Could Trump Save U.S. Mideast policy? Or Just Make It Worse?

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U.S. President-elect Donald Trump greets supporters during his election night rally in Manhattan, New York, U.S., November 9, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar

By Peter Apps

Nov 23 – As the U.S. election results trickled in in the early hours of Nov. 9, Syrian government forces began yet another assault on Aleppo – with humanitarian workers and medical centers again in the line of fire.

When historians look back on the presidency of Barack Obama, they may well see the handling of Syria – and perhaps the wider Middle East – as his greatest single failure. Now, the future of the world’s most geopolitically tangled region is being dumped on the desk of Donald Trump.

Compared to those outsiders who have tried to steer its destiny in the past – Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the multiple conflicting figures of the last two administrations – Trump is clearly woefully underprepared.

The Trump Organization has only a smattering of real estate projects across the Middle East – a couple of towers under construction in Istanbul, several businesses operating in Saudi Arabia. The most significant are two major golf courses under construction in Dubai – and one of them chose to briefly remove his name late last year after the Republican frontrunner threatened to ban Muslim migration to the United States.

For U.S. presidents, expertise and intellect clearly have been no guarantee of success, in the Middle East or elsewhere. Trump does have a window to somehow reset relations – but what that means, and how it will turn out, is far from clear.

As with almost everything else about the president-elect, the signs for now are contradictory.

Trump has deliberately revealed nothing about his “secret plan” to defeat Daesh – a point providing much fodder for the satirists of “Saturday Night Live”. Indeed, we have no real idea whether he has a plan at all. Early suggestions, however, would seem to be that he views the fight against the group and others like it at the very center of his Mideast and wider national security strategy.

That, at least, is certainly the message being sent by one of his earliest big appointments, that of retired Lieutenant General Micheal Flynn as national security advisor. The former Defense Intelligence Agency chief has made it clear few options are off the table when it comes to fighting Islamist militancy. More controversially, he has also made it clear he views the United States in conflict with the Islamic religion itself – something he has frequently referred to as a “political movement” existentially opposed to the United States.

Clearly, like much of Trump’s rhetoric during the campaign, this is primarily a message aimed at a domestic U.S. audience – and perhaps one that served him well. Such statements, however, are inevitably also seen and broadcast across the Middle East – and may yet prove more counterproductive than any actual policy decisions.

Not only will suggesting that all Muslims are militants play terribly in the Middle East, it may also help Daesh “weaponize” already-radicalized Muslims in Europe and the United States.

The entire message of Daesh, after all, has been that Islamic populations have no choice but to back them or an aggressive, uncompromising and anti-Islamic West. Local governments and the Obama administration had been relatively successful in making the case that that is grotesquely simplistic, that Daesh and its methods are simply a brutal, nihilistic path to nowhere. At worst, Trump and those around him may already be becoming the most effective propagandists Daesh could dream of.

In truth, it is far from clear what action Trump might take against Daesh that would differ significantly from that of his predecessor. Airstrikes might be ramped up, particularly against Daesh headquarters in the Syrian city of Raqqa. More aggressive Bush-era interrogation techniques such as waterboarding might come back into fashion. The broader strategy – of airstrikes, support for local forces and avoiding major troop deployments will almost certainly continue.

The battle for Mosul in Iraq, for example, has been as much coordinated by local forces as it has by Washington. Whatever Trump says, that seems unlikely to change. Indeed, given his opposition to “nationbuilding,” Trump and his administration may well be more open to that kind of locally-based solution.

The Middle East, however, has always been more complicated than the battle against individual groups like al Qaeda or Daesh. Trump will have to make a range of other decisions that will affect the lives of millions.

What decisions Trump makes on the broader Syrian conflict will, in many respects, be just as important as those he makes on the narrow issue of Daesh. One of the reasons for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad trying so hard to capture Aleppo this year is that they almost certainly expected Hillary Clinton to win the White House. She might well have ramped up U.S. involvement in the conflict, trying to push back Russia and evict the Syrian leader.

That could have been a disaster, furthering the Obama administration’s failed approach of intervening just enough in Syria to keep the war going without genuinely helping anyone or seriously affecting the outcome. At worst, it could have sparked war with Russia.

A peace deal that sees Assad remain in power might not be the worst thing, particularly if it came with safeguards and incentives to avoid too brutal a postwar clampdown. At the end of the day, stitching the country back together will be difficult but not impossible – and it is a task that the United States can only assist, not unilaterally impose.

If Trump and Flynn do have a doctrine between them, it clearly involves working with sometimes repressive regimes such as those of Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan or Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. (As a private consultant, incoming national security advisor Flynn is reported to have had business dealings with both.)

The 2011 “Arab Spring” proved that simply relying on local despots does not itself guarantee stability. Its aftermath, however, has also demonstrated America’s limits when it comes to shaping events in those countries.

Trump and Flynn must also decide what to do with Iran, which the U.S. president-elect has described as “the biggest sponsor of terrorism around the world.” Trump has pledged to tear up Obama’s nuclear deal, potentially making it much harder to work together on any other enemies such as Daesh.

As ever, there is also the thorny issue of U.S.-Israeli relations. Where Trump stands on that remains almost anyone’s guess – indeed, his anti-Muslim statements during the campaign were enough to win a public rebuke from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

After the last few decades, a U.S. administration that simply does less in the Middle East might well serve everyone’s interests. The risk, though, is that in chasing domestic political gain, Trump’s rhetoric may simply wind up inflaming extremism and leaving his successor with even greater problems.

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