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World & Nation

Here’s what might happen in the Middle East under a Trump presidency

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Donald Trump with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi at the Plaza Hotel in New York in September.
(Dominick Reuter /AFP/Getty Images)

Will the Middle East slide into even greater chaos during Donald Trump’s presidency?

Some potential scenarios: An expanded offensive against Islamic State could take precedence over all else. Syria’s president could cling to power. Russia’s regional ambitions could go unchecked. Strongmen could flourish, and sectarian rivalries become more inflamed. Already fading hopes for Israeli-Palestinian peace could dim even more.

Of course, it’s hard to say what Trump will do when he takes office in January. During months of campaigning, the GOP candidate was long on bombast but short on specifics, firing off machine-gun bursts of rhetoric that veered wildly from one day to the next. Muslims — whether refugees, militants or ordinary citizens — were often painted as a distinct threat.

Leaders across the region are watching to see which of the Republican president-elect’s pronouncements can be written off as electioneering bluster, and which seem destined to mark U.S. policy making in one of the most highly volatile parts of the world.

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Islamic State, and the question of how best to confront it, lies at the heart of what many in the foreign-policy establishment regard as some of the more combustible elements of the incoming president’s world view.

In statements before and after the election, Trump has indicated that a stepped-up fight  against the group is sufficient reason to team up with Russian President Vladimir Putin, openly distrusted by the Obama White House, and to abandon support for the rebel factions seeking to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad. 

Assad — a leader the Obama administration has said should face justice for war crimes against his own people — posited this week in an interview with a Portuguese broadcast outlet that Trump could prove a “natural ally” in the fight against extremists. Assad routinely portrays all those seeking to oust him as terrorists.

After the Nov. 8 election, Islamic State’s propaganda machine celebrated Trump’s victory. It pointed to Trump’s harshest campaign positions — including his call to ban Muslims from entering the United States — as proof that the president-elect’s true agenda was a war on Islam, and that Muslims could never achieve acceptance in Western societies.

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“Trump’s win of the American presidency will bring hostility of Muslims against America as a result of his reckless actions, which show the overt and hidden hatred against them,” declared the Islamic State-affiliated al Minbar Jihadi Media network, according to the U.S.-based SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist communiques.

The outlet heralded “glad tidings in the imminent demise of America at the hands of Trump,” according to SITE.

Some analysts, though, expressed doubts that even Trump’s most bellicose remarks provided any real recruiting boost to Islamic State, which has seen its so-called caliphate shrink dramatically over the last year. U.S.-backed forces are laying siege to Mosul, the group’s major urban foothold in Iraq, and moving to isolate Raqqah in Syria, its self-declared capital.

Islamic State recruiting “has been going down for reasons that have nothing to do with Donald Trump, and a lot to do with being defeated militarily,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I’d be reluctant to say he has advantaged them so far.”

As Trump surrounds himself with  some senior aides who have little or no experience in the foreign policy arena,  some analysts are predicting a rude awakening when he learns that many of his most strident pledges contradict each other.

Particularly delicate is the ever-sharpening rivalry between the region’s Sunni Muslim powers, led by Saudi Arabia, and the other regional heavyweight, Shiite Muslim Iran.

Their proxy struggles have fueled catastrophic conflict in places like Yemen, where 18 months of fighting between a Saudi-led military coalition and Shiite Muslim Houthi rebels have left some 10,000 people dead. Trump has said he would scrap the landmark nuclear accord with Iran — a pledge that may be impractical because there are other signatories — but such a step, like the striking of the deal, would roil those regional struggles. 

“If [Trump] goes after Islamic State, that strengthens the hand of Shiite actors, Syria and Hezbollah,” said Osama Abi-Mershed, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. “But if he’s serious about going against Iran, there will be resistance from Putin, and it would be in the interest of the Sunni regimes.”

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When it comes to winning trust among ordinary citizens in the Arab world, some analysts say, Trump may benefit from the fact that the bar for success has been set relatively low.

Many across the region are deeply disillusioned by the consequences of U.S. policy, including Washington’s inability to stem nearly six years of bloodletting in Syria, continuing bloody fallout of the  2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and mistrust of Muslims as an ongoing motif since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. 

But views expressed by Trump and some surrogates have generated a new wave of anxiety. The president-elect had said early in the campaign that he would set up a database of Muslims living in the United States, stirring alarm among Muslims at home and abroad.

] This week, a member of  Trump’s transition team, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, suggested the new administration might set up a national registry for immigrants from countries where terrorist groups were active. And prominent Trump supporter Carl Higbie said in a broadcast interview this week that “precedent” had been set by the United States’ World War II-era internments of Japanese Americans — now officially viewed as a deeply shameful historic episode.      

The sardonic and widely followed Libyan American commentator Hend Amry tweeted: “I’ll submit my religious identity to Trump’s Muslim registry when …” with an image of hanging icicles and a road sign reading “Hell.”

As president, Trump will have to deal with the fallout from powerful forces unleashed by the Arab Spring uprisings nearly six years ago, which produced a splintering that has not yet fully played out — ongoing conflict in Libya, flaring instability in Egypt, and eroding human rights in Turkey and in American-allied Persian Gulf states.

Human rights groups have raised fears that the new era will bring a halt to U.S. diplomacy that seeks to rein in abuses by authoritarian-minded governments.

Two regional strongmen — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi — warmly welcomed Trump’s election.

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The Obama administration has applied sporadic pressure over well-documented rights abuses by Sisi, who took power in a military coup that toppled elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. But in talks with Trump on the sidelines of the U.N. Security Council in September, Sisi positioned himself as a bulwark against Islamic extremists.

In NATO ally Turkey, Erdogan is bristling over criticism of a wide-ranging purge following a failed coup against him in July, and has taken a sharply anti-Western stance of late. On Thursday, in a speech delivered in Pakistan, Erdogan  said the West supported Islamic State — an echo of Trump’s charge that President Obama and former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton  “founded” the group.

Turkey’s role in the Syria conflict has been particularly fraught because of its intense hostility toward Kurdish-led Syrian rebels, which the U.S. supports and considers the best foot soldiers against Islamic State. Erdogan considers them aligned with the Kurdish separatists of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, in Turkey, on whom the Turkish leader has been waging war.

Elsewhere,  the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians may see a reversal of decades of U.S. policy.  

The Obama administration made no headway in advancing the U.S. support for a negotiated dual-state solution, but Trump has appeared to lean notably in the direction of Israel’s right-wing government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had icy relations with President Obama.  

The president-elect has suggested that Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank — decried by the Palestinians as undermining any future state — is not an obstacle to peace, and has also said he would move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which Palestinians would view as a blow to their hopes that a sector of the city would be their capital.

“Trump’s election does not bode well for the Palestinians,” said Diana Bhuttu, an analyst and former adviser to Palestinian negotiators, adding that she feared his presidency would “legitimize Israel’s denial of freedom” to the Palestinians.

Trump has at times advocated intervention — including “bombing the hell out” of Islamic State — but at times suggested that involvement in Middle East conflicts is not in U.S. interests. In the Arab world, many believe that his election may usher in a more hands-off era — and that it would not necessarily be a bad thing.

“He’s basically isolationist,” said Mahmoud Mattar, a merchant in Damascus’ Old City. “The only thing I like about him is that he wants nothing to do with the rest of the world.”

Special correspondent Nabih Bulos in Damascus contributed to this report.

laura.king@latimes.com

@laurakingLAT

Special correspondent Nabih Bulos in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.

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