In Trump, Middle East Dictators Find a Potential Partner

The president-elect's slogan, 'We need allies,' will cover any deviation, however horrifying, from international law or human rights conventions.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during the United Solidarity and Brotherhood rally in Gaziantep, Turkey, August 28, 2016.
Umit Bektas, Reuters

A few days after the unsuccessful attempted coup in Turkey in July, then-candidate Donald Trump reacted to the way in which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had suppressed the rebels. “I do give great credit to him for turning it around,” he said about Erdogan in an interview with The New York Times.

That compliment was like balm to the Turkish president, who had been harshly criticized by the European Union and the United States administration for the extensive arrests of both those implicated in the attempted coup and his political rivals and critics at home.

And what is Trump’s opinion of Turkish human rights violations in general? “I think right now, when it comes to civil liberties, our country has a lot of problems, and I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country,” he said in the interview. “We have tremendous problems when you have policemen being shot in the streets.”

It seemed at that moment as though Trump was quoting Erdogan, who leveled similar complaints against the U.S. administration and the EU.

When asked by the interviewer:  “So that suggests that you would not as, say, President Bush did, the last President Bush, make the spread of democracy and liberty sort of a core of your foreign policy. You would say, ‘We need allies, we’re not going to lecture them about what they do inside their borders,’” Trump replied: “We need allies.”

But Erdogan’s joy was not complete. Trump also said, “I’m a big fan of the Kurdish forces,” in the same interview and that he thought “Turkey can do a lot against ISIS, and I would hope that if I’m dealing with them, they will do much more about ISIS,” hinting strongly that he has adopted the view that Turkey helped ISIS to establish itself in Syria.

All in all, the Turkish administration can be pleased. As Erdogan emphasized in his letter of congratulation on Trump’s victory, “This is a new leaf in Turkish-U.S. relations,” adding that he hoped the new president would take useful steps to promote basic rights and freedoms. Members of President Barack Obama’s administration must have found it difficult to conceal their bitter smiles, considering that they see Erdogan a pioneer in the suppression of human rights.

Erdogan’s relations with the Obama administration have known ups and downs, tensions and anger. After the coup attempt, Erdogan began to suspect that the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton were supporter of Fethulla Gulen, the Muslim cleric blamed by Erdogan of planning the coup. Obama has refused until now to respond to Turkey’s demand that Gulen be extradited from the U.S., where he resides, convincing Erdogan that both he and Clinton enjoyed generous financial support from Gulen’s foundations.

Now, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim is hopeful that Trump’s Washington will agree to extradite Gulen. Erdogan regards Trump as an ideological partner to his rigid ultranationalism, despite Trump’s anti-Muslim and anti-Islam statements. Erdogan will take care of the honor of the Muslims, but an ally who sees eye-to-eye with him on the need to “reshape democracy” is more important to him at the moment than smoothing ruffled Muslim feathers.

Not only Erdogan is pleased with Trump’s contempt for the democracy preaching that characterized U.S. foreign policy during the terms of both Obama and Bush. Egyptian President Abdel al-Fattah al-Sissi, who has already exceeded his predecessors in the number of civilians arrested and killed, also has reason to be pleased. Trump won’t call the Egyptian administration to account for the arrest of artists or journalists, and apparently the numerous executions carried out by the Saudi regime won’t exactly prevent him from enjoying his afternoon nap.

The slogan, “We need allies” will cover any deviation, however horrifying, from international law or human rights conventions.

Iran will benefit

The Israeli government can also join the sigh of relief in Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. It is likely to be exempt from the need to reply to infuriating questions from the White House and the U.S. State Department regarding the quality of its democracy. On the other hand, times are liable to be hard for human rights organizations in the Middle East, for political oppositions in the region and for Arab, Turkish and Iranian journalists, who always found a sympathetic ear in the White House and financial assistance from U.S. government institutions.

The dialogue between them had considerable influence on the conduct of tyrannical regimes. Even when American support couldn’t prevent arrests and show trials, it at least forced those regimes to give answers. From now on, it looks as though the EU is the only landlord who can provide any kind of umbrella to organizations whose activity is crucial now, of all times, with the waning influence of the Arab Spring.

If Trump’s election is gloomy news for human rights organizations, for the Syrian rebels it is likely to be a death blow. Trump has no clear philosophy regarding the desirable solution to the crisis in Syria, but it is possible to conclude from his statements that Bashar Assad can continue to serve as Syria’s president, as far as he’s concerned, and that Russia is a possible, even desirable, partner.

“Assad hates ISIS; ISIS hates Assad,” Trump explained in the interview with the New York Times. “They are fighting each other. We are supposed to go and fight them both? How do you fight them both when they are fighting each other? And I think that ISIS is a threat that’s much more important for us right now than Assad.”

If we add that assertion to his view regarding involvement in the internal affairs of other countries, we can easily conclude that Assad is seen as a partner in the war against ISIS, whereas the threat that he embodies relates only to the Syrians and doesn’t necessarily harm American interests.

But support for a continuation of Assad’s rule, or at least indifference, is liable to place Trump on a collision course with Saudi Arabia and to play into the hands of Iran and Russia. Will his unformed political view in relation to Syria allow Iran and Russia to take control of the country? That could be a paradoxical outcome from which Iran will benefit.

If U.S. disengagement or abandoning the wars being waged in the world is most important for Trump, it’s not certain that he cares who rules in Syria, until the meaning of Iranian control of Syria is explained to him by Israel, perhaps.

What’s in it for him

Even before Iran rehabilitates its status in Syria, Trump will have to explain to the rebel organizations supported by the United States why they have to continue fighting ISIS when they aren’t guaranteed American support in the fight against Assad. In such a situation, it’s hard to imagine that the rebels would join a diplomatic process, when opposite them sit representatives of Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime. The more worrisome question is whether, in light of his views, Trump will change sides and stop helping the rebels, in order to help Assad.

The business approach that guides his policy, as he himself explained, means that his main concern is, “what’s in it for me?” or what’s in it for America? That could explain why he sees no reason to help NATO members as long as some of them don’t pay their dues to the organization. He even went as far as to say that it would be good if Saudi Arabia had nuclear weapons to defend itself, although he insists that he strongly opposes the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

It’s hard to understand what exactly he wants: A nuclear Saudi Arabia that would weaken Israel’s backbone or the restriction of nuclear weapons, which is not exactly Israel’s fondest wish either. Will his business logic lead him to allow American companies to do business with Iran, or will his abhorrence of Iran and his affection for Israel dismantle the nuclear agreement?

Will he transfer the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and cause the Arab world to rise up against him, or will he understand that the war against Islamic terror passes through cooperation with the Islamic countries?

Trump’s many contradictory statements in his interviews require us to wait until he has a cabinet, which will formulate for him the diplomatic revolution that he is trying to bring about. With about two months remaining until the end of Obama’s term, this is a critical period. Not much can be done during this time, certainly not ending the crisis in Syria or defeating ISIS in Iraq. But this is the time when leaders in the Middle East, the EU and Russia will have to decide about making radical changes, perhaps about new coalitions, in order to prepare the ground for the advent of President Trump.