Monday Briefing: Contradictions in Trump's MidEast Policy

In this week's Monday Briefing, MEI experts Paul Salem, Randa Slim, and Gonul Tol provide analysis on recent and upcoming events including the vulnerabilities in Trump's Middle East policy, Russia's plan in Syria after Trump's election, and Erdogan's hopes for Gulen's extradition under the next administration.

Contradictions in Trump’s MidEast Policy
Paul Salem, Vice President for Policy and Research

There are four major contradictions and one dangerous vulnerability with regard to the Middle East policies of the incoming administration:

  1. Trump’s preferences in Syria are basically pro-Iranian, favoring Iran’s coalition including Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah and Russia to take the lead there. Simultaneously, he and members of his team insist that they are staunchly anti-Iranian and promise to undo the Iran nuclear deal and stand up to Tehran.
  2. Trump favors cooperation with Russia, but the past two presidents have tried resets with Russia and come away bitterly disappointed. Members of his team also hold strong Russian-wary views.
  3. The administration will need close cooperation from America’s Muslim allies in the fight against terror, but the administration’s anti-Muslim instincts will deeply trouble relations and undermine those allies domestically.
  4. The administration prioritizes the fight against terror, but its anti-Muslim profile and its leaning toward Iran, Assad and Russia in the Levant will feed the jihadist narrative and likely swell terrorist ranks considerably.

Finally, groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS will have dangerous leverage over the new White House: they can be fairly confident that a domestic terrorist attack in 2017 will trigger strong anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies from the White House, both domestically and abroad. They could expect no such pay-outs under an Obama or Clinton administration. The incoming White House has set a trip wire that is ready to be triggered; alarmingly, this gives these groups new incentives to prioritize attacks inside the United States in the new year.

Putin’s Response to Trump Victory: Take Aleppo
Randa Slim, Director of the Initiative for Track II Dialogues

With the east Aleppo offensive underway, Russia is hoping to create a fait accompli for the incoming US administration: by the time President-elect Donald Trump walks into office, Russia and Iran hope to have Syria’s key cities, including Aleppo, under government control.

While the relationship between President Vladimir Putin and Trump is likely to be warmer than has been the case with President Barack Obama, their respective policies on Syria are not expected to be in total sync. On the one hand, Trump shares Moscow's thinking of prioritizing the fight against terrorist groups in Syria, and, like Putin, will consider Islamist groups writ large as an enemy to the United States. It is unlikely that a Trump administration will adopt a nuanced approach toward different Islamist groups, be them Sunni or Shiite.

On the other hand, there will be a strong camp inside the Trump administration that will look at the Iranian regime and Hezbollah, along with ISIS and other Islamist groups, as part of the same Islamist axis of evil. Russia's regional allies might, thus, present a serious obstacle to its aspirations for a rapprochement with a Trump administration over Syria. Complicating the picture further is the fact that senior officials in the Trump administration are known for their pro-Turkey views and will lobby the president to factor Ankara's priorities into new Syria policy options. A new U.S. Syria policy will reflect these competing voices and interests, part of which will clash with Moscow's plans.

Erdogan Hopes Trump will Extradite Gulen
Gonul Tol, Director of the Center for Turkish Studies

Turkey’s pro-government circles are delighted by Donald Trump’s election, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan already inviting Trump to Ankara. A columnist writing for the government mouthpiece Daily Sabah said today “if he (Trump) had run in the elections in Turkey, I think he would have won by receiving around 70 percent of the vote.” One of the reasons he listed was the Trump team’s favorable views on extraditing Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based Islamic cleric whom Turkey is accusing of being behind the failed coup in July. The article talks in length about a piece written by Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, the designated national security adviser for the incoming Trump administration, on November 9. Flynn, writing in The Hill, called on the United States to be more sympathetic to the concerns of Turkey, embracing Erdogan’s position that Gulen is an extremist who orchestrated the failed coup.

Contrary to the jubilation in Ankara, the Flynn article raised eyebrows in Washington. The Daily Caller reported that Flynn was a paid lobbyist for a consultancy founded by a Turkish businessman, Ekim Alptekin, who is also the head of the Turkish-American Business Council and close to Erdogan. But Turkey might not get its number one demand from a Trump White House. Gulen’s extradition involves a legal process that is difficult to interfere with, even for Trump. Instead, the Trump administration might use the FBI to make life difficult for the Gulen network in the United States through investigations for fraud, malpractice and misuse of public funds. But that won’t be enough to satisfy a frustrated Erdogan who now has put all his eggs in Trump’s basket to settle scores with his arch enemy, Gulen.