The US President-elect Donald Trump has caused different kinds of reactions so far: an international keenness to follow up news of his decisions and cabinet appointments, an optimistic surge in the New York stock markets, and deep apprehension among a segment of Americans and others regarding the possibility of the US turning its back on its values, principles, and constitution towards becoming more racist, exclusionary, and sectarian. Clearly, this controversial man can never be a source of boredom. He is enjoying the game of power and taking pleasure in hiding his cards, leaving the whole world in a state of anxious suspense. Trump and his team are however certain that they cannot re-invent the presidency, but must work with the traditional pillars of the Washington establishment during the transition, bearing in mind that Trump's campaign was essentially against this same establishment. President-elect Trump's tenor has changed from that of candidate Trump on many levels, not least as he backtracked from his threat to prosecute his rival Hillary Clinton he had made on the campaign trail. This does not apply to all his electoral promises. For example, he had stated his intention to withdraw from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), proposed by the outgoing President Barack Obama to strengthen US influence in Asia as part of his pivot to the continent away from the Middle East. With regard to what he may have in mind vis-à-vis Russia and its strategic adventures in Syria or Ukraine, or vis-à-vis Iran and its expansionism in the Arab region especially Syria, his approach will most likely be a combination of sustaining US long-term strategic interests, and a personal touch Trump wants to characterize his term with. Realism will force the president-elect to think twice, however, before he decides to begin his tenure with a public partnership with powers that the US' Western allies accuse of committing war crimes under the pretext of fighting ISIS in their bid to keep the regime of Bashar al-Assad in power in Syria.
No doubt, Trump will continue Obama's current efforts in Mosul and Raqqa to defeat ISIS and their ilk. Perhaps the battle for Mosul will be concluded before Trump's inauguration, with the goal of denying territory to the ISIS caliphate state.
The US was supposed to handle ISIS in Iraq while Russia would handle ISIS in Syria. But what happened was that Russia changed the mission in Syria from tackling ISIS to tackling moderate Syrian rebels, who were fighting both ISIS and the Syrian regime. Russia and Iran, Assad's allies, found an opportunity to shore up Assad's regime by first focusing on the moderate opposition. They wagered that Barack Obama would not move to stop their efforts on the ground or to provide advanced weaponry to the rebels, or even seriously protest the appalling violations committed by the pro-regime alliance in Syria including committing war crimes such as targeting hospitals.
Donald Trump will inherit from Barack Obama both a moral and a humanitarian crisis in Syria. If the war had ended, Trump would not have had to deal with Obama's actions, or rather, inactions. But the war rages on, and the violations are tallying up. Trump will have to either continue Obama's policies, make some cosmetic changes, or pursue a wholly different policy.
His statements on the campaign trail suggested that Trump's absolute priority will be to defeat ISIS, for which goal he is willing to partner up with Putin, Assad, and even international fugitive Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC' Qods Force, if the situation on the ground requires it. Yet his attitudes on the Islamic Republic of Iran indicate that he would not allow Tehran to go out of bounds, whether in terms of the nuclear program or its regional dominance, and that he perceives Iran as a sponsor of state terror.
If Donald Trump fulfills his electoral promises and joins the Russia-Syria-Iran axis, he would be partnering up with powers accused of war crimes in Syria, and also implicating the US as a party to the civil war in Syria alongside Bashar al-Assad. Furthermore, he would be legitimizing Hezbollah and Iran-sponsored Shiite militias created to fight in Syria, and he would become a de-facto ally of Iran even as it is fighting sectarian battles. Additionally, he would be antagonizing Turkey and other NATO allies that radically question Russia's intentions in Syria, and finally, would be inaugurating his term with the stain of disregarding the principle of accountability for war crimes, cementing the US' reputation as a country that deliberately abandoned its moral responsibility vis-à-vis civilians.
