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What a second term for Trump could mean for the region

Sep 15,2020 - Last updated at Sep 15,2020

President Donald Trump’s quest for a second term this November is proving to be difficult but not impossible. The Covid-19 pandemic has claimed the lives of more than 190,000 Americans so far and it is now the single main factor that threatens his comeback. But as recent polls show, the gap between him and Democratic candidate Joe Biden is closing as the US enters one of the most bizarre election seasons in history. A defiant Trump is questioning the integrity of mail-in voting, which favors the Democrats, and is warning that the November 3 poll could be rigged.

Pundits are predicting that final election results could take weeks and maybe months to tally and that a cumbersome legal battle lies ahead. If he loses Trump will contest the outcome amid a deeply polarised America. Either way the US faces tough months ahead. 

But what would a second term for Trump mean for the Middle East. A flamboyant Trump has stacked a couple of important foreign policy victories ahead of the November elections. Last week Bahrain followed the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in announcing its intentions to normalise ties with Israel, and the White House will witness the signing of historic agreements that will boost Trump’s image as a peacemaker in a region beset by conflicts and turmoil.

Other Arab countries could take similar steps before the elections, but if Trump wins a second term we could expect to see a new normal in the region where Israel would emerge as the backbone of a new regional alliance. Trump will continue to decrease America’s physical presence in the region while backing a proxy Israeli-Arab alliance that is aimed at confronting threats posed by Iran and Turkey. Gulf countries in particular see both countries as expanding their influence in the Arab region and as posing an existential threat. This is Trump’s new security doctrine for the region. Among its chief consequences is the disengagement by Israel’s new allies from what used to be the central Arab cause; the Palestinian Question.

For the latter, Trump’s vision for peace between Israel and the Palestinians will remain as one of many initiatives to settle a decades-old conflict. A second term for Trump is less likely to push for such a settlement. Trump’s peace team will focus their efforts on cementing the new Israeli-Arab alliance and its gestures towards the Palestinians, if any, will be disingenuous.

Trump will push for further US troop withdrawals from Iraq, Afghanistan and at one point Syria. His anti-Iran strategy will remain intact in line with the newly formed Israeli-Arab alliance. A second term for Trump will be catastrophic for cash strapped Iran. The containment of Iran will add pressure on the regime but it will push Tehran further towards Russia and China. The collapse of the regime will not be imminent and hardliners are likely to expand their control of the state at the expense of so-called moderates. Iranian meddling in Iraqi and Syrian affairs will continue. For Iraq further US troop withdrawal will make Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi’s mission in confronting rogue militias harder. Trump’s priority will be to bring the troops home at any expense. 

Further regional polarisation will deepen as the US relies further on regional proxies. Trump has no clear strategy in dealing with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is emerging as a destabilising factor in the region. Whether it is Iraq, Syria, Libya, Qatar or East Mediterranean, Ankara has become a key player with an ambitious colonial agenda. Its alliance with Russia, in defiance of NATO of which it is a member, has gone unchecked by Washington. A second term for Trump is unlikely to change his attitude towards Erdogan’s regional adventures.

The biggest regional challenge under Trump’s second term will be the question of who will fill the vacuum left by the US departure. Russia’s intervention in Syria in 2015 has become a milestone in Moscow’s rising regional influence, which has now stretched to Libya, Turkey, Iran and even Iraq. We are more likely to see an active Russian diplomatic, economic and military activity in the region under a second Trump term. America’s departure from the region will also give China the chance to extend its economic influence and build new partnerships.

Trump’s victory will underline new geopolitical realities with the Israeli-Arab alliance taking centre stage. It will be interesting to see how long this alliance can endure and how it will be tested. The United States will nurture it but it will coincide with a deliberate withdrawal from a region that Trump sees as becoming less important strategically for America. It remains to be seen how this US disengagement will lead to in terms of the formation of new alliances and the evolution of local conflicts in countries like Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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