If foreign policy during the terms of President George W. Bush and Barack Obama was marked by the “9/11 wars”, then that of Donald Trump will be judged, to a significant extent, by how well, or how badly, the new leader handles the continuation of those conflicts, the “ISIS wars”.
First signs are not encouraging. Trump’s campaign was marked by anti-Muslim rhetoric which prompted fear and anger throughout the Middle East. Ever since he has done little to allay the impression of a leader who either does not understand that a successful counter-terrorism policy involves avoiding the polarising language and actions which act as a recruiting sergeant for extremists or is so prejudiced that he doesn’t care.
Among the first to react after his election, were a series of websites and propagandists linked with ISIS and al Qaeda. In Yemen, one prominent al Qaeda activist argued the Trump victory proved that the group’s view of US values was correct, while an ISIS linked site welcomed the prospect of a crackdown in the US which would reveal the nation’s latent Islamophobia.
Fast forward three months and one of the new president’s first acts is to send special forces into Yemen on what appears to be a poorly prepared mission which cost the life of a US serviceman, a $75m aircraft and significant credibility. This first strike in Trump’s new counter-terrorist capacity indicates where the new president is likely to take his policies in the Middle East and beyond.
That the sentiments and views of the near billion Muslims living between Morocco and Pakistan, from the Caucasus to the Sudan, are of limited interest, is already evident. Obama reached out to the Muslim world with his Cairo speech in 2009. Trump has tried — and may still succeed in — suspending the arrival of refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries. These include Syria, but not Saudi Arabia, from where two-thirds of the 9/11 hijackers came, or Pakistan, the source of a series of plots targeting the US over the last decade.
The Yemen operation, as well as signaling that torture may be used once again along with clandestine prisons, indicates that in the coming years wars are likely to see a mixture of vigorous if unpredictable action with limited regard for US or international law. This will mean more drone strikes, bombing campaigns, possible special forces raids, assistance to local forces with scant respect for their human rights records and possibly some large-scale military interventions.
Yet this new aggression will be haphazard, as befits an isolationist. So in Afghanistan, a possible scenario would be a rapid drawdown on all remaining US troops, but an increase in aid to Afghan government forces struggling to keep the Taliban at bay.
There may be an opportunity for Delhi here. India can project itself as a bulwark against Islamic extremism in South Asia, and thus unlock considerable diplomatic and other advantage. Trump’s antipathy towards China will help too, as will his desire to get other powers to shoulder what he sees as an unfair military burden placed on the US.
Trump has said much about dealing with the ISIS in the Levant — though little that is particularly coherent — but not a lot about ending the civil war in Syria and the sectarian polarisation in Iraq which has enabled the group. One thing is certain: The strategic map of the region will be dramatically reshaped within six months. Aleppo has been taken in its entirety by the Syrian regime and Mosul will return to Iraqi government control. This opens up the possibility that a final phase in the conflict is opening.
Trump’s apparent closeness to Moscow reinforces the likelihood of a future settlement in Syria that ensures the survival of the Syrian regime, probably negotiated via Russian intermediaries. Indeed, it is not impossible that, if the isolationist in him wins out over the crowd-pleasing militarist, Trump might effectively sub-contract policy implementation and decision in the Levant to Russia.
Which brings us to the second major axis in Trump’s policy towards the Middle East going forward: The rulers. The new president has a clearly expressed affinity for autocratic leaders everywhere. He has spoken repeatedly of a need for “strong leaders”, at home and abroad. This explains some of his admiration for Putin, and may help build a relationship with Narendra Modi.
One beneficiary of this may be Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who Trump thinks is a “fantastic guy”. This may be good news in the short term for cash-strapped, insurgency-hit Egypt. Perhaps less good news, though, for Egyptians in the long term.
Then there’s the Gulf, the source of much of India’s oil. Insecurity here directly affects Delhi’s interests. A rise in oil prices will hit public finances hard and lead to inflation.
Trump’s Islamophobic rhetoric has alienated many rulers already, and it will be very hard to build bridges with the House of Saud, which sees itself as leader of the global Muslim community. The decreasing dependency of the US on oil imports will not encourage a return to the close relationship Riyadh enjoyed with Washington over previous decades but instead a probable further deterioration after several years of drift. If the US recognises Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and does not restrain one of the most right wing Israeli adminstrations ever from settlement building or strikes into Gaza, that deterioration will be accelerated.
And if Trump signals that the protective military umbrella extended over the Gulf by the US is being withdrawn, we can expect Saudi Arabia to think seriously about the acquisition of an independent nuclear arsenal, triggering an atomic arms race at exactly the wrong moment for the region and the world.
Trump has already said the landmark nuclear agreement signed by the US and five other states in late 2015 with Tehran is “the worst deal ever negotiated”. If it is now scrapped, Iranian hardliners will be emboldened and Iran’s more moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, seriously undermined. Could Trump’s new friend Putin dissuade him from such a move? Is Trump prepared to walk away from both Iran and Saudi Arabia?
Perhaps he is. We simply don’t know. The consequences for the Gulf, Yemen and a broader region already on the brink of chaos could be catastrophic.
Much depends on the identity of those most involved in the biggest decisions. The close circle of a president has become increasingly important in recent years. Mutual suspicion between the “Washington establishment” and Trump will mean the experts and diplomats at the State Department will struggle to be heard, as will the wonks within the Beltway. It may well be Trump’s close circle — the committed ideologues, family, old friends — who will be most influential. We should be prepared for an unpredictable and chaotic four years which are unlikely to see the end of the ISIS wars.