Panel| Trump and the Middle East: Prospects and Challenges

OxGAPS, in partnership with the International Cooperation Platform, hosted an event on the theme “Trump and the Middle East: Prospects and Challenges” hosted by Baroness Suttie and chaired by Adel Hamaizia (DPhil Candidate, St Antony’s College). The event took place at the House of Lords and covered various sub-regions within the Middle East, and the early indications of what a Trump administration could mean for them. Speakers included Toby Dodge (London School of Economics), Ilter Turan (Istanbul Bilgi University), Dina Esfandiary (King’s College, London), and Neil Partrick (Politics and Security Consultant), and Avi Shlaim (St Antony's College, Oxford). Hamaizia opened the discussion with an overview on Trump’s first twenty days highlighting a range of activities and headlines under the new administration’s watch including: “alternative facts?,” “the Bowling Green massacre,” the so-called Muslim travel ban, new raft of sanctions, and a host of executive orders. He also characterized Trump’s policies and stated his intentions thus far as ambiguous.

Early indications and ambiguities

Dodge commenced by qualifying any analysis of Trump, saying that we were too soon into his presidency to come to any hard and fast conclusions. For example, although Trump had issued a flurry of executive orders, these were just intentions and sure to get caught up and shot down over time, as we had already begun to see. Furthermore, the administration’s “centre of gravity” had yet to settle and the struggle for influence between individuals in the White House was ongoing. Dodge built on this to examine the Trump administration’s “decision making” by looking at the key players battling for control. He noted the militarization of the National Security Council (NSC) with the two top officials for the Middle East being former military figures. He advised against making any quick judgments on Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State given the power of the NSC as a possible limiting force on his decision. Dodge also noted James Mattis as a man of “immense experience” though clearly a huge skeptic of Iran. Overall, he saw Trump’s foreign policy through the slogan of America First, realist and interest-driven, and therefore likely to take unconventional steps in pursuit of those aims. The second major theme would be the obsession with Iran, Dodge predicted. In Syria and Iraq, the situation would be complex and Trump would have to balance competing interests, perhaps trying to work with Russia.

Grand bargains and implications for Turkey

Turan echoed Dodge by warning against making any firm judgments on Trump given the persistent contradictions in his statements and the uncertainty over who has his ear in the administration. He identified two key traits: first his propensity to blame domestic troubles on external problems, and second, his belief that America’s allies are not pulling their weight. A few other points raised were his concern pertaining to Israel, his belief in a positive relationship with Russia, and his lack of confidence in NATO and the EU. The main implications for Turkey so far were economic; the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership initiated under his predecessor seems over which he noted as positive for Turkey given its grave concerns over opening its market to American goods since it is part of Europe’s customs union. However, Trump’s aversion to imports into America could pose a threat to a growing market for Turkish goods. Another concern was that the EU, a long-standing block of stability for Turkey despite occasionally turbulent relations, could be weakened without American support. As to Israel, Turkey as well as other Arab nations would be placed in an extremely difficult position if Trump moved ahead with some of his policies, such as moving the US embassy to Jerusalem. One area of cooperation between Turkey and the US might be greater Turkish military involvement in return for the US disassociating itself with the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The big question over Trump is how he would handle differences and disagreements and it was still too early to tell.

Escalation with Iran?

Esfandiary opened her remarks by noting that whereas Obama focused on dialogue to resolve issues (such as last year’s heavy water problem), Trump is much more confrontational. She also raised the theme of uncertainty, noting that Trump had wavered on certain issues such as previously promising to revoke the Iranian nuclear deal but now saying he would keep it but strictly enforce it. Overall Esfandiary was downbeat on relations, though so far rhetoric was worse than any actions. In the upcoming Iranian elections, hardliners were seeking to make gains on this rhetoric though Hassan Rouhani and Mohammad Javad Zarif were successfully fighting back by presenting robust stances against Trump. Esfandiary considered the Iran deal to be the biggest source of conflict between the US and Iran, potentially around either missile testing which Iran views as a legitimate means of national defence or the lack of sanctions relief for Iran, with Trump making it very difficult for US companies to enter the Iranian market. The Trump administration seems to have limited ways of dealing with Iran, so far focusing on sanctions which if continued will simply ratchet up the tensions. Iraq and Afghanistan were two sources of potential cooperation where both American and Iranian aims complemented each other. On the other hand, Yemen was another potential zone for escalating conflicts between the US and Iran, however, neither country was overly vested in the war-torn nation. Another key theme that Esfandiary raised that echoed that of other speakers was the potential for the US to undermine Russia’s relations with Iran.

Cautioned optimism in Saudi Arabia

Partrick opened his remarks by noting that the prevailing sentiment in the GCC was generally optimistic: anything was welcome after Obama, a tougher enforcement of the nuclear deal was welcome. One specific point of coolness for Saudi Arabia might be American attempts to place the Muslim Brotherhood on the terrorism groups list, though this would be welcomed in Egypt and to a lesser extent in the UAE. The general trend of pushing regional US allies to take on more of their own defence might well see the introduction of a ballistic missile defence system, an option explored by Clinton when she was Secretary of State. More continuity might lie in the resistance for US direct and large-scale military invasions of the Middle East as in 1991 and 2003. Furthermore, the US seems unlikely to return to such a close security relationship as in the pre-Arab uprisings period when the US guaranteed the security of the region in absolute terms. Change could perhaps come with the establishment of US-led safe zones in southern Syria which would be a propaganda coup for the Saudis with the protection of Sunnis distinctly visible. On the topic of I.S., Partrick also mentioned questions being raised over Saudi and Emirati funding of the group. Finally, Partrick touched on Trump’s lack of support for Palestinian statehood not seriously  concerning Saudi Arabia as it would not pose a dire security threat.

Bleak prospects in Israeli-Palestinian peace

Finally, Shlaim discussed the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace under Trump, predicting the outlook as “exceedingly bleak” with insurmountable challenges. The US-Israel relationship is key for America, something, Shlaim noted, Tony Blair found out to his detriment after his attempts to bring about an Israel-Palestine peace deal after 2003 when the UK supported the US in Iraq with little reciprocal support. Shlaim painted a picture largely of continuity under Trump: unconditional support for Israel would continue and America’s hegemonic position in the Israel-Palestine peace process since 1967 would also continue, with it continuing to act as a “dishonest broker.” However, Obama’s decision to abstain in Resolution 2334 remains and this is important since it definitively defines all Israeli settlements as illegal. This is unlikely to hinder Trump who is surrounded by members in his administration who support illegal settlements such as Jared Kushner and David Friedman, though concurrently his administration includes numerous “racists” and “anti-Semites.” Thus, Shlaim echoed the common sentiment of the evening that Trump’s position was ambiguous and contradictory. The two most important upcoming issues for the Israel-Palestine dispute and the US would be over settlements and moving the US embassy to Jerusalem. Early signs are negative with settlements expanding, the Knesset passing the ‘Regularisation’ bill legalising settlements which were illegal even under Israeli law, and Friedman voicing strong support for moving the US embassy to Jerusalem. Shlaim concluded that moving the embassy would mean the end of the peace process.