By Dr Ahmad Al-Mousa
Issues facing the Middle East are always complex, and the Trump administration has intensified them. Over the last four years, Trump predominantly pursued a transactional strategy in the region, which in many instances undermined regional stability. Now that President Biden and Vice President Harris have taken office, some contentious issues remain intractably the same, and the challenges of navigating a multifaceted world and managing a fractured domestic politics have not gotten any easier.
The U.S. will be treading water as the Biden administration formulates its policy/strategy to rectify the damage caused by Trump’s destabilising foreign policy in the Middle East. Should we expect Biden’s Middle East policy to follow that of Obama’s, whereby the U.S. would continue to disengage from the Middle East, strategically detaching itself from the events that unfolded following the Arab uprisings (i.e. its regional rivalries, sectarian conflicts and economically rooted crises), or will there be a departure from it and the start of something new?
During Trump’s presidency, his administration moved to firmly align the U.S. with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab Sunni states, to then mobilise them in a campaign against Iran. This campaign included a series of provocations such as the assassination of Iran’s General Qasem Soleimani and senior Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the unusual recent deployment of submarines to the Persian Gulf and the flying of the nuclear-capable B-52 bombers near Iran; actions that intend to put pressure on Iran to retaliate. Biden considered Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as a setback for U.S. non-proliferation efforts. Under the Biden administration, it is expected that the U.S. will revisit the Iranian nuclear deal and seek a new nuclear agreement. However, Iran announced on 5 January that it had resumed enriching 20 per cent uranium at the Fordow nuclear plant to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor located at Tehran University. This action may compromise an opportunity for Iran to reengage diplomatically with the U.S. unless Biden revokes Trump’s executive orders which imposed sanctions on Iran to bring them back into compliance with the nuclear deal. While there may be a diplomatic opening on the horizon that may put Iran’s economy and foreign policy back on track, this path of engagement may not be restored if Iran’s ultraconservative parliament insists on returning to the JCPOA without conditions, and the U.S. insists on Iran fully complying with the JCPOA.
Trump’s foreign policy was also characterised by unconditional support for countries in the region considered to be important security partners (i.e. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and the U.A.E.) which emboldened them to persist aggressive foreign policy and domestic repression.
Under Trump, the United States’ overt backing of the Saudi regime, for instance, has encouraged its belligerence in Yemen, culminating in one of the world’s worst ongoing humanitarian crises. Saudi Arabia has also faced unprecedented international criticism for its human rights record, its failure to provide full accountability for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as its treatment of Saudi dissidents and activists. By contrast, Biden has been a relative sceptic of the Kingdom during his long career. In November 2019, during a Democratic primary debate, Biden said he “would make it very clear we were not going to, in fact, sell more weapons” to Saudi Arabia, which would “make them pay the price, and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are.” How he recalibrates U.S. strategic cooperation with Saudi Arabia to serve the interests of both countries is yet to be seen, especially in light of the appointment of William Burns, the new CIA director, who recently indicated that he will be releasing the CIA’s report on the Khashoggi murder. Even though Riyadh recently lifted its years-long blockade of Qatar, a pragmatic gesture of goodwill to help improve its new relationship with Biden, the U.S. may use all leverage it has (regarding the Khashoggi murder) to move assertively to join the Iran nuclear deal and silence Saudi Arabia.
The U.A.E. has also drawn criticism from American lawmakers for its role in the Yemen war and for violating the arms embargo on Libya by supplying U.S. weapons to Libyan National Army (LNA) Commander Haftar’s forces. While political commentators predict a chillier approach under Biden towards the U.A.E., the newly formed alliance between the U.A.E. and Israel may make it less urgent for the Democrats to scale back military support and prioritise their commitment to the advancement of human rights. The conflicting stance displayed by Biden towards the two Gulf allies, Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., may undermine any stated intentions from Biden to bring stability to Yemen, and resolve the conflict in Libya.
