Trump era's effect on W Asia, N Africa

Just a few weeks after taking office, US President Donald Trump has proved that he has every intention of delivering on some of his more extreme pre-election pledges, which obser­vers had earlier hoped were just part of his campaign rhetoric.

His incendiary order to ban citizens of seven Muslim countries — even those holding valid visas and, initially at least, those with US ‘green cards’ — created chaos at US airports, alarmed civil rights activists, and raised fears among some that he will deliver on other promises, too, like moving the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to occupied Jerusalem.

Citizens of the seven countries in question — Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Yemen, and Somalia — have never carried out any major terror attack in the US (an American of Somali origin was involved in a knife attack in Minnesota last year, which injured 10). And given that this is a blanket ban on these countries, their governments have no incentive to cooperate with the US on the issue that has been used as a pretext for the ban: terrorism.

The travel ban will impact tens of thousands of tourists, students, relatives of American nationals/residents, and those seeking medical treatment in the US. Available data suggests in 2015, citizens of the aforesaid countries were granted about 89,000 US visas.

However, the visa decision may have little or no bearing on the policies of the Trump administration in West Asia and North Africa (WANA). What follows is a brief overview of what key WANA states can expect from the new man in Washington.

Iran: US Defence Secretary James Mattis has a decades-old grudge against Iran, and wasted no time in labelling the Islamic Republic as “the biggest state sponsor of terrorism”. Such is his hatred towards the country that former President Barack Obama had replaced him as the commander of the US Central Command (CENTCOM).

Iran, always a hard nut to crack, responded to the heightened rhetoric by testing a medium-range ballistic missile, which flew 600 miles. The US hit back with more sanctions. It is clear that Trump is far more hawkish on Iran that his predecessor. But international geopolitics is bound to come in the way of any serious measures that Washington may be contemplating against Tehran.

Iran has a major ally in Vladimir Putin, and the world order is currently experiencing the unusual phenomenon of a Russian leader exercising serious influence on a Republican US president.

Israel: Under the Trump administration, the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can expect an even smoother ride than what it has become accustomed to under other US administrations. In the first week of February, the White House issued a statement saying new Jewish “settlements” in the Occupied Territories may “not be helpful”.

However, the statement did not say that existing “settlements” were a hindrance to peace. And, pointedly, there wasn’t even a mention of an independent Palestinian state existing side-by-side with Israel, which has always been Washington’s stated policy.

Assad regime safe
Syria: Syrian leader Bashar al Assad’s joy at the prospect of a Trump presidency was palpable, and with good reason. Trump has made it clear that he has no intention of helping topple the Assad regime in Damascus. In fact, he has been highly critical of Obama’s and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s policies in Syria, which he blam­es for the rise of IS, and the refu­gee crisis engulfing the world.

In Trump’s eyes, while Assad may not be Washington’s first choice, he is still preferable to those who might replace him. Currently, there is a convergence of US and Russian policies in WANA, especially on the key battleground of Syria. In fact, Trump seems to want to cooperate with Putin in destroying IS while allowing Assad to continue to hold on to whatever remains of Syria.

Turkey: The US’ relations with its Nato ally have come under strain throughout the course of the six-year-old Syrian civil war. Ankara is furious with Washington for supporting the Kurdish ‘People’s Protection Units’, or the YPG, which Turkey sees as a front for its arch-foe, the Kurdish separatist group PKK, which both the European Union and the US have branded a terrorist organisation.

Plus, there’s the issue of the extradition of Fetullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based cleric, held responsible by Turkey for the failed coup attempt in July last year. 

However, under the Trump administration, ties between the two countries look set to improve. This is due in no small part to the thaw in Russian-Turkish relations, which had reached dangerous lows as a result of the two historical adversaries’ differing policies in Syria.

For both Washington and Moscow, Turkey remains a key country. It has Nato’s second largest army, and is an important powerbroker in the region. And in Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump sees a figure similar to himself: Authoritarian and anti-establishment; someone who seems to believe he has his country’s best interests at heart.

(The writer is an editor at The Delma Institute, a foreign affairs research house based in the UAE)

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