Neo-Jihadism Brief no.II

The Effects of Donald Trump’s Victory in Libya

The shock election victory of Republican candidate Donald Trump has many in the intentional relations community questioning what this could mean for American foreign policy in the Middle East region. Regarding foreign policy in general and the Middle East in particular, Donald Trump, as the new president-elect of the United States, would arguably stand out as representing one of the most unpredictable men to have held this position since America started sending troops overseas as part of its new imperial policy in the late 19th century.

Throughout his campaign, and his somewhat limited career as a politician (to say the least), Trump has led a campaign full of contradictions and confusing messages. He has changed his stance on key issues on several occasions –think Obamacare. However, looking at a few key themes of his campaigns, themes that he has consistently reiterated over the past year or so, this paper will attempt to predict how a Donald Trump presidency may affect the Middle East, and Libya in particular.

Firstly, one of the most glaring developments of the Trump campaign has been his seemingly positive relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Many commentators have said that a Trump Presidency will signal a new era and new policy of collaboration with Russia, which many fear will be based upon America accommodation of Russia’s interests. For the Middle East, this would mean accepting Russian support of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and supporting their airstrike campaign. More worryingly for Libya however, this could mean supporting Russia’s push to be a more involved actor in the region, including its joint military partnership with Libya’s neighbour, Egypt.

Secondly, Trump will inaugurate a new policy against so-called ‘Islamic extremist terrorism’. These 3 words were used a lot throughout his campaign both by Trump himself, and by some of his strongest supporters such as former New York mayor, Rudy Giuliani. One of Trumps most infamous policies includes the banning of all Muslims from entering the United States in an attempt, according to Trump-logic (if such a thing exists), to curb the threat of Islamic extremist terrorism.

Reports on the ground from Reuters suggest that allies of Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar, the dominant figure in the divided country’s East, have already welcomed Donald Trump’s victory in the US election. After the uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya splintered into rival political and armed groupings. More than 5 years on, the country remains deeply divided between factions based in the East and West that support rival governments and parliaments –the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in the West and the Libyan National Army (LNA) in the East.

In the East, Haftar and the LNA have been fighting a two-year military campaign against Islamists, and ISIS-affiliated groups, and other opponents in Benghazi and elsewhere. With the victory of Trump, these individuals are arguably hoping to receive more support for their anti-Islamist stance. If this does indeed take place, the result could boost pro-Haftar factions with strong ties to Egypt (and increasingly, Russia), while diluting Western support for a UN-backed government in Tripoli that Haftar and his allies have long been in opposition to.

In March 2016, the leaders of the UN-backed GNA arrived in Tripoli but have since failed to either fully displace the previous administration in Tripoli, or win the support of powerful individuals and militias in the East, who accuse the GNA of being beholden to Islamist-leaning non-state forces.

Haftar meanwhile is aligned with the Eastern parliament and government, both of which were quick to congratulate President Trump on his win. Tarek al-Jaroushi, a member of the parliament whose father commands Haftar’s air force, stated that he “strongly support[s] Trump because of his and the Republicans’ resolute and decisive attitudes.” He also claimed “The Republican Party, which understands the truth about Daesh (Islamic State) and the positions and the victories of the Libyan army, will support us.” A statement from Haftars parliament to Trump said: “We hope for your support … and we call for the lifting of the arms embargo on the Libyan army which is waging a war against terrorism.”

With his propensity to favour ‘strong men’ (think Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan), Trump will likely show more support for General Haftar and the LNA than his predecessor, Obama. What this will mean for Libya is still unknown, what is clear however is that a Trump presidency will likely mean more support for General Haftar and the Libyan National Army, thus further entrenching the deep divisions that exist between them and the UN-backed Government of National Accord. In other words, no peace or stability for Libya in the near future.

Trump, Putin & Aleppo: Consensus Building?

The government’s stranglehold on Aleppo is tightening. The western areas of the city, occupied by rebel groups and 250,000 stricken civilians, are cut off from their supply lines and unable to gain any forward momentum. With Russian air strikes occurring regularly and indiscriminately, conditions in Aleppo are dire. Without food, water and medical supplies, the civilians caught in the crossfire have nowhere to turn.

Bashar al-Assad has had his hand strengthened significantly by support from the Kremlin. This places the Damascus regime at further odds with the West, whose tenuous alliances seem to be causing tensions across the region. The relocation of Russia’s only aircraft carrier into the Mediterranean caused a stir as NATO nations refused to refuel it in its passage. Russia is seen widely as a positive force in Syria, propping up the ailing regime and ruthless in its use of air power. The strengthening of Assad has even forced concessions from the Turkish government, one of the most vehemently anti-Assad regimes in the region, who are now open to Assad being part of some form of transitional government at the end of the civil war. Moscow’s clear strategy and willingness to bend the rules of the game has made it highly effective in securing its strategic aims.

In contrast, US support of Syrian Kurds has led to a major issue with the Turkish government. Kurdish forces, made up largely of YPG members (a terrorist group, as declared by the Turkish government), were supported in their conquest of Manbij earlier this year. This pushed Kurdish influence further west along the Turkish border – an unacceptable situation for Turkey, whose importance to NATO and the EU cannot be overstated. This was of course the precursor for the largest military intervention conducted by Turkey in decades as they rolled into Syria.

And of course, recent developments in American domestic politics could lead to ongoing uncertainty. It is absolutely clear that President-elect Trump has little understanding of the complexities of the conflict in Syria. His vocal admiration for the style and actions of Vladimir Putin’s forces could serve to undermine the progress made so far by US backed forces. The line to date has been that Assad must be removed from power, and democratic elections must take place. Mr Trump has made reference to allying with the Syrian government, Russia and Iran to defeat ISIS, which would represent a fundamental U-turn on what has been US policy since long before the civil war began. The campaign promise to defeat ISIS seems to have taken precedence over considerations of democratic reform and human rights. The extent to which these were the guiding principles of American action is not entirely clear, but to renege on them would be at the very least a significant rhetorical departure from the Obama administration.

This is not to say, of course, that the Obama administration’s strategy has been perfect, or even very good. The lack of coordination among US backed rebel groups has led to a messy understanding of who they are and what they are aiming for.  A personally warm relationship may prove beneficial between Mr Trump and President Putin in ending the conflict in Syria and defeating ISIS. However, an accommodation of Russian interests has to signal a retreat of US power. The US has been the predominant power in the Middle East for nearly two decades. Engaging Russia may well be a positive step towards consensus based regional politics, but the risk must surely be that Western liberal values will be at stake in allowing Russia the freedom of a more permissive atmosphere. Is Trump’s ‘plan’ to beat ISIS worth sacrificing the principles upon which the initial intervention was ostensibly based? Is the potential consensus a desirable one? We must wait to see how much freedom President Trump will have in changing the direction of his nation.

This brief is a monthly paper, part of our ‘neo-Jihadism programme‘.