Breaking Down Trump’s Middle East Policy

By J. Dana Stuster
Friday, November 11, 2016, 11:20 AM

The greatest challenge when trying to anticipate what a Trump administration has in store for Middle East policy is Donald Trump himself. His shifting positions over the course of the campaign have made his actual intent difficult to decipher, and he has pointed to his own unpredictability as an asset in international affairs. Drawing on what little platform he had, it seems that Trump is prepared to shift U.S. relations in the region in dramatic ways, but his ambitions may prove difficult to implement.

Critics often complain that U.S. policy in the Middle East is disjointed, that there is no overarching framework, and that the standards by which Washington rewards some governments and punishes others are arbitrary or relative. This is true. But the apparent outlines of Trump’s often-contradictory policies suggest a staggering incoherence. Officials abroad are similarly perplexed. “Bomb the shit out of ISIS isn’t exactly a policy,” an official at the French Ministry of Defense told BuzzFeed News on Wednesday. It’s possible that Trump’s style of governing may be very different than his campaigning, and these assessments are all subject to his capricious shifts in policy. We only have his words to go on at this point.


Trump has been insistent on the campaign trail that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) will be on the chopping block, but it is unclear how he will go about dismantling it. He was more reluctant than many of his primary opponents to commit to tearing up the agreement — in March, one group even ran ads against Trump calling him soft on the Iran deal, but that same month, in an address at AIPAC’s annual conference, Trump said that ending the JCPOA would be his “number one priority.”

Trump’s most destructive option will be to include the Iran deal in his “First Day Project,” a plan Trump advisor Stephen Moore discussed with The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos. The incoming administration is looking “to identify maybe twenty-five Executive Orders that Trump could sign literally the first day in office,” Moore said. “Trump spends several hours signing papers — and erases the Obama Presidency.”

If the goal is to erase Obama’s legacy, the Iran deal would definitely belong in this vindictive project, but the effects would be disastrous.

If the goal is to erase Obama’s legacy, the Iran deal would definitely belong in this vindictive project, but the effects would be disastrous. Experts have warned since the agreement was signed that it would be extremely difficult for the United States to rally an international consensus for sanctions against Iran unless Iran violated the agreement. If the United States pulls out of the multilateral agreement, it would lose its ability to enact the JCPOA’s provision to “snapback” international sanctions into place and would alienate the allies that invested years of time and political capital into reaching the deal. With the enforcement mechanism neutralized and many of Iran’s trade relations restored, Iran would have little incentive to maintain the agreement and could blame the United States for violating its terms.

If Trump actually understands the terms of the JCPOA, it’s possible that Trump’s supposed business acumen could provide another route. It’s not clear what that might look like, but Trump has a history of underhanded business tactics, such as using adjacent land purchases to drag down the value of luxury properties before purchasing them. Is there a way for him to undermine the deal from an angle or goad Iran into violating its terms? That would preserve the United States’ ability to enact a penalty and would be a shrewder diplomatic move. But Trump has shown little interest in diplomacy and either option would result in an unfettered Iranian nuclear program. Iranian officials understand this and hint that they are keeping a renewed enrichment program on the table if the deal collapses. “Our strong preference as a party that has remained fully committed and implemented its side of the for every member and participant and for international community to continue to remain committed to the agreement,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said today. “But it doesn't mean we don't have other options if the USA unwisely decides to move away from its obligations under the agreement.”


Trump’s hardline stance on the Iran nuclear agreement will complicate his discussed pivot in Syria, where he has said he would like to work with Russia and the Assad regime to fight the Islamic State. It’s unclear to what extent this would be possible as he undermines what little relationship exists between the United States and Assad’s chief regional patron, Iran, but an Assad regime advisor told NPR that she is guardedly optimistic about Trump’s election and the Russian government was eager to congratulate Trump on his victory.

In practice, Trump’s policy on the Syrian civil war will be more notable for what he does not do than what he does. He has characterized the Syrian opposition as terrorists, painting them in broad terms similar to those used by Russia and the Assad regime to vilify all opposition groups. As such, he would likely cut off U.S. support to the Syrian rebels supported by both the public train-and-equip mission and the covert (but widely reported) CIA program. Trump appears to already be building strong ties with Ankara, and Turkey’s vocal opposition to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the mostly-Kurdish, U.S.-backed coalition currently pushing toward Raqqa, may even persuade a Trump administration to abandon the United States’ most effective partner force in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria.

But, as the United States withdraws its support to Syrian rebel groups, other nations...may ramp up support to fill that void.

Beyond that, his pro-Russia rhetoric suggests disengagement, standing back to allow the Assad-Russia-Iran axis to suppress rebel groups until an equilibrium is reached. My impression is that Trump anticipates this will happen quickly, freeing up Russian jets and pro-Assad ground troops to join an offensive against the Islamic State. But, as the United States withdraws its support to Syrian rebel groups, other nations (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Turkey, primarily) may ramp up support to fill that void, and they would do so with fewer qualms about radicalism or the consequences of providing MANPADS and other heavy equipment. The grinding stalemate that has been maintained in Syria for years could well persist even without U.S. aid to the rebels.

In the meantime, Trump has promised to “bomb the shit out of” ISIS. This may not differ significantly from the current U.S. air campaign in eastern Syria and northern Iraq, but some conservatives have criticized the rules of engagement in the campaign and Trump could loosen these restrictions and risk incurring greater civilian casualties. That does not seem like a significant concern for a president who complained that the United States is fighting “a very politically correct war” and advocated killing the families of terrorists. Trump has also floated a deployment of 20,000 to 30,000 U.S. troops to fight the terrorist group. While there have been calls for greater participation from the Arab states, that seems unlikely to materialize if Trump aligns the United States with Assad and Russia.

