Analysis

Trump Sees All Terrorist Groups as the Same, but Convincing Arab Countries Won't Be So Easy

Trump groups ISIS, Al-Qaida, Hezbollah and Hamas together as terror organizations, but they differ drastically in policy and approach

U.S. President Donald Trump poses for a photo with leaders of Arab and Muslim-majority countries during Arab-Islamic-American Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 21, 2017.
JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS

Only Saudi Arabia could have arranged such an impressive reception for a visiting dignitary. Now the dozens of leaders who attended the Arab-American-Islamic Summit in Riyadh on Sunday have to figure out how to implement the policy described by U.S. President Donald Trump.

In his speech to the Muslim world, Trump mentioned four organizations in a single sentence: the Islamic State, Al-Qaida, Hezbollah and Hamas. He grouped all four together as terror organizations, though they differ drastically in policy and approach.

To American and Israeli ears, Trump's classification both matters and makes sense, but it will be difficult for the Arab and Muslim world to join hands and fight terrorism based on his understanding of the four groups. The first to parse the issue was Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, who said in a compelling speech that the fight against terrorism also has to target its sponsors – those who provide terror organizations “safe havens,” financial support and “media presence.”

Sissi didn’t name names, but Qatar and Turkey surely took the hint: Both support the Muslim Brotherhood, which was banned in Egypt in 2013 and designated a terrorist group in 2014.

The mention of Hamas as a terrorist organization also places Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a sticky situation. He constantly speaks of reconciliation with the movement that rules the Gaza Strip and treats it as a legitimate Palestinian offshoot; his struggle against Hamas is constrained by fear of anarchy in Gaza. Qatar and Turkey also play host to Hamas leaders and are unlikely to change this policy in any extreme way.

Unlike the other three organizations that Trump mentioned, Hezbollah is not supported by Sunni nations. It is a key player in Lebanon, Syria and the whole region. The Lebanese president, Michel Aoun, an ally of Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, wasn’t even invited to the Riyadh summit – though Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a protégé of Saudi Arabia, was. But Saudi Arabia and Hariri both know that escalating the fight against Hezbollah could throw Lebanon into chaos.

Trump’s address also brings up questions about the war in Syria. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are considered stalwart backers of the Syrian opposition, mainly its Islamic elements, some of which identify with extreme ideology of the type denounced by the American president. If these countries weaken their support, they could abandon the opposition in their struggle against Syrian President Bashar Assad, Iran and Hezbollah.

The Arab world also knows perfectly well that the rich Gulf nations embrace more than a few extremist religious personalities who preach their fiery rhetoric daily to hundreds of millions of viewers through satellite television. Moving around the broadcast schedule won’t affect a thing; change will take sweeping reforms and a secular turn that many of the Arab nations, first and foremost Saudi Arabia, cannot afford to take.

The truth is that most Arab and Muslim regimes are primarily preoccupied with preserving their power and safeguarding their interests, not advancing the cause of democracy and human rights. The United States never fought for democracy and human rights either, but for its own economic and security interests. It seems unlikely to change its tune in that respect under Trump. If the U.S. really does want to fight terrorism and religious extremism, it needs to demand democracy in the Arab world, including of the summit's host, Saudi Arabia, and act to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.