Mideast expects big changes under Trump
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Mideast expects big changes under Trump

From Cairo to Tehran, Syria to the Gulf, key players eye the prospect of once-unimaginable new alliances under the incoming US administration

An Egyptian newspaper vendor holds copies of local newspapers fronted with a picture of President-elect Donald Trump with Arabic headline that reads, "Trump era", November 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil, File)
An Egyptian newspaper vendor holds copies of local newspapers fronted with a picture of President-elect Donald Trump with Arabic headline that reads, "Trump era", November 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil, File)

CAIRO (AP) — Donald Trump’s all-but-dismissal of human rights as a foreign policy principle could hit like an earthquake across a Middle East landscape beset by warring factions and beleaguered governments, with some players eyeing the prospect of once unimaginable new alliances.

Syria is the foremost test of Trump’s promise of a return to a hard-headed realpolitik and could quickly show whether America is truly abandoning promotion of democracy and the rule of law in a way that could reshape much of the region’s post-Cold War, post-9/11 order.

Trump has raised the possibility of a broad new US partnership with Vladimir Putin’s increasingly authoritarian Russia and has even hinted at aligning with Syrian President Bashar Assad, which would amount to a dramatic reversal from years of the Obama administration calls for Assad’s ouster. Trump seems to calculate that their shared enemy in the Islamic State is more important than shared values.

“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,” Trump explained last July as Turkey was punishing tens of thousands of people seemingly unconnected to a failed coup attempt. “We need allies,” Trump said in a New York Times interview. “I don’t know that we have a right to lecture.”

Donald Trump speaking during election night at the New York Hilton Midtown in New York, November 9, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON)
Donald Trump speaking during election night at the New York Hilton Midtown in New York, November 9, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON)

When Barack Obama declared a new beginning with the Muslim world in a landmark speech eight years ago, he mentioned democracy six times and broached the subject of human rights on a dozen occasions. Trump has barely mentioned these as foreign policy principles, extolling instead deal-making, diplomatic and economic, and championing the fight against IS.

“Human rights will not be his top priority,” concluded Mustafa Alani, the director of the security and defense department at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center.

Some believe the change will in the end be largely a matter of style, noting that Obama has fought jihadism all over the region as well. Aaron David Miller, a Mideast adviser under five American presidents, expects Trump to prove “risk- averse” and remain consistent with Obama’s own reluctance to interfere in other countries’ affairs, use military force, remain engaged in Iraq or get truly involved in Syria’s civil war.

But it’s clear that several long-standing allies in the Middle East are relishing an end to what they saw as moralizing rhetoric, confused signals and unfulfilled red lines, and favoring a Trump pivot to counter-terrorism and security.

Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is still waiting for a White House invitation, having been shunned by Obama for his bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. And Saudi Arabia is expecting a renewed push from Washington on its arch-rival Iran, instead of Obama’s more neutral stance and its accompanying criticism of the kingdom’s treatment of women and killing of civilians in Yemen.

Here’s a look at how Trump’s policies could shake up the Middle East:

Syria and Islamic State

The US-led campaign against IS, more than 60 nations strong, has lacked in Syria the one thing it needs most: a partner on the ground capable of reclaiming and holding territory, as the Iraqi government is doing in its areas. Widespread evidence of torture, chemical weapons attacks and even war crimes by Assad’s forces had made a partnership infeasible to Obama and most of America’s foreign policy establishment.

In this frame grab from video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, Russian long range bomber Tu-22M3 flies during a strike above an undisclosed location in Syria on Sunday, Aug. 14, 2015. (Russian Defense Ministry press service photo via AP)
In this frame grab from video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, Russian long range bomber Tu-22M3 flies during a strike above an undisclosed location in Syria on Sunday, Aug. 14, 2015. (Russian Defense Ministry press service photo via AP)

Meanwhile, Russia’s intervention since September 2015 has dramatically shored up Assad’s position. If Assad and Putin now take on IS in its strongholds in northeastern Syria, it is less difficult to imagine Trump accepting perhaps a tacit partnership.

Trump has said Assad may be “bad” but the rebels fighting to topple him “could be worse.” He has said the US has no idea who its allies in the country are and has appeared most concerned about containing the exodus of Syrian refugees, fearing they’ll spread terrorism.

Assad recently suggested the US and Syria could be “natural allies.”

Such a shift would have consequences. America’s Sunni allies in the Persian Gulf will chafe at any outcome they see as strengthening the hand of Assad’s other main partner, Shiite Iran.

The Gulf and Iran

If there is one authoritarian country unlikely to enjoy the fruits of Trump’s human rights-free foreign policy, it’s Iran. The president-elect regularly chastised Obama for agreements that provided new funds to a US-designated terror sponsor and left it only several years away from potentially returning to nuclear weapons capacity.

An Iranian girl holds up a portrait of US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump adorned with jihadist-style beard and a slogan reading "is Daeishian" (Daesh is Arabic acronym for Islamic State), during a parade marking al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day in Tehran on July 01, 2016. (Atta Kenare/AFP)
An Iranian girl holds up a portrait of then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump adorned with jihadist-style beard and a slogan reading “is Daeishian” (Daesh is Arabic acronym for Islamic State), during a parade marking al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day in Tehran on July 1, 2016. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

Beyond the talk of a nuclear renegotiation, Trump also has promised to get American prisoners released and threatened to shoot Iranian boats out of the water if they provoke US Navy vessels in and around the oil-rich Persian Gulf.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has said if the US tears up the nuclear accord, “we will light it on fire.” But Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Tuesday dismissed the possibility that Trump could undo the nuclear deal, likening it to turning a finished shirt back into cotton. The president-elect’s tough talk on the deal was is “mainly slogans,” he said.

Officials in Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival, are nonetheless pleased with a president who might focus more on Iran than its own human rights violations. Although its rights record routinely ranks among the world’s worst, Rex Tillerson, Trump’s choice for secretary of state, wouldn’t call the key US ally a rights violator.

Egypt and El-Sissi

El-Sissi, Egypt’s general-turned-president, isn’t hiding his hopes in Trump: “There is appreciation [by Trump] for Egypt’s regional role and there will [be] more coordination with the United States going forward,” he said this week.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, right, meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry at the presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, May 18, 2016. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, right, meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry at the presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, May 18, 2016. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

Government circles in Cairo widely see Obama as naive about the true intentions of political Islam and excessively idealistic about liberal democracy. Championing the popular protests of the 2011 Arab Spring, Obama urged the stalwart US ally Hosni Mubarak to step down and welcomed the ascendancy of the country’s first elected president, Islamist Mohammed Morsi.

After el-Sissi led a 2013 military overthrow replacing Morsi, Obama’s administration struggled for months over whether to call it a coup and later suspended some arms sales to Egypt. It has routinely criticized the government’s police brutality, mass trials of Islamists and the crackdown on liberal dissent, drawing charges from el-Sissi that the US supports Morsi and other religious hard-liners.

Under Trump, “there will be a lot of capacity for less friction and more engagement,” said Michael W. Hanna, an Egypt expert at the New York-based Century Foundation.

But given Egypt’s dire economic condition and internal instability, el-Sissi may have little to offer a deal-oriented US president in return. How important that turns out to be will help show whether the new American compass will truly be about the quid pro quo.

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press.

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