It seems clear that Donald Trump and many people around him perceive the islamist terrorism as the biggest security threat. Do you think that the approach of the US towards fighting jihadi groups will change, maybe even radically change, with the new administration and how it might change? Or you don’t expect big changes and why? Read few comments.
Edwin Bakker, Professor, Director Centre for Terrorism & Counter-Terrorism, Leiden University
I do not expect major changes. They might give more public support or might less criticize the actions of the Russians in fighting groups that oppose Assad. I do not think the US will send a lot more troops to the Middle East. Perhaps a few to give an impression of a stronger commitment, but I think they are happy to let others do the job. Perhaps they might step up the air campaign against ISIS, but I do not expect major changes.
The position on Israel (and the relocation of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to jerusalem) might have a stronger impact and could provoke violence in Israel and Palestine or actions against US interests or citizens in the region.
Kacper Rękawek, Head of Defence and Security Programme, GLOBSEC Policy Institute
If we were to take the president elect at his word then we could probably be expecting a US intervention in Syria, possibly with NATO in close support. I do not, however, think this is going to materialise as this would also contradict Trump’s “America first” policy. Given all this, I would not expect a lot of change as the US was pursuing kinetic counterterrorism in the MENA for years, also under Obama. Drones, jets, raids, targeted killings – it was all there. One change, however, I can anticipate is the readiness to off-source some of the counterterrorism – to Russia, to other Middle Eastern countries. “Do it also in our name”, type of operations.
James M. Dorsey, Senior Fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University
It’s too early to tell. Trump clearly attributes importance to fighting Islamist violence and first and foremost the Islamic State. To achieve that he has indicated that he is willing to accommodate Russia. He has also translated his prioritization of this issue into statements on changes in US immigration policies. There are nonetheless multiple unanswered questions, including the legality of some of the propositions regarding immigration that he has made, his attitude towards non-violent Islamists, his approach to Syria and how that will effect relations with Gulf states and to what degree he is willing to step up the involvement of US troops, including the question of boots on the ground. A lot will likely be clearer, quickly after he walks into the Oval Office after his inauguration.
Right now nobody really knows the full contours of what the Trump administration’s policies will be with respect to Islamist militancy. This includes members of the administration itself: broad paradigms frequently yield in the face of the need for specific policy implementation, and given that the administration’s views on the issue are hardly monolithic, its policies will depend in part on who prevails in bureaucratic debates, and who has the president’s ear.
However, we can say that several policy shifts, and several continuities, seem likely:
Political Islam. At some fundamental level, the Obama administration believed that it was important to have political systems in the MENA region open to the participation of non-jihadist Islamist groups, believing that this was part of the solution. The Trump administration almost certainly will not share that view. What policies will result from this shift in thinking is unclear. On the maximalist end of the spectrum, the administration may designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group (similar to the policy recently proposed by Sen. Cruz). A more minimalist approach would just be more general suspicion of political Islamism.
Terrorist designations. Speaking of designations, I think it’s likely — but not inevitable — that the Trump administration will be more willing to use the Treasury to designate certain organizations, particularly charities, that support jihadism.
Syria. There are really two conflicts raging in Syria. On the ISIS side of the equation, while Trump has made noise about shifting the U.S. strategy, it’s not clear how much more he can do. ISIS’s caliphate is collapsing, and while retaking Raqqa and Mosul is likely to be a long slog, it’s not clear how much a policy shift can expedite this process. We are more likely to see significant changes on the Assad side of the equation, where one problem with the Obama administration’s approach is that its policy of supporting select Syrian rebels often had the unfortunate consequence of helping al-Qaeda make advances, given that al-Qaeda worked closely with the full range of anti-Assad groups. The Trump administration is likely to reorient to some extent toward Russia’s position, and to see jihadist influence in the rebel groups as a greater problem than Assad.
Al-Qaeda. One issue where Gen. Flynn dissented from other elements of the intelligence community when he led DIA was al-Qaeda declinism. There will likely be — either right out of the gate or down the road — a growing Trump administration focus on al-Qaeda, and not just on ISIS.
America’s “frenemies.” Jonathan Schanzer and I have argued that, if Trump is serious about reorienting the U.S.’s international relationships in a way that advances U.S. interests, it makes sense to start with U.S. “frenemies” like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Pakistan. There are many reasons that the U.S. ends up in foreign policy relationships that are unfavorable to it, so it’s not inevitable that these relationships will change, but U.S. policy toward the “frenemy” countries will be a good leading-edge indicator of whether Trump’s foreign policy will really be a massive departure from past administrations.
There are a number of other ways that Trump may represent a significant departure from Obama’s foreign policy, but many of those ways are even less certain, or more speculative, than the points I have just enumerated.