Iran could be one of the biggest beneficiaries of Trump's promises on Syria if fulfilled. Iran would escape accountability thanks to its partnership with the US on the ground in the war on ISIS. This is despite the fact that the elimination of ISIS is not an Iranian project, but an international project with Sunni partnership before it was an Iranian partnership. Indeed, ISIS had managed to impose itself in Iraq following Iranian violations in that country, where Shiites monopolized power and excluded Sunnis. Iran was in other words a key cause of the rise of ISIS, and is determined to crush it because removing the caliphate state between Iraq and Syria would serve the project for the Shiite crescent linking Iran to Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
General David Petraeus knows very well the need to partner up with Sunnis to defeat ISIS, having been the architect of partnering with Sunnis in Iraq to defeat al-Qaeda previously. Some believe that this had poured oil on the Sunni-Shiite sectarian fire and helped create a climate that allowed the emergence of ISIS. But even if this were true, the lesson is to remain vigilant and be alert to the implications of the perception that the US is alternating partnership between Sunnis and Shiites.
Petraeus believes the US has a different option other than the one Trump had suggested, one that strikes at the heart of US-Russian, US-Iranian, and US-Syrian relations. His view is that caving in to Putin, Assad, or Soleimani would be extremely costly for US strategic interests, and that the time has come to admit that talking about political solutions in Syria is lip service while military decision is the only game in town in Syria. Accordingly, Petraeus starts off by declaring that there is no need whatsoever for a US ground intervention in Syria, and does not fear a Russian-American showdown there. He suggests instead bombing Syria airbases to stop barrel bombings, while notifying Russia that any bid to interfere in this would lead to a confrontation. Petraeus is confident a clear US warning will force Putin to back down. Petraeus believes the time has come to revive the role of the US as a superpower ready to act based on its interests and principles, which require now changing the military balance of power in Syria, arming the moderate rebels, and activating the international coalition with Russian participation to defeat ISIS and similar groups in Syria and Iraq.
It was the removal of the military option from the table that led to America's humiliation and undermined its prestige as a superpower. At least, this is what many Republicans that Trump is seeking to coopt believe. Trump himself agrees with this principle, despite being unenthusiastic for a military confrontation with Russia or others. He believes the US must restore its greatness and exceptionalism. The question therefore is how President Donald Trump would be able to combine his isolationist tendencies with the quest to restore American prestige and deterrence as he said he intended to do.
The clear hostility by some of the Trump administration appointees and would-be-appointees to Iran and their opposition to the nuclear deal must not be interpreted by the Gulf countries as something that will automatically translate into pressure on Iran's regional policy, in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Any deep evaluation of how to influence US policy requires steering clear of rash conclusions as well as complacency. This period of time is crucial for influencing the policies of the coming administration in the Middle East.
The Gulf summit will convene in Bahrain in two weeks, marking an exceptional opportunity to hone the message to be sent to the Trump administration, beyond implicitly expressing welcome of the departure of Obama's administration or protesting the Islamophobic attitudes of Trump or his national security advisor. There is no need to welcome what can be interpreted as firmness with Iran, and there is no need to condition Gulf-American partnership in Syria and against terror on the departure of Assad. Declaring total war on ISIS and similar groups serves the Gulf interest, but there is a need to declare a comprehensive strategy on a serious partnership with regard to this clear priority for the Trump administration, and to building a new paradigm in the relationship between the US and the GCC.
Egypt might sense that it is in a better position than others to forge a special relationship with the president-elect. Egypt's leader Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi was among the first to call Trump to congratulate him, even before the British prime minister. Egypt could consider that the appeasement of the kind sought by Trump with Putin would serve its own interest, in light of its strong ties to Moscow. Egypt might feel reassured by Obama's departure, as it considers him one of the key backers of the Muslim Brotherhood's rise to power, and equally reassured by Trump's hostility to radical Islamism that it considers its enemy.
Here too, however, Egypt must be prudent and refrain from misinterpreting Trump's willingness to work with Assad against radical Islamism as a gateway to improving US-Egyptian partnership. It would be instead wiser for Egypt to seek a reformulation of US-Egyptian relations as a separate strategy.
It would be worthwhile for the Arab countries not to focus all their efforts on the newcomer in Washington. There are other newcomers, for example the new UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, who will take over in early January. Guterres is a pragmatist who is interested in the Arab region and Syria, and is an expert on refugee issues.
This week, Guterres held an informal session with the UN Security Council members. During the session, he made interesting remarks on Syria, quoted by one of the ambassadors in attendance. He told them frankly that Syria was the reason he sought the post, because he believed the bloodletting there must stop. There are important implications for these remarks, and the Arab strategy must effectively build on their spirit.
Translated by Karim Traboulsi