Dr. Konstantinos Filis

Research Director, Institute of International Relations

The next American president – amid his contradictions – has given the gist of his intentions for the Middle East. He looks forward to full normalization of relations with Israel, without the ‘deviations’ of the recent past. He rails against Iran, attaches great importance to Egypt and supports the Kurds while at the same time making eyes at Turkey. He is seeking middle ground with Russia, targets the Caliphate as the number-one enemy, and, while appearing less inclined towards intervention, does not rule out some sort of intervention on the ground in Syria.

By the time he takes over, a new state of affairs may well have arisen on the battle fields. Assad’s Baath forces will probably have retaken all of Aleppo, while the Kurdish Peshmerga, government forces and Shiite militias may manage to reestablish control over Mosul. In Raqqa, the international coalition under the U.S. is already operating, while the power vacuum during the transition from Obama to Trump provides an opportunity for actors like Turkey to endeavor to consolidate situations in other areas, so that their positions won’t be ignored further down the line.

Provided Washington’s priority remains the neutralization of the jihadist threat, synergy with Russia looks like a necessary condition for success. The big reversal will come if Trump converts the outgoing administration’s tolerance for the Syrian regime into discrete support until such time as Daesh is operationally wiped out – a necessary condition for an agreement with Moscow, bearing in mind, of course, the Iran factor. Such a scenario (without its being the most likely) would leave the exhausted opposition ‘orphaned’, distancing it from the West and further radicalizing it, while Saudi Arabia and Turkey will pursue the role of their patron instead of the United States.

Ankara is in fact promoting itself as potentially the U.S.’s closest Sunni partner in the region, with the capability of serving the new American doctrine, as long as this alienates the Kurds of Syria (though this looks unlikely under the current conditions) and brings tolerance for Ankara’s continued military presence in Iraq and Syria, where it wants to maintain its influence. However, its lack of trust and its maximalist agenda will make rapprochement with Washington more difficult. Moreover, Turkey’s fluctuating relations with Israel and Egypt will also impact the situation, given that the new American leadership attaches particular importance to the creation of an axis between Tel Aviv and Cairo. If Turkey falls into line, providing the appropriate ‘services’ in difficult situations – and assuming it is a good customer of the U.S. arms industry – we can’t rule out its being the third pillar.

Additional challenges for Trump can be seen:

  • In U.S. reliance on actors with interests disparate from those of their traditional allies (Iran-Israel, Kurds-Turkey). Here, one of the big riddles is how to deal with Tehran. Demonizing Iran and even calling into question the agreement on its nuclear program risks a new cycle of controversy. Given the influence Iran wields in the Middle East – as well as its cooperation with the U.S., at least on the Mosul front – there is a very real risk of complications in the fluid regional environment.
  • In the management of tensions between forces that are currently fighting together against the Caliphate, but will later turn against each other to gain territorial control over re-taken areas. Some of these are partners of Washington, others are important for the settlement of problems, while some are predisposed to destabilize the situation should given (re)arrangements encroach on their interests. So, will the White House – acting in tandem with various players – succeed in controlling the situation in petroleum-rich Iraq and fragmented Syria, where state structures are extremely weak or difficulties will strengthen express inclinations towards isolationism/disengagement?

It remains to be seen how Trump’s inexperience and unpredictability will work in practice, to what extent his foreign policy will be stripped of ideology – with diminished use of diplomatic and human capital in places of direct European interest – and the degree to which the Pentagon and the State Department will avert any attempts to reverse established positions/convictions wherever deemed necessary. The only certain thing is that experimentation is counterindicated in the powder keg of the Middle East.