Since the beginning of the 21st century, the Middle East has been experiencing a turbulent period marked by the intensification of conflicts and the intensification of the sectarianism that will undoubtedly predetermine the mandate of the future U.S. president. During the election campaign, Donald Trump bitterly criticized Obama’s foreign policy and proposed breaking the bridges that Obama had extended to Iran and tightening relations with Israel. He also defended an intensification of the attack against the self-named Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which he promised to defeat with Russia’s help. Despite his boisterous media antics, it does not seem to be a groundbreaking agenda but more so one of continuity with respect to the traditional Republican policies toward the region.
Trump will inherit an explosive situation in the Middle East that has been provoked, among other reasons, by the erratic foreign policy of his predecessor. Indeed, Obama’s legacy has much more shadow than clarity, and the area is now in a much more delicate situation than it was eight years ago. The most significant achievement of the outgoing president has been the nuclear pact with Iran, which now seems to be in question. After the tortuous Arab Spring, chaos has seized the region, with the United States having failed to abandon its mute position to do more than fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, two countries that have become failed states in the face of the apathy of Western countries. Even more questionable has been his support for Saudi Arabia in its hazardous military offensive against the Houthis in Yemen, despite repeated criticism of the kingdom for its support of radical Islamist movements. On the Palestinian issue, Obama has condemned Netanyahu’s colonization policies, but at the same time he has multiplied military aid to Israel, which is hard to understand.
Although trying to venture into which vectors will guide Trump’s foreign policy toward the Middle East is still an exercise in political fiction, the truth is that his statements in recent months offer us some clues. During the electoral campaign, he made it clear that his priority would be to renegotiate the nuclear pact with Iran, which he called the “worst agreement ever reached;” however, it will be difficult to revoke the pact without the support of the G5+1, made up of the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany. If this were to be achieved, the incipient process of normalization between the Persian country and the Western countries could freeze, and even worse, could unleash a nuclear race of unpredictable consequences for the area. In addition, it would reinforce the Iranian hawks who remain opposed to the agreement and would weaken the reform sectors headed by President Rouhani.
Closer relations with Israel are also among the objectives of the president-elect, who announced to the American Public Affairs Committee his willingness to move the North American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which would implicitly mean recognition of that city as the capital of Israel. The appointment of David Friedman as the new ambassador to Israel clearly shows his willingness to carry it out during the next legislative session. If this movement is carried out, it could unleash a new cycle of violence and finally bury the two-state solution; the consequent wear and tear could implode a weakened Palestinian Authority, which would undoubtedly benefit Hamas.
There are also tensions in relations with Saudi Arabia, a country Trump has called “the main exporter of terrorism in the region.”* Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, relations between the two countries have deteriorated to the point at which they’re challenging the 1945 Quincy Agreement, through which the U.S. has been protecting the reigning dynasty against any external threat in exchange for American companies having privileged access to the Saudi deposits. North American energy autonomy and the collusion of the Saudi authorities with the jihadi groups that fight for the Middle East, which aim to replicate the Wahhabi socio-political model in surrounding countries, explain the growing distrust between Washington and Riyadh. The arrival of Trump in the White House could bring down the curtain on this ever-worsening marriage of convenience.
Regarding Syria and Iraq, the U.S.’s priority is still to combat the Islamic State group; during the presidential campaign, the Republican candidate announced his intent to “annihilate the terrorists.” However, like his predecessor, Trump lacks a clear plan to prevent the Balkanization of these countries, a possibility that becomes more and more plausible if the powerful centrifugal forces are imposed on the weak centralizing resistances. The intervention of Iran and Saudi Arabia in both countries has intensified the sectarianism, causing a worsening of religious tensions, a conjuncture that the Kurdish forces have taken advantage of to extend the reach of their self-government and to claim a federal state. The tune between Trump and Putin could presage more coordination for fighting the Islamic State group, in exchange for the new White House tenant’s commitment to preserving the Syrian regime and cutting aid to rebel groups, which, after the fall of Aleppo, are at their most critical stage since the outbreak of hostilities in 2011.
Likewise, Trump has favored a strengthening of relations with authoritarian governments, such as Erdogan in Turkey and Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Egypt, who joyfully received his victory. Both leaders have restricted public freedoms and fiercely persecuted their opponents, with the pretext of combating terrorism. In the Turkish case, the repression has not been limited to the Gulenists, who stand accused of being behind the July military attack, but also extends to the political representatives of the Kurdish minority and the leftist sectors that have dared to criticize the witch-hunting undertaken by Erdogan. In the Egyptian case, the main victims have been members of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose top leaders have been imprisoned and sentenced to long prison sentences in summary trials, but victims also include members of civil society and the activists of the Jan. 25 Revolution.
All of this leads us to the prediction that, despite his isolationist impulses, the president-elect will have no choice but to adopt a policy of continuity in the Middle East and to intensify ties with most of his traditional allies in the region, allies to whom he could give a carte blanche to entrench themselves in their authoritarian positions and to pursue their policies of fait accompli.
*Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, the exact quote could not be sourced.