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Briefing

The Trump presidency: What will it change in the Middle East? (+video)

a shift in thought

US relations with Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey are some of the most challenging in the region, and Donald Trump's election looks likely to unsettle them all.

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    An Afghan looks at a local newspaper showing a front page story about President-elect Donald Trump winning the election, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Thursday.
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The prospect of a Trump presidency is resonating across the Middle East, bringing uncertainty and the likelihood of real change.

Donald Trump has given few specifics about foreign policy, except to embrace iconoclasm. It’s about “winning” America’s wars, crushing the so-called Islamic State (IS), and holding traditional allies – such as those of the Persian Gulf, as well as NATO – to account for their security dependence on US military strength.

And Mr. Trump’s praise of strongmen presidents like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is raising questions about how much he may embrace their world view.

Eight years under President Obama has transformed US relations with Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan – all crucial but troubled nations that present complex foreign policy issues for the US.

But will isolation or intervention prevail? And what key pivot points in US policy could Trump’s inclinations transform yet again?

Q: Can Trump fix strained US-Turkey ties?

Mr. Erdoğan was one of the first leaders to congratulate Trump, and has invited the US president-elect to a meeting “as soon as possible.”

Speaking just hours after Trump’s victory to business leaders in Istanbul – where one tall tower bears the name Trump in gilt letters – Erdoğan said the election “marks the beginning of a new era,” and was a “positive sign.”

Turkey has seen relations with the US deteriorate markedly during Obama’s tenure – over White House charges that Erdoğan has grown increasingly authoritarian; over American support of Kurdish Syrian militants in the Syria war, who Turkey regards as “terrorists”; and over Turkey’s heavy-handed war against its own Kurdish militants.

“There is one positive and one negative perspective from Erdoğan's point of view,” says Behlül Özkan, an analyst at Marmara University in Istanbul.

“Trump would not bother Erdoğan with human rights, jailed journalists, and academics. That would be a relief for the AKP,” says Mr. Özkan, referring to Erdoğan's ruling Justice and Development Party. “However, Erdoğan’s proxies in Syria, including armed fundamentalist groups, would be in a difficult position to get American aid.”

One similarity is Erdoğan’s conviction that the two men speak the same language.

“He thinks exactly like that,” says Özkan. “Both are far-right leaders for me. Both are construction lovers. Erdoğan is also obsessed with real estate and airports and bridges.”

Q:  What does Turkey want most from Trump?

US-Turkey tensions worsened after a July 15 coup attempt that yielded a purge of 110,000 Turks from government service, a state of emergency, and a surge of anti-Americanism.

Officials say a top priority will be extraditing the exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, who lives in Pennsylvania and is accused of mounting the coup attempt – a charge Mr. Gülen denies.

That dream may be closer to reality with Trump, whose top military adviser penned an opinion piece in The Hill on Election Day, pushing Turkey as “our strongest ally against IS.” Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn (ret.) called for the extradition of Gülen, and for the need to “adjust our foreign policy to recognize Turkey as a priority.”

“To professionals in the intelligence community, the stamp of terror is all over Mullah Gülen’s statements,” wrote Mr. Flynn, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. “From Turkey’s point of view, Washington is harboring Turkey’s Osama bin Laden.”

Q: Will Trump follow realism or idealism regarding Iran?

Few relationships have seen as much change under Obama as that between Iran and the US. While hardliners on both sides still fire rhetorical bombshells, Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani shepherded the conclusion of a landmark nuclear deal in July 2015.

The question for Iran is: Which Donald Trump will be making decisions?

Will it be the open-minded tycoon who years ago complained that “no one talks to Iran,” and the candidate who noted positively that “Iran kills IS”? Or will it be the hard-line candidate who said the “disastrous” nuclear deal should be renegotiated, and promised never to “allow” US sailors to again be captured and humiliated by Iran? Or will Trump present the pragmatic businessman, whose nose for a deal will trump anti-Iran ideology?

Officials in Iran are keeping an open mind. Just two days after Trump’s victory, Iran “exchanged signals” with the incoming team, and the nuclear deal “is not the immediate issue” for them, says Abbas Qaidaari, an analyst at the Center for Strategic Studies, a think tank attached to Iran’s presidency. He spoke in a personal capacity, he says, not officially on behalf of his organization.

“Trump’s cabinet composition is not yet clear. So probably Iran’s activities will be more cautious to get an accurate estimation of Trump foreign and defense policies,” says Mr. Qaidaari. “In other words, Iran will not be testing Trump by some provocative activities.”

But the unexpected victory may also “be a starting point to end hopes of the Western-oriented Iranian political and economic actors,” says Mojtaba Mousavi, founder of the conservative IransView.com website.

“They were almost sure that Clinton would be the next president and they can deal with her,” says Mr. Mousavi. “On the other side, Trump’s rhetoric will promote Iran’s supreme leader’s and conservatives’ idea that cooperation with the US is impossible.”

Q:  Can Trump finish the war in Afghanistan?

Obama aimed to end America’s longest-ever war, which has ground on since 2001. But continued violence against the US and NATO-supported Afghan security forces has meant Obama has stopped the drawdown, and is now keeping more than 8,000 American troops on the ground. And casualties keep coming, including four Americans killed inside the Bagram airbase on Saturday by an Afghan suicide bomber.

“Afghanistan was barely mentioned at all in the campaign and debates, because there is no other approach than a large-scale holding operation, politically and militarily, to stop the deterioration,” says Alexey Yusupov, country director of the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Kabul.

After 15 years of war that has already swallowed billions of dollars in a spotty nation-building exercise, cost tens of thousands of lives, and left the Taliban again ascendant, future US steps will require deft handling. The US troop count was 40,000 when Obama took office.

“The surge and its abrupt drawdown have not brought any sustainable success, so the way toward peace talks still looks lengthy and complicated,” says Mr. Yusupov.

While the Taliban has consolidated since 2014, it is only being prevented from controlling some provincial capitals by US-led international help. Audacious attacks in the heart of the capital are a steady reminder of the Taliban presence.

Naming specific dates for pullouts, as the Obama administration has done, “would be catastrophic,” Yusupov says. “Afghanistan is OK for now, but any prolonged neglect can lead to collapse.”

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