The Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East hosted an online discussion on February 1, 2017 with Nonresident Fellow Mohamed Eljarh, Senior Fellow Faysal Itani, and Nonresident Fellow Tarek Radwan to discuss the choices and challenges in the Middle East facing the Trump Administration. Joyce Karam, Washington bureau chief of Al-Hayat, moderated the event.
When asked about President Donald Trump’s recent executive order restricting travelers from several Middle Eastern countries, Eljarh noted that the United States is now just one more country that places restrictions on Libyan travelers. Eljarh called Trump’s policy an isolationist step that could lead to a power vacuum in the Libyan conflict, and he pointed out that both Western powers and Libyan political entities are to blame for the chaos. He noted demilitarization seems unlikely at this point as the Libyan National Army expects a decisive victory. Eljarh argued that Russia should work closely with Libya’s neighbors and other stakeholders to convene a multilateral dialogue in order to ease the tension. Though the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is defeated in major regions, Eljarh said ISIS’s remaining forces and other extremist groups continue to take advantage of the ongoing conflict and threaten the nation. A strong unified government is therefore needed, he contended.
Itani noted that the existing system to process Syrian refugees in the United States is already time-consuming and complicated. The ban adds an “extra layer of paranoia,” he said. He noted that a truly free society will have to bear some risk of attacks from members of the population. Trump’s policy, he concluded, is based on a very narrow definition of national security. With regard to building safe zones in Syria, Itani predicted that if the locations are not considered critical to Russia, Putin would want to give the United States another chance to cooperate regardless of the possible opposition from the Assad regime. Itani said managing the situation with Turkey, Russia, and the Kurds on the ground will be Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s immediate priority. It will not be easy, Itani added.
Radwan commented that Trump’s recent executive order not only affects refugees but also travelers with other immigration statuses. The ambiguity of the order affected its implementation, he noted. Radwan contended that the ban may help extremist groups to recruit. He discussed the connection between the growth of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and former President Obama’s drone strikes in Yemen, noting that the strikes helped stoke Yemeni resentment towards the United States and that this executive order will do more of the same. Radwan stressed that civil society in the Middle East and especially in Yemen has been overlooked. Three reasons, Radwan concluded, led to the failure of the Yemen transitional process: poor transitional governance, impatience with completing the National Dialogue Conference, and lack of accountability. Radwan believes that the initial US-Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) offers a great road map; however, considering Trump’s prioritization of counterterrorism, it is hard to predict the future. He stressed a political resolution in Yemen is needed to calm the situation. However, Radwan pointed out, this resolution requires assistance from the United States.