Under Trump, W Asia stares at conflict

Though it could fuel jihadism, Trump has vowed to strengthen Israel, and to exclude Muslims from the US.

West Asia expects major changes in US policy following the inauguration of Donald Trump as the country’s 45th president. He personally has a different approach to the region than his predecessor Barack Obama but has appointed a diverse and divided collection of ministers and advisers who could render decision-making difficult.

When Obama took office in early 2009, he declared his intention of mending relations with the estranged Arab and Muslim worlds. He failed miserably and has left a legacy of war, anger, and alienation from the US and the West. Although Trump seeks to eliminate radical Muslim “terrorism,” he has no intention of trying to achieve reconciliation with Arabs and Muslims which could lessen tension. Instead, he has vowed to strengthen Israel, although this policy fuels jihadism. Trump also plans to exclude Muslims from the US, adding insult to injury.

The senior Trump administration members who could moderate West Asia policy are Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, an oil industry mogul who has close ties with Russia, and Defence Secretary James Mattis, a retired general, who adopts a tough stand on Russia, supports the Iran nuclear agreement, and gives priority to the fight against Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda.

On Syria: During the presidential race, Trump indicated that he wanted to join forces with Russia in the war against radical jihadis. Since Russia has become the main power on the ground in Syria and is coordinating policy with the Iraqi government in this campaign, the Trump administration could eschew former President Barack Obama’s policy of regime change in Syria and cooperate with Moscow. This would be a welcome change at a time when there is the possibility of a ceasefire in Syria and negotiations on a political settlement.

On Iraq: The Trump administration could soon claim partial credit for the victory of US-backed Iraqi forces in the offensive to drive IS from Mosul. Once the cult has been defeated there, Mattis, who served as the head of US Central Command based in West Asia, could advise Trump that US airpower should be fully deployed to the battle in Syria. Unless IS is defeated in both Iraq and Syria, the terrorist group will continue to plague the region.

On Iran: Trump has said he could scrap the Iran nuclear deal. In response, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has threatened to “light a fire” if the deal is abrogated while moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani argues that Trump cannot revoke the nuclear deal because the US is just one of six signatories and the rest will not go along.

Tillerson and Mattis could be expected to urge Trump to preserve it and, with lucrative business deals to be made with Tehran, they could suggest the easing of sanctions. Congressional Republicans, who are strongly swayed by Israel, could oppose such a line, but Trump, who considers himself in charge, could reject their stand claiming what is “good for business is good for America.”

On Saudi Arabia and Gulf
Trump has not indicated how he will approach the oil-producing states which have large investments in the US but, as a businessman, he could be expected to court them and encourage Saudi efforts to diversify their economy. Trump could continue to support the Saudi war on Yemen as US defence industries have made billions of dollars in export sales due to this conflict.

On Egypt: Since the Trump administration has vowed to do its utmost to combat IS and al-Qaeda, Egypt’s increasingly authoritarian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi can bank on support for his clamp-down on all opposition as well as regular arms aid valued at $1.5 billion a year for the Egyptian army. Relations between Washington and Cairo, strained due to the Obama administration’s emphasis on human rights, could improve because Trump is not a rights campaigner.

On Turkey: Trump favours rapprochement with Turkey despite the suppression of all dissent by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who is a key player in the region, especially Syria.

On Palestine and Israel: Trump is fully supportive of Israel. He seeks to make his Orthodox Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner his West Asia strategist although he has no experience in the region or in diplomacy. Trump has nominated ambassador to Israel his bankruptcy lawyer, David Friedman. He is a strong supporter of Israeli colonisation of occupied Palestinian territory and of the shift of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

This move could infuriate the peoples of West Asia and the Muslim world even if their governments try to play down its importance. If Trump goes ahead with this, the US would be the only country out of 86 having diplomatic relations with Israel to set up in Jerusalem, claimed by both Palestinians and Israelis as their capital. Such a policy would boost radical jihadis seeking to inflict harm on the West and could drive young Palestinians to escalate the “Intifada of the Knife” which began in October 2015. West Asia could have a conflicted four years during the Trump administration.

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