Author: Rami G Khouri
Posted: November 11, 2016
Anyone interested in how the United States president-elect Donald Trump will fill in the many blanks in his foreign policy should keep an eye on the Middle East – the most dramatic convergence point of ongoing American military engagements and Russia’s foreign policy.
Russia and its leader President Vladimir Putin is also the issue on which Trump has spoken with perhaps the most clarity and specificity, amid his otherwise vague and often changing foreign policy positions.
Syria, in particular, is where Trump’s emphatic “America-first” principles and his disdain for promoting regime change and nation-building abroad naturally line up with two of his expressed views: The US should get out of the war in Syria and avoid destabilising more Middle Eastern countries, and the US should work with Putin to defeat terrorist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).
Putin was one of the first foreign leaders to congratulate Trump on November 9, noting specifically that Russia and the US shared a special responsibility to “sustain global stability and security”. It played well into Trump’s statement from last summer: “Wouldn’t it be nice if we got together with Russia and knocked the hell out of ISIL?”
Trump also has not explicitly criticised Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea, suggesting that he might be comfortable with returning to a Cold War-type unofficial agreement on spheres of influence for the two great powers.
Trump’s penchant to work with Putin, and even Bashar al-Assad, aligns with another aspect of his anticipated foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere, which is his respect or even admiration for “strong leaders”.
This could signal closer relations with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, or even Assad in Syria. They might form the nucleus of a loose fraternity of leaders in the Middle East that allows the US to continue its decades-old policy of favouring “stability” under strong leaders to democratic transformations and civil rights.
President-elect Trump’s naming of his foreign policy and national security teams should clarify further his foreign policy direction, which has been quite vague on a number of issues during the past 18 months of campaigning.
He has been clear, however, on his respect for Putin as a strong leader, his desire to coordinate with Russia where possible (such as fighting ISIL and “stabilising” Syria), his preference to refrain from criticising human rights violations in increasingly authoritarian regimes in the region and to keep the US out of local conflicts that only destabilise countries (such as Libya, Yemen, and Syria).
Part of this posture reflects his own “America first” attitude on alliances such as NATO, whose other members he thinks should pay more of the alliance’s costs, and on renegotiating global trade agreements, so that the US benefits as much as others do. Part of it also responds to a clear aversion among Americans to more foreign wars and entanglements by the US.
One of the first places he could put this into action would be Syria, by coordinating with Putin to attack ISIL and also allowing Assad to remain in power, even in a rump Syrian state that shares sovereignty with rebel groups in the north of the country.
Trump said in one presidential debate: “I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIL. Russia is killing ISIL and Iran is killing ISIL,” indicating that he would worry less about consistent American relationships in the Middle East, and more about defeating ISIL and getting the US out of the region.
Trump has declared his desire to strike hard at ISIL in Syria and Iraq, without offering any views on whether the US would play any subsequent role in stabilising both countries.
Presumably his incumbency will educate him on the complexities of these situations on the ground. His main aim seems to be to resume some calm in war-torn lands in a manner that allows the US to withdraw its troops from them, even if this means maintaining regimes such as Assad’s and ceding big power influence there to Russia.
He explicitly told an interviewer in October that he prioritised defeating ISIL over removing Assad from power.
What is not clear is how Trump would resolve the contradictions of maintaining Assad in power, which Assad’s ally Iran would welcome, with its plan to renegotiate the nuclear agreement with Iran.
He would also have to figure out how to accommodate the desire of regional allies such as Turkey, Jordan, and most Arab Gulf states, to topple the Syrian president.
Trump clearly will respond to such tests by affirming what he feels is best for the US, regardless of the consequences in the Middle East, perhaps, in part because he can focus on addressing American domestic challenges only by ending the US’ expensive legacy of fighting non-stop wars in the region for the past 35 years.