What Will a Trump Re-Election Mean For the Middle East?

The region's future hinges on what happens in November.

With the Middle East awaiting the U.S. elections, there is no significant military or political movement in the region. The Arab world, much like the rest of the world, is preoccupied with the coronavirus crisis, and its severe impact on the local economies in the region. The Arab world, divided into royalist, presidential, and parliamentary systems, none of them democratic, all having conflicting interests, are now in the same boat because of the coronavirus crisis. In Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Syria and the Arab Gulf states, the current focus is on internal issues, specifically health measures that would prevent the spread of coronavirus infections and the economic impact it has caused. As far as external issues are concerned, there is a conundrum. Who will be the next U.S. president? Many external decisions will await the results of the U.S. presidential elections, and the direction of the next American president.

Iran is not an Arab country, but it too is enmeshed in recovering from the economic damage caused by the coronavirus, and the impact of the U.S. sanctions on its failing economy. The regime is burdened by the lack of credibility and trustworthiness. The ayatollahs poor handling of the coronavirus crisis, coupled with the downing of the Ukrainian jetliner by the Iranian military in January, 2020, at the loss of 176 lives, exposed the regimes incompetence. Then they lied about it. The Islamic Republic of Iran is hoping for a Democrat party victory in the November, 2020 U.S. elections, and the defeat of Donald Trump in particular. They are expecting that Joe Biden as President will end the sanctions and rejoin the 5+1 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Iraq is now more stable, following six months of failed attempts to form a government. The new Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, a former head of Intelligence, is not an Iranian puppet. He is committed to lead Iraq out of its economic crisis, due in part to the collapse of the price of oil, Iraq’s primary export. Iraq has also endured a health crisis brought about by the coronavirus, and a resurgent Islamic State terrorism (IS). The appointment of al-Kadhimi as prime minister, and the strengthened position of the Kurdish President of Iraq, Barham Salih, (this reporter interviewed Barham Salih in 1993), both of them reformers, has dealt a blow to the pro-Iranian groups in Iraq. The election of al-Kadhimi was welcomed by Washington.

While the election of al-Kadhimi is a positive strategic development for both Baghdad and Washington, the resurfacing of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria is a major concern. The Islamic State is once again displaying its familiar cruelties. The Sunni-Muslim tribes in western and central Iraq that oppose the IS are its major victims. IS took advantage of Iraq’s military preoccupation with the coronavirus, which created a vacuum that enabled the previously defeated Caliphate to rise again, not as a political entity, but as a guerrilla-terrorist group. Disaffected Iraqi Sunnis, including former Saddam Hussein loyalists, are among those who have joined the IS terrorists. The Iraqi Shiite-Muslim militias have been leaderless since the U.S. Special Forces eliminated Iran’s Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. (IRGC), and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, commander of the Iraqi-Shiite Popular Mobilization Committee.

Islamic State terrorists are operating in southeastern Syria as well as in northern and central Sinai Peninsula. The Egyptian army has been unable to dislodge them from Sinai. Another affiliate of Islamic State is active in the southern Golan Heights near the triangle where the borders of Israel, Jordan, and Syria converge. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) fears that should the Iraqi security forces fail to deal effectively with IS, the jihadist group might enter Jordan as well, and that might require Israeli intervention. The resurfacing of IS has tamed the demands of Iraqi Shiite politicians and their militias to oust the 5,200 U.S. troops in Iraq, following the killing of Suleimani and al-Muhandis.  The U.S. troops main missions in Iraq are counterterrorism and the training of Iraqi forces.

According to the New York Times (June 10, 2020), “The Trump administration, which sees the American presence (in Iraq) as crucial for tamping down the resurgence of IS, and as a bulwark against Iranian power in Iraq, wants to keep a substantial force there.” The U.S. is likewise interested in reducing the economic dependency between Baghdad and Tehran, primarily Iraq’s current need for Iranian energy. The U.S. wants to help Iraq become self-sufficient in energy production. The Iraqis, on their part, want guarantees that the U.S. will not initiate a conflict with Iran on Iraqi soil. The latter constitutes a key issue in the negotiations between the U.S. and Iraq over the future presence of U.S. troops in Iraq.

In Syria, all the parties partaking in the conflict are stuck in their positions. The Assad regime, Russians, Iranians, and the Turks, have not achieved their ultimate goal. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Front (SDF), working with U.S. forces, has actually made some headway in fighting against the IS terrorists. At the same time, they have prevented the Iranians from establishing a land corridor from Iraq to southeastern Syria. The economic situation in Syria has deteriorated to a point where Assad loyalists in the district of Latakia, and other parts of Syria controlled by the Assad regime, are protesting against regime’s economic mismanagement. The recent U.S. sanctions that targeted Bashar Assad and his wife Asma, didn’t make life for the regime easier. Assad and his loyalists are also awaiting the upcoming U.S. elections, hoping for Trump’s defeat. 

The coronavirus crisis in Lebanon worsened the already insolvent economy. Beirut is unable to repay its loans, and the Lebanese currency has lost much of its value. Inflation in Lebanon is out of control. Protesters in the streets of Beirut and Tripoli are blaming much of the malaise in the country on Hezbollah, which pulls the government strings behind the scenes. The protesters blame Hezbollah and its government of preferring the interests of Iran over those of the people of Lebanon. The American sanctions add to Lebanon’s financial tribulations. The government of Lebanon, like that of the Iranian and Syrian regimes, is praying for a Trump defeat.

An opinion piece in Egypt’s Daily News (June 10, 2020) by Mohamed El-Seidy, a member of Egypt’s Coalition of Party Youth Leaders and Politicians (CPYP) opined that, “The Trump administration proved efficient from the economic standpoint, bringing unemployment rates down to less than 2%. President Trump upheld his election promises, promises like ending the war and bringing the troops back, and getting proper financial remission from countries that have benefited from U.S. support, such as Saudi Arabia. He has also had success on promises he made to lower taxes, bringing businesses back to the US and creating jobs.” Given his disagreements with the Obama administration, it is likely that Egypt’s President al-Sisi would prefer a second Trump term. The U.S. has recently endorsed al-Sisi’s cease-fire agreement in Libya.

Saudi Arabia, and its Gulf Cooperation Council partners, would prefer a Trump victory. They support his Iran policy, and fear that the Democrats would return to the JCPOA, and a more pro-Iranian stance.

In Israel, the Netanyahu government is anxious to extend Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley, and Israeli law to the Jewish communities therein, while Trump is in office. A majority of Israelis are opting for a Trump victory in November. 

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