britain in just two days. Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said Trump “should not be welcomed to Britain while he abuses our shared values with his shameful Muslim ban and attacks on refugees’ and women’s rights.”

But despite the criticisms, May has insisted that the invitation to Trump stands. She is constrained in her options, and she can only hope that when Trump visits the UK, probably next June, the storm will have blown over.

Her position also feeds the perception that the UK is taking the side of Trump’s America over its traditional European allies, especially in the light of the harsh criticism the American president has faced from Germany and France.  

The New Trump World Order and Britain’s decision to exit the European Union (Brexit) are interacting with each other to detrimental effect for the UK. EU leaders are starting to view the UK as siding with a Trump administration that is harbouring hostile sentiments towards it. As a result, May’s moves towards Trump could hurt any future UK deal with the EU.

Trump’s ban on Muslims has positioned the British government on a difficult diplomatic path. After the Brexit vote, the country needs to strike a trade deal with the US, but the US under Trump may not be the kind of friend the UK needs while it is exiting the EU.

The dilemma was evident when May refused to condemn Trump’s order even as the EU harshly criticised the ban. May will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to appease Trump and at the same time maintain the good and solid relations she needs with the EU during the Brexit negotiations and beyond.

 


Trump and the Middle East

MIDDLE EAST DILEMMAS: For Middle Eastern leaders who want to do business with Trump, the ban only complicates a situation that is already very complicated. There is already a wide range of complex and intertwined problems facing the region, a great deal of which are a result of US policies.

The ban on Muslims might be a first flashpoint, but there are others that could erupt in the coming weeks and months and could potentially ignite the whole of the Middle East. The Trump administration is still in its early days, and many of its policies are not yet clear. But if some of what Trump said during his election campaign were to be implemented, it would be a very bumpy ride indeed.

The ban on Muslims is an indication that US policy towards the Middle East under the new administration will probably be reduced to its declared slogans of defeating radical Islam, fighting terrorism, and “wiping IS from the face of the Earth.” The sound of all this points to militaristic and aggressive policies and postures.

With no moderate talk from Trump about peace in the Middle East or development and prosperity as tools to fight radicalisation, there is little room for optimism. He finds it unnecessary to talk about a shared future, the true and peaceful face of Islam, or common values such as democracy and human rights. Unless there is a drastic change, Trump’s policies will increase tensions in the region, and some of his statements on the major issues are alarming.

The prospect of a serious Israel-Palestine peace process under the Trump administration is slim. One of Trump’s first decisions as president was to freeze former US president Barack Obama’s last-minute $221 million aid package to the Palestinian Authority (PA).

More importantly, Trump has refused to be drawn on whether he will go ahead with his threats to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. “I am not going to comment on that. But we’ll see,” he said. Trump has also refused to condemn Israeli settlement expansion on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem.

His positions are so opposed to the international consensus that during the Paris Conference last month on the Israel-Palestine peace process that was attended by representatives from some 70 countries and organisations Trump was warned against unilateral US moves that could affect the two-state solution.

Commentator Aron David Miller, who served six American secretaries of state as an adviser on the Arab-Israeli negotiations and is now a vice-president at the US Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, sees a major shift in US policy towards the peace process in the Middle East.

“If someone asks the Trump administration, ‘do you believe in the two-state solution,’ I suspect the answer will be yes. But that is not an indication of what that commitment will really be,” he explains.

Miller predicts that there will be a major shift on the part of the new administration “away from pressing for negotiations or pressing the Israelis on settlement activities.” Trump’s words and actions cast doubt on his commitment to the two-state solution. For Miller, the most challenging aspect of Trump’s Middle East policy will be his ability to appear as an honest broker when all his campaigning pointed to commitments to Israel.

“The Trump administration is going to do something to demonstrate that the relationship with the Israelis is fundamentally different from the relationship that Obama had with Israel,” he explains. That could easily take the form of some move or action with respect to the American embassy in Israel. If this happens “it will hamstring any credible effort on the part of the US to negotiate a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians,” Miller told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“They are not going to take the peace process as seriously as the last administration. I think there is a reasonable chance that the Trump administration will take some action. If they do not move the embassy, maybe they will move the ambassador’s residence,” he said.

If the administration takes such moves, there could be further outbreaks of violence in the Middle East. “There is likely to be more violence. But in the end the question is if any of this is going to move the Israelis and the Palestinians to make the kind of decisions that they had been reluctant to make. I do not see that happening,” Miller said.

“The Palestinian leadership is fundamentally divided. President Mahmoud Abbas is constrained. On the Israeli side, there is a prime minister whose ideology and politics run up against making the kind of decisions on security, the border, Jerusalem and the refugees and the other issues that would be at all acceptable to the Palestinians.”

