Trump and the Middle East: an impossible disengagement?

Donald Trump Image copyright JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

As president, Donald Trump will enter the White House with few expectations of the Middle East. Throughout his campaign, even before he won the Republican nomination, he made it clear that for him the region was a huge distraction. It had taken-up vast quantities of US blood and treasure with few, if any, positive results.

"The Middle East is totally destabilised, a total and complete mess," he told a rally back in December 2015. "I wish we had the four or five trillion dollars that we have spent, and had spent it in the United States," he said, to rapturous applause.

This view that the Middle East is a distraction - a place from which no good can come - has been a consistent theme throughout his rise to the presidency. Mr Trump wants to focus on one thing: the fight against so-called Islamic State.

But wishing away the rest of the region's problems, many of which contribute to phenomena like IS and Al Qaida linked groups, will not be easy.

Veteran US diplomat Ambassador Dennis Ross insists that a Trump administration cannot turn its back on the Middle East. When I spoke to him during his recent trip to London he told me that things are not just bad in the region but getting worse.

"The Trump administration," he said, "will confront a set of challenges that no previous American president has faced." This is because, in his view, the nature of the conflicts in the region - look at Syria and Iraq - are threatening the state system itself.

Image copyright Matty Stern/US Embassy Tel Aviv via Getty Images
Image caption Dennis Ross says the region presents Mr Trump with "very big issues with high stakes"

"That," he says, "has never been the case before. However IS is handled," he told me, "you run the risk of what comes in the aftermath of its defeat. You have a proxy war in Yemen between Saudi Arabia and Iran."

He also mentioned the growing crisis in Egypt - a country of 93 million people that is facing such basic economic problems that it has shortages of sugar and cooking oil.

"The West," he said, "simply couldn't risk Egypt becoming a failed state." So the Trump administration and especially its European allies will continue to suffer from the bow wave of consequences that is being produced by the Middle East's problems.

What then of the Middle East's most intractable problem - the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians? Mr Trump has claimed that he will be able to resolve this where others have failed.

But the signals he's been sending suggest support for a more hawkish Israeli policy. He has chosen a US ambassador to Israel who is a strong backer of the Jewish settlement movement in the occupied West Bank. And Mr Trump has some plans to shake things up himself insisting that he will move the US embassy - currently in Tel Aviv - to what he called "the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem".

Image copyright EPA
Image caption The US recently refused to veto a UN resolution calling on Israel to stop settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem

To be fair, many US presidents have similarly talked about relocating the US embassy to Jerusalem, but it has never happened. It's a step that most Palestinians would see as prejudging the outcome of the conflict, marking the end of Washington's support for a genuine two-state solution.

The Obama administration's last-minute diplomatic gambit (as it would have it) to save the two-state solution may actually make any progress towards a settlement during the Trump presidency even less likely.

By refusing to veto the UN resolution declaring the illegality of the settlement enterprise the outgoing administration, whatever else it may have done, has pushed Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even further into the embrace of Donald Trump, whose own comments suggest little understanding of the nuances of the issue.

While Secretary of State John Kerry's valedictory speech eloquently enshrined the principles on which a two-state solution must be based, there seems little chance of progress in the immediate future.

The Palestinians' strategy of internationalisation of the conflict seems to be paying dividends and they have no reason to give ground in the short-term.

Meanwhile Israel's right-wing government feels betrayed - and is in no mind to halt settlement construction. It is very hard to see a Trump administration having the diplomatic finesse, time or inclination to start unpicking this problem.

Image copyright JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Image caption Mr Trump has said he wants to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem

The simple fact is that, right now, few experts see the Israeli-Palestinian problem as the central issue in the region any more. It deserves a solution but both sides are too divided to make any progress.

Ambassador Ross believes, though, that there is one small glimmer of opportunity. Iran's rising influence in the region is a concern for both Israel and moderate Arab states alike.

There is what Ross calls "a convergence of strategic interests" between Israel and many of the Sunni Arab states. They cannot make peace on behalf of the Palestinians, he notes, but they could help to broker a deal. However, Ambassador Ross does not seem to have much faith in the future Trump administration's ability to navigate the shoals of Middle Eastern diplomacy.

If a Trump administration seeks to turn its back on nation building in the Middle East what then of its approach towards the Syrian crisis? The drama there is both a national tragedy and a regional crisis. The Assad regime now appears to be an immovable fixture - thanks to Russian and Iranian support.

Mr Trump has hinted that he would like to do a deal with Moscow to combat IS. But this would mean accepting Iran's growing influence in the region. According to Professor Joshua Landis, director of the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Oklahoma University, this highlights a contradiction that has been at the heart of US policy ever since the overthrow of the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Image copyright YOUSSEF KARWASHAN/AFP/Getty Images
Image caption Syria's Assad regime has been strongly backed by Russia and Iran

"President Trump," he told me, "is going to confront the same dilemma that the United States has been confronting for decades, which is we don't like Iran. We see the Iranian revolution as being detrimental to American interests. But at the same time," he says, "we've been pursuing a military strategy in Iraq and Syria that is very pro-Iranian."

By this he means that everything the US has done - destroying the Baathist regime in Iraq, for example, which was a strategic counterweight to Tehran, has served to benefit Iran's position.

"That dilemma," he told me, "is going to remain in a Trump presidency. And even though his generals are very anti-Iran they're also anti-IS. And they're going to prioritize the destruction of IS over containing Iran which means the continued spread of Iranian power. "

On the campaign trail Mr Trump continually castigated the nuclear deal with Tehran that sought to constrain its nuclear programme. So, as president, could he simply tear up the international agreement?

Perhaps, but such a step would leave the US badly isolated and Iran free to pursue its nuclear programme wherever it might lead.

Instead, some analysts suggest that he might seek to push Tehran into a position where it walks away from the deal. It's a sensitive time: Iranian President Hassan Rohani is facing elections in May. And, as Trita Parsi, president of the Washington DC-based National Iranian-American Council explains, this could lead to a hardening of positions on both sides.

Image copyright Alexey Kudenko/Host Photo Agency/Ria Novosti via
Image caption Could an election defeat for Iran's President Rohani scupper its nuclear deal with the US?

"If the Trump administration adopts a very hostile position towards Iran, that will definitely boost the opponents of the deal in Tehran," he told me. In which case Rohani "may end up having a very difficult time getting re-elected. And if he loses he will likely lose to a president who ran on a platform criticising the deal."

Then both the United States and Iran will have presidents by mid-2017 who are opposed to the deal and that will definitely present a significant challenge to the durability of the nuclear agreement.

Many experts believe that reducing Washington's engagement with the Middle East to the battle against IS will be an unrealisable aspiration for the Trump presidency. Ambassador Dennis Ross believes that there can be no US pivot away from the region. Its problems are just too great.

"I like to say about the Middle East - the problems of the Middle East never stay in the Middle East and there is no better example of that than the war in Syria and its implications for Europe because of what it has produced with regard to the flow of refugees."

And he had a grim warning of what might lie ahead. "If we get this wrong, what we've seen flowing out of Syria will be a pittance compared to what it may be. That's a very powerful reason why we have to get it right," he said. "These are very big issues with high stakes."

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