Another big challenge for Biden will be how he deals with his predecessor’s policy on Israel. Unquestioned U.S. support for Israel has facilitated its occupation of Palestinian territory and potential annexation of the West Bank. With the U.S. brokered normalisation of relations between Israel and several Arab countries, the Trump administration reversed the regional consensus to hold back from normalisation until the Palestine question was satisfactorily addressed. It is unclear whether Biden will prioritise pursuing a solution to the occupation or address key flashpoints, such as the status of Jerusalem and the state of refugees. While a Biden administration may offer opportunities by restoring U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority, re-opening the Palestinian mission in Washington DC and establishing a new U.S. Consulate for Palestinians in East Jerusalem, it would not condition Israeli aid on its honouring international agreements and reviving the two-state solution.
North Africa represents another complicated arena for Biden. The Egyptian government, despite receiving military aid from the U.S. as a key ally, is notorious for its abuse of human rights and due process. Under Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, there has been a return to heavy-handed governance by an elected military regime. Biden warned that there would be no more blank cheques for Mr. Trump’s “favourite dictator”, al-Sisi. In Morocco, the Trump administration involved itself in the conflict over Western Sahara by recognising Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed region in return for their opening of diplomatic relations with Israel. This declaration puts the Biden administration in a dilemma, as Trump’s recent actions have ended American neutrality in a conflict that threatens to destabilise a corner of North Africa that is critical to U.S. and European security interests. Furthermore, in Libya, the Trump presidency remained on the sidelines of a proxy war which has only exacerbated the country’s existing conflict drivers. Control of oil infrastructure and untapped gas resources in the Levantine Basin by Turkey, Russia, the U.A.E. and Egypt will have a major influence on the trajectory of the Libyan conflict. The U.S. has allies on both sides, including NATO allies on opposite sides.
Notably, Turkey and their proxy forces have also been on a roll in Syria, Libya and Iraq due to the power vacuum left by the U.S. in Turkey’s immediate neighbourhood. The close ties with the Trump administration once enjoyed by Turkish President Erdogan could change with Biden in power, particularly when it comes to counterbalancing Turkey’s regional assertive positioning in its neighbourhood, and alleviating the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean.
As for Syria, the conflict is marking its tenth year in March 2021. Whereas the U.S. passed into federal law the Caesar Act on 20 December 2019, to promote accountability for the Assad regime’s violence and destruction, and enhance America’s leverage to effectuate changes; a ceasefire and a political solution have still not been implemented as the Syrian opposition is diminished while the Assad regime prevails. Moreover, Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of the area near the Syria-Turkey border has exacerbated the security situation, thus driving the Kurds to make a defence pact with Assad’s government, whose troops have swept into areas they haven’t controlled for years.
Regional disputes connected to the Middle East’s most powerful nation-states, Iran, Turkey and Israel could dominate U.S. foreign policy under President Biden, as these countries shape the terrain on which regional politics is conducted and will impact how the U.S. is going to act in the Middle East. Once the Biden Administration establishes its strategic trajectory towards—for example, a renewed nuclear accord with Iran, a more assertive or accommodating stance towards Turkey’s ambitions in the region, and a more measured approach towards the Palestinian-Israeli debacle that either tinkers with the status quo or reimagines new opportunities—the specific policy options will become palpably clearer.
As citizens of the Middle East and North Africa are eager to find out if they will fare better under Biden’s leadership, it seems unlikely that the region will factor heavily into Biden’s policy in the first few months of his presidency given significant domestic challenges –the COVID-19 pandemic, the deep-rooted racial and economic inequalities, and increased political polarisation today. Biden has enormous problems to solve at home. During his inauguration speech, he signaled that the priority of his administration is to focus on the domestic front. It is yet to be seen whether Biden Administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East will be one of incremental adjustments or major strategic shifts.
Dr Ahmad Al-Mousa is the Program Manager at the Columbia Global Centers | Amman, responsible for identifying scholarly projects to address urgent current questions facing the Middle East and North African region.