With the election of Donald Trump, things are poised to get even worse in an already troubled region.
While little is known about the details of Trump’s approach to regional issues, his support for disengaging America from conflicts and areas he does not perceive as central to US interests and his talk of forging better relations with Vladimir Putin point to greater Russian influence.
“Russia is intent on a larger role in the Middle East, while Trump’s intention is to be less involved. That gives Putin more room to maneuver,’’ explained Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
The Assad regime can now pursue its Russian- backed bid to achieve a military victory over rebels without fear of US intervention, which had been a possibility had Hillary Clinton been elected. The regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt can now crack down further on opposition without fear of any criticism of its human rights record. And Saudi Arabia and Gulf states, sensing that the diminution of the US role under the Obama administration is now accentuated, will have to figure out ways to adjust.
Israel also will have to grapple with changes that could harm its interests.
“Trump will be more willing to let the cards fall as they may in terms of regional reordering, and even to defer to Russian and even Iranian ambitions rather than confront them head on,” said Julien Barnes-Dacey, a Middle East specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Brussels.
Clinton had signaled she would stake out a more activist US role in Syria after President Barack Obama, influenced by the disastrous US invasion of Iraq, studiously avoided intervention even after the Syrian regime crossed a “redline” he had set by using chemical weapons in 2013.
Russia, in contrast, has intervened militarily with its air strikes, enabling the Assad regime to get the upper hand in the fighting.
More than 400,000 people have died since the conflict began in 2011. Clinton had called for establishing a no fly zone and “safe zones’’ in Syria to protect civilians from the Assad regime.
Trump, in contrast, has indicated his administration would not focus on the Assad regime as an enemy. “What we should do is focus on [fighting] ISIS. We should not be focusing on Syria,” he told Reuters recently.
Trump last month all but conceded the besieged city of Aleppo to the Assad regime, arguing that it “basically has fallen.” Russia and the Syrian regime forces will now feel freer than ever to brutally pursue a military victory.
“One of the big losers of this election will be the Syrian people,’’ said Hamid, the author of Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle over Islam is Reshaping the World. “The Assad regime already believed the momentum was on their side and Trump’s victory will only embolden them further, diplomatically and militarily.”
As for the Russians, “they will put a lot of energy in Syria and have cooperation with as many autocratic regimes as possible – a process they’ve already started,” said Hamid.
Barnes-Dacey believes the Trump administration may come around to the Russian view that all the anti-Assad fighters in Syria are extremists, something that would strengthen the Russian and Iranian position and deal a blow to actors in the region working against Iranian hegemony.
“There could be the possibility of greater ideological convergence between the Americans and the Russians on the nature of the regional threat and how best to confront it. Trump’s vision of the threat posed by ISIS is closer to Putin than Riyadh,” he said.
Without any prospect of being able to count on the US, regional players that once relied on Washington will feel even more of a need to shape their interests unilaterally, meaning that a process of countries tugging in different ways that has already wracked the region will be accelerated, said Barnes-Dacey.
“If that trend continues, the sense of drift and breakdown of regional order will be accentuated, he said.
“On the battlefields of Yemen, Syria and Iraq, there certainly won’t be any sense the Americans are there to own the course of developments. The Saudis will be feeling ever more threatened and insecure and without Clinton to watch their back they could dive in more deeply to eke out a victory in Yemen,’’ he continued.
Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, a specialist on Middle East politics at Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center, also predicts heightened instability.
“No one in the region knows how the US will behave. People are guessing the policy won’t be coherent and, therefore, it’s every man for himself,” he said.
“Perceptions count for a lot,’’ he added. “If the perception is that the US won’t make the Middle East a priority to stabilize the area, then that has consequences. Who is going to be a US ally, trust the US and put their eggs in the US basket?’’ he asked. “I don’t see any of the actors [doing so]. There is Israel, but I don’t think anyone in Israel knows what this means either.’’ Trump is unlikely to follow through on his campaign pledge to tear up the nuclear agreement with Iran, according to Maddy-Weitzman, who believes the new president could be more vocal in confronting Tehran, which would strengthen Iranian hardliners.
“A deterioration in the arrangement is possible. It’s possible things could unravel,’’ he said.
Jordan also has reason to be concerned about Trump’s victory, Maddy-Weitzman said, predicting that, if there is an escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Trump administration supports a more assertive rightwing Israeli posture regarding Jerusalem, the Temple Mount and the West Bank, that will impact on Jordan.
“Public opinion in Jordan is very sensitive to what goes on here. That alone can threaten the monarchy and force the monarchy to line up behind public opinion," he said.
On the whole, the decreased US involvement expected under the Trump administration will be harmful to Israel’s position, Maddy- Weitzman continued.
“If the US is not involved, the balance of power will be affected negatively. The strengthening of Russian influence and the efforts by Iran and Turkey to project power are not in Israel’s interests."
“The US has a role to play in maintaining a balance of power in which Israel can thrive and survive. Without that balance, it’s a more dangerous region.”