New US president inherits legacy of “perpetual warfare” in the region.
During his election campaign, Trump systematically sold himself as an isolationist, vowing to invest US resources domestically rather than in the Middle East. But his actions in his first 100 days as president have proved otherwise.
His policies on immigration from the region to the US, the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), and peace efforts between Palestine and Israel, have only mired the US deeper into Middle East conflicts.
“Far from an isolationist, as many of his supporters believed him to be, Trump has quickly proven that he remains intent to continue long-standing US military engagement in the Middle East,” Abdullah Al-Arian, an assistant professor of history at Georgetown University in Qatar, told Al Jazeera.
On one of the major conflicts plaguing the Middle East – Syria – Trump promised to become less militarily involved and instead focus on the fight against ISIL. Instead, he sent 59 missiles to a Syrian airbase following a suspected chemical attack in the country.
His lack of consistency, analysts say, renders his foreign policy in the region ambiguous and unpredictable. “Trump appears to have an even lower threshold for the use of force than the Obama administration did, much of it reflecting domestic pressures rather than strategic considerations,” said Al-Arian.
Mahjoob Zweiri, a Doha-based professor of contemporary Arab politics, said the US attack on the Syrian airbase “shows that the US is more proactive. But then again, it was not followed up by any action, politically or militarily.”
And while Trump hinted he would cut funding to the armed opposition fighters in Syria battling President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, he has not taken steps to do so.
Although Trump did not offer a clear plan for defeating ISIL during his campaign period, statements advocating to “bomb the sh*t” out of the group’s oil operations have underscored his pledge to eradicate the group.
Back in 2016, Trump said that it would take 30,000 US troops to defeat ISIL in the Middle East. Last month, the US announced it would send an additional several hundred armed marines to Syria.
Still, it is challenging to predict Trump’s moves in these two countries, said Al-Arian, as decisions are made on a “rash and impulsive basis”.
According to Al-Arian, since Trump does not come from the US political establishment, “his thinking about these questions does not reflect a deep understanding of the geopolitical context nor of the basic mechanics of how American foreign policy works.”
Overturned twice in judicial courts across the US, one of the most controversial moves of Trump’s presidency so far was the executive order that temporarily halted nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the country.
The travel ban, or Muslim ban, fulfilled a key component of Trump’s campaign rhetoric, according to Al-Arian.
In a video that circulated on social media during the campaign, Trump said: “Refugees are pouring into our great country from Syria. We don’t even know who they are. They could be [ISIL]. They could be anybody.”
Also during the election campaign, Trump said there would be a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”.
“[The travel ban] was intended largely for domestic consumption, particularly among his more xenophobic and nationalist supporters who believe in excluding whole swaths of people from the US,” said Al-Arian.
Although the travel ban saw much backlash inside the US, resulting in mass protests that spread across various cities, “for many of the affected populations, the ban confirmed a long-held belief that the US war on terror is in reality a war on Islam”, Al-Arian said.
Earlier this month, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi travelled to Washington on the first diplomatic trip to the US made since he took office back in 2014. Relations between the two countries had soured over the past few years amid Sisi’s crackdown on opponents and Egypt’s human rights abuses.
Analysts say the recently improved relationship is an “interest-based” rather than “values-based” approach.
Sarah Yerkes, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Al Jazeera that it is not in the US interest to manage a country’s civil society. But Egypt’s anti-NGO law has direct consequences for the US because “several Americans have been jailed or tried in absentia as a result of Sisi’s crackdown on civil society”.
Attempting to paint the release of Egyptian-American Aya Hijazi, who was detained for nearly three years in Egypt over accusations related to running a foundation dedicated to helping street children, as a “solo effort” is a false pretext, said Yerkes.
“I think it is important to remember that the Obama administration, and several US and international NGOs, had also spent years fighting for Aya’s release,” she said. “Trump and Sisi are likely to have a far more transactional relationship.”
Egypt has been negotiating billions of dollars in aid from various lenders to help revive an economy hit by political turmoil since the 2011 uprising.
“Sooner rather than later, Sisi will want to see something tangible coming out of this relationship, such as increased military aid or the US designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terror organisation. If nothing materialises, the relationship may very well chill,” said Yerkes.
US-Iranian relations have also shifted under the Trump administration.
Zweiri, an expert on Iranian affairs, noted that Trump was a vocal critic of the Iran nuclear deal even before he won the presidential race, pledging to change and review much of its content.
During a 2016 speech, Trump described the deal as “catastrophic”, pledging to dismantle it if elected president.
“The US will find holes in the deal to capitalise on – and pressure Iran,” Zweiri told Al Jazeera. “We did not have strong statements towards Iran until [US Secretary of State] Rex Tillerson accused Iran of supporting terrorism.”
He believes that this narrative will persist in the lead-up to the Iranian presidential elections, scheduled to take place on May 19.
“Trump is pushing Iran to be more radicalised, which is working because of how they perceive Americans,” Zweiri said, referring to rhetoric used by Iranian leaders to rebuke US policies and sanctions. “We’ll see more of such statements as we move forwards in the Iranian presidential race.”
Asked what to expect of US-Iranian relations moving forward, Zweiri noted that it will depend on Iran’s ties with Russia.
“We should definitely expect more sanctions from the US side to economically isolate Iran further,” he said. “Relations will rely on the results of the Iranian presidential elections, and if Iran is to collaborate with Russia. If it does, it won’t give a damn about the US.
“But if Iran’s relations with Russia deteriorate, it will do what it has done in the past: consider going back to strengthen ties with the European states as a backup to tackle US pressure.”
During his election campaign, Trump promised to strengthen ties with the traditional US ally, Israel. He vowed that “the days of treating Israel like a second-class citizen will end on day one” of his presidency.
Though he did not deliver on some of the promises he made to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump’s attitude towards the Jewish state has been markedly warmer than Obama’s.
Since Trump took office, Israel sanctioned the building of 3,000 more illegal settlement homes in the occupied Palestinian territories. It also decided to build the first new settlement in the West Bank in 20 years, and approved a law that allows the outright theft of Palestinian land.
Trump has drastically dialled down criticism of the illegal Jewish settlements and dropped the US commitment to the two-state solution as the only option for peace in Palestine and Israel. He has also promised to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Alaa Tartir, programme director of Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network, said that through Trump’s unconditional support for Israel, he is “keeping [Israel] immune to international law and safe from any accountability mechanisms, and continuing to deny Palestinian human rights.
“Trump’s summit with Netanyahu in the White House, the proposal to relocate the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the position that Israel’s illegal settlement building on occupied lands is not necessarily an obstacle to peace, and the signals for a regional approach that would redefine the negotiations to Israel’s benefit, are just a few illustrations why the plans of this US administration cannot be trusted, and must be resisted,” Tartir added.