With regard to the effects of this ongoing humanitarian catastrophe, Trump can be expected to follow through on his commitment impose an “extreme vetting” regimen for resettlement in the United States (somehow more extreme than the already extensive process to which refugees are subjected) and could follow through on his plan to ban Muslims from entering the country for a period of time. This could mean imposing a discriminatory religious test on refugees entering the United States or closing off admission altogether to the few Syrian refugees granted resettlement each year.

Gulf States

A Trump administration would be a mixed bag for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council. Though the Gulf came around to a grudging acceptance of the Iran nuclear deal, few officials will mourn its loss. Of greater concern will be securing U.S. support for efforts to contain Iran’s role in the region. It is difficult to see how a Trump administration will be able to compartmentalize its alignment with Russia and Assad (and implicitly Iran) in Syria and its opposition to Iran on the nuclear deal and other regional conflicts in its relations with the Gulf. Trump has said often during the campaign that he is opposed to U.S. adventurism in the Middle East, which suggests he would like to avoid a more active role in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. This sentiment, combined with his overall skepticism toward alliances, could lead to a disinterested approach, in which the United States does not escalate its role but continues to allow large sales of military equipment to the Gulf states. To my knowledge, Trump has not taken a position on the Saudi intervention in Yemen other than to note Iran’s support for the Houthi Movement, but it seems unlikely that a Trump administration would either escalate its role or hold Saudi Arabia more accountable for its abuses in the conflict.


Despite Trump’s stated policy on Syria and suspicion of Islamists, his election has been met with satisfaction in Ankara. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said this week that, “with this choice, a new era has begun in America. I hope this choice of the American public will contribute to beneficial steps toward basic rights and freedoms, democracy and developments in our region.”

Trump told the New York Times, “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…I don’t know that we have a right to lecture.”

Erdogan’s emphasis on “basic rights and freedoms” carries a particular irony: Turkey’s strongest incentive to work with Trump is his willingness to turn a blind eye to Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism. After the July 15 coup attempt, Trump told the New York Times, “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…I don’t know that we have a right to lecture.” And on Election Day, Trump advisor Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn (ret.) went further, publishing an editorial in The Hill calling for Fethullah Gulen’s extradition to Turkey. “The forces of radical Islam derive their ideology from radical clerics like Gülen, who is running a scam,” he wrote, comparing Gulen to Osama bin Laden and Ayatollah Khomeini. “We should not provide him safe haven.” This unflinching support for Erdogan’s government in the midst of a crackdown that has imprisoned more than 36,000 political dissidents has been “music to Ankara’s ears,” Asli Aydintasbas writes for the European Council on Foreign Relations.


Despite the anti-semitism of many of Trump’s vocal supporters, it’s hard to think of a country that came out of the U.S. election better than Israel. With Trump’s threats in the primary campaign to have Israel repay foreign aid, the Israeli government’s agreement in September to a generous new 10-year Memorandum of Understanding seems like a wise choice. Aid was one of the few issues of any apparent contention between Trump and Israel, and after his election, Trump said he would extend an invitation to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to visit the White House as soon as he enters office. Trump has said he will move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and appears disinterested in the long-standing U.S. policy of promoting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israeli right-wing politicians responded to Trump’s election with calls for new settlement construction. The United States has long opposed construction and expansion of settlements in the West Bank, but Trump advisor Jason Greenblatt said this week that Trump does not believe that they pose an “obstacle to peace.”

Egypt, Tunisia, and the Region as a Whole

The general impression I’ve been left with from surveying Trump’s potential Middle East policy is that he is disinterested in U.S. involvement except as it relates to aggressive counterterrorism policies. He does not seem concerned with the promotion of human rights or political inclusivity and has not (to my knowledge) discussed the economic crises and wealth inequalities that are fueling political grievances in many countries. He has expressed a willingness to work with the region’s most cruel autocrats — if a Trump administration is willing to cooperate with the Assad regime, how likely is it to criticize the suppression of press freedoms in Egypt or Turkey? Trump seems to prioritize counterterrorism missions, like those that Egypt has conducted in the Sinai or that Turkey has carried out in its Kurdish southeast, over any human rights concerns. He has stressed that he wants to abandon nation-building. Certainly that is true on a large scale, in states like Libya, Syria, and Iraq, but it could also be true in Tunisia, where U.S. aid and security assistance has helped bolster the country’s nascent democracy and defend against jihadist groups attempting to exploit the country’s instability. Funding to support counterterrorism missions might continue, but Trump has not demonstrated an interest in foreign aid beyond the security sector.

If there is an overarching framework to a Trump administration foreign policy, then, it is that the United States will be willing to work with any partner to fight terrorism while limiting its involvement in the region. This may be a guiding principle, but it illustrates why U.S. policy has been fractured across the region for so long; there’s a reason the United States has had to meet each country on its own terms and take a relative approach. Trump’s proposed policies require alienating Iran while trying to work with Iran in Syria, require alienating the Gulf in Syria while trying to work with the Gulf against Iran, and abandon the human rights principles that the United States has tried to embed as international norms since the end of World War II.

Trying to parse Trump’s contradictory and shifting positions that have accumulated over the past 18 months has felt at times like an exercise in mapping a worst-case scenario, but in the circumstances, we can only take him at his word.