Radical Islamists are setting their hopes on Trump as are Arab autocrats. Only the Gulf states view him critically.
Donald Trump was consistently good for his pithy sayings during the election campaign, such as the remark that he would “bomb the hell out of” the Islamic State. He also let his viewpoint on the Syrian civil war show through again and again by paying court to Bashar Assad as a fighter against terrorists. And above all, there’s his anti-Muslim rhetoric that was more likely intended for home use, but which was also naturally noticed by the Arab-Islamic world.
But what does all of that mean when Trump comes into office in January? Will he formulate a new U.S. policy for the Arab world? Will he reposition the U.S. in a new campaign against the Islamic State group? The reading of Arab tea leaves begins precisely here because, in reality, there are no conclusions about any kind of foreign strategy that can be drawn at all from Trump’s rhetoric. For the Arabs, a Martian could just as well land on earth, and they would all numbly stand there and wait to see what the creature would do first.
Or formulated another way: Trump is a little like an unguided missile, and no one knows where it will land.
The fact is Trump inherits numerous conflicts in the Middle East from his predecessor Barack Obama in which the U.S. is directly involved. At the moment, the U.S. military is actively bombing in seven countries. Four of them are Arab; in Iraq and Syria against Islamic State group positions directly with fighter planes; in Libya and Yemen with battle drones. To complete the list, other countries in the U.S. drone war include Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia. Trump must manage all of these conflicts and the U.S. military engagements there. The Arab realities will catch up to him faster than he would like.
No Plan for Syria
One day after his election, the Arab media agree that Trump will deliver little that is new in the fight against the Islamic State group in Iraq. He, too, will not send ground troops on a large scale to Iraq; and the U.S. has been active in Iraq for a long time below that level. So Trump will continue to rely on what is known in U.S. military jargon as “local partners” and “U.S. military advisers.”
The big question is whether he will take a different position in the Syrian civil war. “I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS. Russia is killing ISIS and Iran is killing ISIS,” he once postulated during the election campaign. Courting the Assad regime as a bulwark against the Islamic State group would be a turnaround in U.S. policy. In doing so, he could make the rhetoric of the Assad regime and Russia his own, pigeonholing all the rebels in Syria as terrorists in order to preserve the regime.
It is also possible that Trump will simply give carte blanche to the regime and Russia in the name of the battle against terrorism. “The rebellion in Syria could be the first of Trump’s many victims,” commented Arab newspaper Al-Arabi Al-Jadid, published in London.
It is absolutely the Arab autocrats who are especially pleased by Trump’s election victory. It is indeed no coincidence that of all people, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was the first head of state to grab his telephone and congratulate Trump on winning the election, while those in Europe were still considering how to harmlessly formulate their congratulatory telegrams.
President el-Sisi once characterized Trump as “a strong leader,” after Trump characterized the Egyptian president as a “fantastic guy” following a meeting in the United States. It is no secret that the chemistry between el-Sisi and current President Barack Obama is far from ideal. Now el-Sisi hopes that Trump will be more accepting of his autocratic style — a hope that he assuredly shares with other Arab autocrats, with the exception of perhaps the sheikhs and kingdoms in the Gulf states. They had more or less openly supported Hillary Clinton, operating under the idea that the tried and trusted is better than the unknown. Several Donald tweets in which he declared that Saudi Arabia should have to pay billions to the U.S. to guarantee its security, and that “without us, Saudi Arabia wouldn’t exist for very long,” were not well received there, and not only in the royal house.
In a survey in Saudi Arabia, 68 percent of those polled said they would elect Clinton. And that is a country where there has not yet been an election allowing people to determine their political leaders and where women are not even allowed to drive cars. But Clinton as the U.S. president, that was doable for the majority to the Saudis.
But even these waves might be quickly smoothed over when Trump enters office. Here are just two figures that point to this end: The U.S. still obtains 11 percent of its oil from Saudi Arabia, but gets a large part of its money back by delivering weapons valued at $33 billion to the Gulf states in the past year alone. Trump’s rhetoric could quickly melt away in the heat of the Saudi desert.
And then the question still remains whether Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric will benefit or harm radical Islamists worldwide. That can be answered relatively easily. If Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been able to vote in the U.S., he would probably have voted for Trump because he fits perfectly into the worldview of militant Islamists.
Last year, an article in the Islamic State group magazine Dabiq thoroughly discussed the idea of “eliminating the grayzone,” meaning the co-existence of Muslims and non-Muslims. The goal of the Islamic State group is to polarize Western societies in the hope of then being able to mobilize Muslims with Islamic State group hate messages.
For this, Trump is genuinely the Islamic State group’s dream president.