As even the most casual observer of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) will note, the situation that Donald Trump will inherit from the Obama administration on January 20, 2017 is a mess. Trump, having campaigned and won on promises to “shake things up in Washington” and “make America great again,” has attempted to deliver on these promises by appointing a series of officials who do not come from the list of usual suspects sitting on the bench at the Heritage Foundation awaiting the election of a Republican president. However, dealing with the complicated, interlocking situations he will face will not be as easy as making campaign promises.
For the first time in several decades, the situation in Israel and Palestine will not be at the top of the agenda. The concept of a “two state solution,” which has long been the hallmark of American policy, has not been a viable concept for 20 years. U.S. policy makers have been reluctant to face this reality, as it forces recognition that Israel is already calimed to be a bi-national “state” with 6mm Jews governing or controlling 6mm Arabs. The only issue is what kind of a state Israel will be. America’s interests and desires are irrelevant to this situation, because, as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon once said, “Don’t worry about American pressure on Israel. We, the Jewish people, control America, and the Americans know it.” President Trump will have a number of more pressing issues to deal with in MENA.
The Syrian War, now entering its sixth year, has devolved into a bloody stalemate involving the Syrian government in Damascus, numerous fractious rebel groups with different agendas and an assortment of outside actors, also with differing agendas. At the beginning of the uprising in 2011, the U.S. had a choice between collaborating with Russia and Iran to try to reach a peaceful accommodation between the rebel groups and the Syrian government, or arming and supporting the opposition groups in order to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad. The Obama administration, seeing an opportunity to weaken the alliance among Iran, Syria and Lebanese Hezbollah and thereby strengthen the position of Israel in the region, chose the latter course. Obama made this choice knowing that there would be a risk that the resulting conflict would leave space for radical groups, such as al-Qaeda and ISIS to assert themselves. Over time, various other outside actors with differing agendas have intervened in the conflict. Britain, France and the U.S. support so-called moderate opposition groups. Iran, Russia and Hezbollah support the Syrian government. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) support the “Islamist” rebel groups. Turkey supports Turkman rebel groups, is indifferent towards ISIS and opposes the Kurdish opposition groups. President Trump, having vowed to “end overseas intervention and chaos”, will need to answer the question: How does the U.S. benefit from this intervention? He will need to decide to go all in, all out or to continue the current half-measures and prolong the conflict. At best, the end game will probably result in a federated state with pro-forma central government.
In Yemen, the U.S. has intervened in a multifaceted civil war between the Saudi Arabia-supported “government” of “President” Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and numerous opposition forces, including Houthi-led tribal groups, al-Qaeda and ISIS. The U.S. has supported the Saudi intervention by providing intelligence, offering air to air aircraft refueling, selling weapons and at times directly attacking Houthi forces. The U.S. has justified the intervention with the need to secure the adjacent narrow straits through which much of the world’s oil supply flows, and by the desire to maintain a government in Yemen that will accede to operations supporting the “War on Terror.” The intervention has become more difficult to support because of Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets, which has resulted in allegations of war crimes. Once again, differing agendas among the participants make a solution more complicated and difficult.
In 2011, a U.S.-led NATO coalition intervened in Libya in order to overthrow and kill President Muammar Gadhafi. Since that time, the U.S. has largely disengaged from the situation and left behind a civil conflict involving two governments and numerous tribal and radical groups, including al-Qaeda and ISIS. This failed state across the Mediterranean from Europe continues to be a festering sore and a source of terrorists and refugees.
As President Trump considers how to deal with these complicated and messy conflicts, the differing approaches favored by Trump, his advisors, Republican members of Congress, members of his own cabinet and members of the Republican foreign policy establishment will make a coherent policy difficult to achieve. As a result of many years of failed policies in MENA, the U.S. will, absent direct military involvement, have little influence over the outcome. Whatever choices President Trump makes will, however, involve a myriad of opportunities for unintended consequences.