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How Donald Trump will make Russia great again in the Middle East

The president-elect may strike a deal with Putin that could do real damage

By David Gardner

Donald Trump has his admirers in the Middle East, in spite of his stigmatisation of Muslims and ostensible tolerance of anti-Semites. Yet the burning question is whether he plans to douse a region already in flames with more petrol. Local citizens find it no easier than anyone else to deduce Trumpian policy from bullet points that are all bullet. But many sense that, even if the next US president turns out to be a blip and most of his rhetoric bluster, he could do real damage in the Middle East.
It is not that liberal democracy has had much purchase in the region. But if the west was often regarded with mistrust for its support for tyrants, the US now risks discredit as the spiritual home of illiberal democracy, led by a champion of national populism. Mr. Trump will get along just fine with local strongmen.
Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian army chief who took power in 2013 in what was initially a popularly backed coup, was among the first to congratulate him. The president-elect has argued against too much criticism of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the purges that followed this July’s failed coup in Turkey. The construction tycoon, in any case, makes them look moderate since neither leader publicly endorses torture or killing the families of terror suspects.
In broad terms, a Trump administration will almost certainly de-emphasise human rights, gender equality and the rule of law. Man-made climate change afflicts the ancient fertile crescent but, unlike Mr. Trump, its inhabitants probably doubt it is “a hoax” (drought and desertification were factors behind the initial uprising in Syria).
The fixation of Barack Obama’s administration is the defeat of Isis in Syria and Iraq. That will remain true under a Trump administration, but with a difference. President Obama lost interest in helping Sunni rebels topple Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Mr. Trump seems inclined towards co-operating with President Vladimir Putin, Mr. Assad’s patron and another strongman soulmate, in ways that will do more to make Russia than America great again.
US-Russian co-operation may abate the Assad regime’s plans to obliterate the rebels. “Unwilling to commit the resources to permit the opposition to prevail, the US and the EU have to come to terms with the fact that the Assad regime has won, thanks to Russian support”, says Eugene Rogan, professor of modern Middle Eastern history at Oxford university. “The most the US and EU can achieve now is to work with Russia and the Assad regime to ensure that victory is not followed by mass retaliation against the opposition”.
Just as Turkey’s tilt towards Russia since the summer has changed the dynamics of the Syrian battlefield, a Trump-Putin “reset” would change regional politics, but probably not in any smooth or linear way. The Trump administration’s main regional pivot, for example, may be on Iran. Mr. Trump has excoriated last year’s deal between Iran and US-led world powers to shrink Tehran’s nuclear capability.
The nuclear accord was incorporated into international law by the UN Security Council, so it is not that simple for Washington to rip it up. It would be easier to tighten further existing US Treasury “secondary” sanctions on Iran for its foreign adventurism. Yet that could start fights with western partners if the treasury shuts them out of the US banking system for doing business with Iran. Cosying up to Mr. Putin, moreover, will not only antagonise the EU, especially if the US removes Ukraine-related sanctions on Moscow.
Russia’s main ally in Syria and the region is Iran and its proxies such as Hizbollah, Lebanon’s Shia paramilitaries. And then there is Israel. The antipathy between Mr. Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli premier, has obscured how pro-Israel the outgoing administration has been. It granted Israel the US’s biggest military aid package. And, of nine US presidents since Israel took the West Bank in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Mr. Obama is the only one to have used the US veto to shield Israel completely from condemnation in the UN Security Council. Even Mr Trump will find it hard to better that. But the president-elect is more likely to abet the Netanyahu government’s irredentism he and his advisers muse about Israel annexing the West Bank and recognising Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and to encourage new attacks on Hamas in Gaza and Hizbollah in Lebanon.
Far-right Israeli cabinet members such as Naftali Bennett have hailed Mr Trump’s election as ending all discussion of a Palestinian state more important to the Greater Israel crowd than the future US president’s consorting with anti-Semites.
‘Courtesy The Financial Times’.

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