Donald Trump’s victory will further roil the Middle East, a region already consumed by four different civil wars, economic turmoil, Islamic State terror and a turn toward authoritarianism in almost every country.
Trump’s erratic campaign rhetoric makes it hard to divine the contours of his future Middle East policy, but some of the broad strokes are clear. He favors accommodation of Russia’s forays into the region, including in Syria, and he will lean on authoritarian governments in an attempt to restore stability. Trump also calls for stronger ties with Israel and a more confrontational stance toward Iran. He lays out a vaguely-articulated vision of a more aggressive version of the war on ISIS.
Trump’s rise is both a symptom and a catalyst of an atavistic turn in politics across the planet, one that has been intensifying in the Middle East for some time. Leaders in the region increasingly turn to the rhetoric of security over terrorism, stability over chaos. In Cairo and Beirut and Ankara, officials often articulate existential fears about a widening regional crisis: the worry that Egypt could go the way of Libya, now a failed state. That Lebanon and Turkey could go the way of Syria, consumed by civil war. Trump taps into the same well of anxieties about stability, the same inward-turning impulses.
Trump has expressed an affinity for autocratic leaders around the world, including in the Middle East. His speeches and interviews are laced with positive references to “strong leaders." He has showered on praise on everyone from Putin to Saddam Hussein, who he hailed as an effective killer of terrorists. He called Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Sisi a “fantastic guy,” even though in 2013 Sisi led a military coup and presided over the worst season of political violence in Egypt’s modern history. Trump says the U.S. should ease pressure on Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over human rights abuses and has hinted that he would take a less confrontational stance toward Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose devastating Russian-backed war against rebel groups has resulted in the bulk of the more than 400,000 deaths in the war since 2011.
“It’s an approach based on turning a blind eye to many international issues with the idea of building a metaphorical wall around the United States and diverting attention to national security in a way that defines national security from a rather narrow perspective,” says Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa division at Chatham House in London.
Trump has articulated support for Russia’s influence in the region, especially in Syria, which—along with Iraq—is the primary crisis driving instability across the region. “I don't like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS. Russia is killing ISIS and Iran is killing ISIS,” Trump said in the October 9 presidential debate.
“Handing over the reigns to Russia on Syria, President Trump would effectively be keeping the Assad regime in place, would be empowering the Russian-led campaign in Syria on the basis that it’s a campaign fighting terrorism, and this would definitely increase Russia’s foothold in the Middle East as well as Russia’s international standing,” says Khatib. “You could say this amounts to a division of labor between the United States and Russia, which means that the Middle East, through this particular approach, be regarded as an area of the world that is no longer as strategically important to the USA as it used to be."
Trump has criticized President Obama’s handling of the war on the so-called Islamic State, but in practice, it’s simply unclear if and how Trump will change the current military campaign. The U.S.-led international coalition fighting ISIS has already launched more than 16,000 airstrikes since the operation began in 2014, and the U.S. is intimately involved in aiding local forces who are advancing on ISIS’ most important strongholds in the Iraqi city of Mosul and the group’s de facto capital in Raqqa, Syria. Much will depend on who Trump appoints to advise him, and his choices will be limited by complex realities of the fighting on the ground.
“His anti-IS strategy amounts to wanting to carpet bomb, whereas the issue with taking back Mosul, taking back Raqqa is what happens the day after, and policy makers have a tough time dealing with that," says Issandr el-Amrani, the head of the North Africa project at International Crisis Group. "Trump seems to be more likely to say just bomb them and not think about the aftermath. A candidate like Trump hasn’t grappled with the immense complexities of the Middle East and how they interact with each other.”
After decades of ill-fated intervention and strife, most of the Middle Eastern public has a dim view of U.S. government, but the majority seems to have an even lower opinion of Trump. His anti-immigrant rhetoric and calls for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. have aliened the vast majority of the public across the Arab world. In one poll of more than 3,000 people across the region, 47 percent said they would simply refuse to vote in the U.S. presidential election if they were given the chance.
The survey, conducted by YouGov and the Saudi newspaper Arab News found that, among those who would vote, 44 percent would choose Hillary Clinton, over Trump’s 9 percent. Fully 78 percent said Clinton would be better for the region if elected. A separate survey released in October by the Arab Center in Washington posed similar questions about the election to 3,600 people in nine Arab countries. Fifty six percent of those surveyed had positive views of Clinton. Sixty percent had negative views of Trump.
In July, after Turkey’s Erdogan survived a military coup and launched a wave of repression in his country, Trump said the U.S. should withhold judgment. “I think right now when it comes to civil liberties, our country has a lot of problems, and I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country,” he told the New York Times.
In fact, one of the only pockets of support for Trump in the region is among Turkey’s conservatives, who appear to see similarities between Trump and Erdogan, a pair of right-leaning populists. Erdogan rode into power in part by harnessing the feelings of alienation of Turkey’s religious and conservative voters. A similar pocket of support exists in Egypt’s conspiracy-minded, hyper-nationalist press, where some commentators like Trump’s anti-Islamist politics.
Above all, Trump introduces a new element of uncertainty in a part of the world already deep in the throes of crisis. Trump is something of a foreign policy iconoclast within the Republican Party, and to an extent his policies will depend on who he chooses to advise him. El-Amrani, of Crisis Group, says much of the Arab world regards Trump as a “roll of the dice."
“Because his policies are so unpredictable, the region is already pretty turbulent," he says. "Do we want some factor that adds to the turbulence?”