“There is no trust between the two sides. There is a region that is in flames, and Yemen, Syria and Iraq are in a state of fragmentation. Most of the circumstances that would be needed to create the right environment for serious negotiations just do not exist. More violence will not change that.”

 

DEAL OR NO DEAL: Trump is no fan of the Iran nuclear deal, and the expectation is that he will be tougher with Tehran than the previous US administration.

One of his first decisions regarding Iran was to include Iranians in his ban on Muslims entering the US. This decision could compromise the position of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who is facing crucial elections in May. The potential tensions between Tehran and the Trump administration could swing support behind the conservatives in Iran who are critical of Rouhani.

With his dislike of the Iran nuclear deal, but his readiness to work with Russia in Syria and in the fight against terrorism, Trump’s options on Iran are limited. As Miller puts it, “he has three options. First, to abrogate the agreement unilaterally. Second, to try to renegotiate the deal with the rest of the 5 plus 1 countries that originally negotiated it. Third, to conduct a review, probably to try to toughen the standards of enforcement.”

Trump is unlikely to abrogate the agreement unilaterally, Miller said. The prospect of new negotiations with Iran is also unlikely. Miller said the deal was likely to be maintained, though it will face strains and challenges which could put in jeopardy “whether he abrogates it or tries to renegotiate it”.

Factors that could influence this decision include Iran’s behaviour in the region, which could set off a tough response from Trump. The nature of the agreement itself requires an enormous amount of attention to maintain. “This is the kind of agreement that requires 24/7 efforts on both sides, because politically it is very unpopular. It is unpopular in Washington, and certainly in Congress. It is unpopular with two or three US Middle Eastern allies, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the UAE. And it is unpopular among many elements within the Iranian political structure,” Miller said.

“Without a major effort on the part of the Trump administration to want to maintain it, the agreement is in jeopardy.”

The key question for the region is whether Trump will be as committed to maintaining the Iran deal as his predecessor. During last week’s talks between May and Trump, the British prime minister defended the deal, and this may limit Trump’s options. The deal will likely stand for the time being, but that does not mean improvements in the relationship between Tehran and Washington.

Many factors constrain the US-Iran relationship. Even under the Obama administration there was an awareness that the nuclear agreement was an arms control agreement only and that it would not immediately mean improving bilateral relations.

 

WHAT ABOUT SYRIA? For Trump, the problem with Iran is not only his dissatisfaction with the nuclear deal. There is also Iran’s influential role in Syria and its strong relationship with Russia.

“Trump wants to improve his relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, particularly when it comes to Syria. This could mean contracting Syria out to Putin, meaning that the Trump administration could acquiesce in Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad staying in power, which is a goal of the Iranian regime and Russia,” Miller said.

Any conflict with Iran is bound to upset US-Russian relations, and this is not the preferred option in Trump’s strategy. According to diplomats in London and Washington, Syria will be the arena in which the limits of cooperation and coordination between the US and Russia can be tested. Both countries see the enemy as IS, not Al-Assad.

This led Britain to change its policy by180 degrees when British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson declared that London was open to the idea of the participation of Al-Assad in the country’s upcoming presidential elections.

“Trump’s policy on Syria will be to fight IS and leave the rest to Al-Assad and Iran. The Trump administration is not going to try, as the Obama administration did, to reach some political settlement that forces Al-Assad out of power. It is going to acquiesce with Russian objectives, which now coincide with Iranian objectives, which are to maintain Al-Assad in power. This will also guarantee that the conflict in Syria will continue, although probably at a much lower level,” Miller said.

“By losing Aleppo, the opposition can no longer threaten the regime, but there will still be large parts of Syria remaining ungovernable and Syria will remain a dysfunctional state. Trump’s focus is on IS, not the future of Al-Assad.”

Trump’s actions seem to have confirmed this strategy. Some days ago, he signed a presidential memo directing the Pentagon to submit a plan within 30 days to defeat IS, an effort to make good on his campaign promise “to wipe extremists from the face of the earth.”

Even prior to the memo, US officials had been at work developing potential actions for Trump, including deploying additional advisers to Iraq and Syria, allowing US military personnel to accompany local forces closer to the front, and delegating greater decision-making power to field commanders.

Trump’s first two weeks in office have been intense, divisive and alarming. He fired acting US Attorney General Sally Yates after she questioned the legality of his immigration ban. The last time a top US justice department official was forced out by a president was in 1973 at the hands of former president Richard Nixon during the Watergate Scandal.

US state department officials have also been circulating a draft memo that dissents from Trump’s executive order on immigration and emphasises that it is counterproductive. There are also divisions on the ban in Congress.

Trump in his first two weeks in office has not only shaken America, but also the world at large. And it seems that there is more to come.

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