January 16, 2017
For understandable reasons, President-elect Donald Trump’s press conference and the Senate confirmation hearings of his team could not reflect a well-coordinated foreign and security policy approach. A reluctance to go into specifics as well as conflicting views were only to be expected. And, it appears that America’s coming to peace with a contentious election and Mr. Trump’s personal style will take time. Nonetheless, there are some clues regarding the incoming administration’s policy towards the Middle East.
To start with, this is what Mr. Trump said in response to a question on relations with Russia:
“Well, if — if Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability, because we have a horrible relationship with Russia. Russia can help us fight ISIS, which, by the way, is, number one, tricky. I mean if you look, this administration created ISIS by leaving at the wrong time. The void was created, ISIS was formed.
“If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks? That’s called an asset, not a liability.
“Now, I don’t know that I’m gonna get along with Vladimir Putin. I hope I do. But there’s a good chance I won’t. And if I don’t, do you honestly believe that Hillary would be tougher on Putin than me? Does anybody in this room really believe that? Give me a break.”
During the Senate confirmation hearings, Mr. Tillerson said that Russia has sought to re-establish its role in the global order since the fall of the former Soviet Union; NATO allies are right to be alarmed at a resurgent Russia; the US under Mr. Trump’s leadership will try to find common ground with the Russian government; the US needs “to move Russia from being an adversary always to being an adversary at times and a partner at times”; but the US must hold Russia accountable for its actions. Surprisingly, he added: “We aren’t likely to ever be friends…our value systems are starkly different.”
Later, Mr. Tillerson also said that Saudi Arabia does not share the same values as America.
General Mattis placed Russia first among principal threats facing the United States. He said: “The most important thing is that we recognize the reality of what we deal with Mr. Putin and we recognize that he is trying to break the North Atlantic Alliance, and that we take the steps to defend ourselves where we must.”
On the nuclear deal with Iran, Mr. Tillerson said that he would like to know whether Iran is complying with the agreement and would like to review the ability to verify that Iran is complying.
General Mattis, called Iran “the primary source of turmoil” in the Middle East. As for the nuclear deal, he said:
“I think it is in an imperfect arms control agreement — it’s not a friendship treaty but when America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies.”
Mr. Tillerson stated that Israel has always been and remains America’s most important ally in the region. He expressed disapproval of UN Security Council Resolution 2334 of December 23, 2016 on the situation in the Middle East as undermining the prospects for direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. He also said that he supported a two-state solution, “the dream that everyone is in pursuit of.”
Asked if Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, General Mattis said that he is sticking with longstanding US policy which is that the US does not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. And, when asked whether he would support the moving of the US embassy to Jerusalem he responded by saying that the new secretary of state would be right person to answer the question.
On the US invasion of Iraq, Mr. Tillerson stated that the invasion did not achieve its objectives. Unlike Mr. Trump he did not blame the emergence of ISIS on America’s untimely withdrawal from Iraq but admitted that defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria won’t get rid of the group once and for all. “It will simply morph to its next version,” he added. Mr. Tillerson said that Mr. Trump believes it’s important that the U.S. does not lightly go into conflicts and that he would “seek the engagement of Congress” and “support of Congress” in certain situations abroad.
On the fight against ISIS, General Mattis said that that the US strategy for Raqqa “needs to be reviewed and perhaps energized on a more aggressive timeline.”
In responding to a question as to what the US should do about re-engaging in the Middle East after negotiations were already underway between Syria, Turkey and Russia, Mr. Tillerson emphasized a re-engagement with America’s traditional allies, and sharing with them where to go in Syria. He said absent the US’ role, Turkey had to turn to Russia which in his opinion was a not a sustainable alliance.
Mr. Tillerson argued that the US must be honest about “radical Islam”. He said:
“It is with good reason that our fellow citizens have a growing concern about radical Islam and murderous acts committed in its name against Americans and our friends… Radical Islam poses a grave risk to the stability of nations and the well-being of their citizens.”
