Donald, please swot up on your jihadis

During the primaries, Trump confessed that he had absolutely no understanding of either Hamas or Hizbollah

January 20, 2017 14:33

Astonishingly, President Donald Trump will be spending valuable time during his first weeks in the White House cramming on the difference between Shia, Lebanon-based Hizbollah and Sunni, Gaza-based Hamas, after confessing during the primaries that he had absolutely no understanding of the religious and ideological foundations of either militant group.

There are disturbing echoes here of the breathtaking ignorance of former US President George W Bush, as he launched the disastrous invasion of Iraq while waxing lyrical about spreading democracy throughout the region.

It subsequently transpired that Mr Bush, too, was blissfully unaware that Muslims were divided between Sunni and Shia, despite the fact that their mutual sectarian hatred was the main cause of the Iraqi chaos that led to tens of thousands of civilians being slaughtered and the broader democracy project going up in smoke.

To be sure, Mr Trump has been consistently scathing of Mr Bush’s Iraq invasion.

However, if left unchecked, his own even more impulsive personality, coupled with his brazenly self-professed ignorance, potentially pose as grave a threat to the region’s stability.

Take, for instance, strongly pro-Israel Mr Trump’s oft-repeated declaration that the US embassy will be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem during his first term in office.

Quite aside from the question of international law, such a unilateral decision on the part of the United States — especially if made without close and protracted consultation with Arab leaders — could, at this juncture, provoke simultaneous wars between Israel and both Hizbollah and Hamas.

Moreover, it would inflame anti-Israeli passions across the rest of the Arab world — and not least in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the two Sunni powerhouses with whom Israel now enjoys close military and intelligence co-operation in the face of the twin threats posed by Daesh and Iran.

Small wonder Mr Trump’s choice for Defence Secretary, the much wiser General James Mattis, last week flatly dismissed the idea of recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital during confirmation hearings.

Still, one cannot but marvel more generally at the irony that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may well, on one level, be eager to convince Mr Trump — who shares the former’s loathing of Iran — that there is in fact no significant difference between Hizbollah and Hamas.

After all, he routinely refers to both groups — as well as Daesh, Al-Qaeda and Iran — in the same breath, despite the fact that, apart from Hamas, they are slaughtering each other on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq.

Of course, Mr Netanyahu’s reasoning is that, whatever their differences, they ultimately pose a jihadist threat to Israel’s existence.

Even if they can agree on that, the US and Israeli leaders still face the daunting challenge of convincing the region’s new power broker, Russian President Vladimir Putin, to draw the same conclusion — or to act on it if he does.

For Mr Putin has embedded his military with foot-soldiers from Hizbollah and Iran to save the regime in Syria — the only country, we should recall, still technically at war with the Jewish state but whose leader, President Bashar Al-Assad, apparently enjoys Mr Trump’s implicit support as the strong man most likely to put Daesh to flight.

Given this almighty mess, it is difficult to argue that — even if Mr Trump tones down his rhetoric and his advisers manage to drill into his head something resembling a logical strategy for the region — the Obama administration’s own contradictory meddling in the region has not dealt him an impossible hand.

By lifting sanctions on Iran for what critics argue is an essentially worthless promise from the mullahs in Tehran to abandon any move towards acquiring nuclear weapons, Mr Obama brought a key Assad and Putin ally back on to the international stage — while also, bafflingly, insisting that Mr Assad himself had to step down.

Of course, wily Mr Putin took full advantage of this folly; and the result is that, even if he wanted to, he too will now find it near-impossible to satisfy American and Israeli demands that Iran once again be marginalised.

And if all this were not dispiriting enough, there also lurks the threat of impeachment against both Mr Trump and Mr Netanyahu.

Should either, or both, be removed from office as a result, we can be sure that jihadists of all sects and ideologies will briefly put aside their differences to celebrate.


John R Bradley is the author of books on Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring

January 20, 2017 14:33

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