He stated that he would support Muslims around the world “who reject radical Islam in all its forms.” He said that he does not support a travel ban on Muslims, but also referred to challenges. “I do not support a blanket-type rejection of any particular group of people,” he said.
One may conclude from the foregoing that the Trump administration would
- need a good deal of time to review America’s current foreign and security challenges to be able to formulate coherent policies;
- try to strike a balance between working with Russia to defeat ISIS/international terrorism and reacting to what it perceives as Russian moves threatening the security of the US as well as its allies;
- be likely to regard Russia’s predominant role in Syria as an asset rather than a hindrance in fighting violent extremism;
- not substantially increase Washington’s military involvement in Syria and Iraq but focus on “energizing” efforts to recapture Mosul and Raqqa;
- try to reinforce relations with Middle East allies and partners and ensure greater unity of purpose among them;
- try to address Washington’s regional allies’ particularly Turkey’s and Saudi Arabia’s grievances against the Obama administration without necessarily endorsing their game plans;
- stress Iran nuclear deal’s verification procedures rather than challenging it as a whole;
- give more verbal support Israel and approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with lesser urgency. (As Secretary Kerry recently remarked, the Obama administration has already concluded with Israel a historic $38 billion memorandum of understanding that exceeds any military assistance package the United States has provided to any country, at any time, and that will sustain Israel’s qualitative military edge for years to come.)
In his famous Cairo speech of June 4, 2009 President Obama had called for dialogue with the Islamic world. The Middle East has undergone dramatic change since then and Mr. Trump appears to have a different disposition than Mr. Obama. So, how the new administration would try mobilize those Muslims “who reject radical Islam in all its forms” as mentioned by Mr. Tillerson remains to be seen.
As for Turkey, the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) government will undoubtedly prioritize the extradition of Fethullah Gulen and the elimination of whatever support Washington has been providing to YPG/PYD, both of which are perceived as existential threats to Turkey’s peace and security. On Gulen’s extradition, the Obama administration has underlined its obligation to respect due process. The Trump administration is likely to take the same position. The question of US support to YPG/PYD may be a more difficult issue to resolve because of a complicated regional picture and the imperative to defeat ISIS sooner than later. To avoid an early and unnecessary clash on this issue, the Turkish government would need to take a broad look at its relationship with Washington and the Trump administration would need to realize that Turkey will have to be reassured somehow on this problem if relations are to be upgraded. And, Ankara would have to weigh carefully the risks and benefits of further military involvement in Syria.
In an attempt to pave the way for a smooth beginning, Turkish foreign minister Çavuşoğlu told journalists last Thursday in Geneva that the US should definitely be invited to Astana talks on Syria and that is what Turkey had agreed with Russia. He said: “Nobody can ignore the role of the United States. And this is a principled position of Turkey.”
The next day, the Washington Post reported that Russia has invited the incoming Trump administration to Syrian peace talks and that the invitation was extended to Mr. Trump’s designated national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, in a phone call by Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador in Washington on December 28.
It appears that both Moscow and Ankara are trying to create a window of opportunity to mend fences with Washington and that the Astana meeting was deliberately scheduled to follow Inauguration Day.
The overarching reason for the downturn Ankara’s relations with Washington has been a combination of former’s departure from the democratic path and differences over Syria. With the Trump administration, Turkey’s internal developments may no longer carry the same weight. However, Mr. Trump with his grandiose approaches may prove to be a tougher partner for the Turkish government than Mr. Obama who emphasized dialogue and multilateralism in foreign relations. During the last months of the Obama presidency, the Turkish government engaged in strong anti-US rhetoric because of the disagreement over US support to the YPG/PYD. And, some media outlets came up with conspiracy theories in which the West was assigned a central role. Thus, the JDP government may also have an internal public opinion problem as it tries to achieve a reset with the new US administration.
Before getting involved in the Syrian conflict Ankara had maintained strong relations with both its major ally US and major partner Russia without conflicts of interest. Now, in a period of uncertainty, it has to perform a balancing act.