11 December 2020

The Biden influence in the Middle East – regional conflicts

Claudiu Nebunu

The commitment or disengagement of the president-elect, Joe Biden, in the Middle East region is raising some questions. Apart from Iran, there are other problematic files in the region waiting for a sign from the new Administration…

Image source: Twitter

Despite the decrease of the US military presence in the Middle East, which was started by president Barrack Obama and reached a climax during the mandate of president Donald Trump, there is almost certainly being contoured the end of the US “interventionism” era.

Biden does not seem to be that interested in building up nations or in overthrowing governments. The new president has also stated that for Washington’s commitment any Middle East problems must firstly represent a direct threat on the US interests.

Therefore, if the US security interests are not at stake, then most likely the US soldiers will not play a significant role there!

What Biden said (or not!) about the crisis in Syria

Syria was almost totally absent in the speeches the president-elect held during the presidential campaign, despite the presence of the US troops in the field. Biden’s team has talked only a little about this topic, apart from the fact that he mentioned that there is no such thing like a US withdrawal from Syria coming ahead. But, in general, Biden seems to have a similar approach to Trump’s Administration: (1) a small military presence in North-East of Syria (although with a bigger support coming from the Kurdish forces that Trump has mostly abandoned); (2) supporting the political process mediated by the UN; (3) keeping the sanctions on Syria.

It is less likely for Biden to start any diplomatic offensive to solve the crisis, as it would be even more complicated due to the US democrats’ relations with Kremlin. On the other hand, Biden could not afford supporting a more incisive position from Washington, given the US extended calls for disengagement in the Middle East. While Trump saw the anti-Islamic State mission as being accomplished, Biden could offer a new military support to prevent the comeback of the terrorist group.

This approach could lay the foundation of a continuity of the US presence in Syria and Iraq, including a less antagonistic positioning on Bagdad – despite the Iraqi capital’s connections with Tehran – offering political and economic support for country’s stabilization. The maximum pressure over Iran and its allies, including Iraq and Lebanon, may decrease because the new administration seems to be more aware of the destabilizing impact of the American approach in the Middle East problem.

Thus, any move towards the normalization of the connections with the Syrian regime is basically impossible. A continuation of the US special forces dislocation in North-East Syria to fight the Islamic State and support local actors is seen as a smart, strong and long-lasting move. But when the Biden Administration will get to the Washington offices, the Syrian crisis will have reached a decade, in March 2021. Although many of the members of president Biden’s team have influenced the US policy during the most complicated years in Syria (2011-2016), it is obvious that the tragedy that hit Syria, as well as its global salient will only be a huge regret. Instead of being over, the Syrian crisis will only enter a new and more complex phase, one which, if not prevented, will bring another round of instability which will affect the region and beyond…

The excuse – Saudi Arabia (SA)…

Apart from what is happening in Yemen, the president-elect’s interest is focused more on Riyadh’s developments … “Under a Biden-Harris administration, we will reassess our relationship with the kingdom, end US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil”, said Biden, in October. This apparently strong message is rather an echo of the positions repeatedly adopted by the democrats. The reasons behind this “punishment” campaign against Riyadh are clear: the humanitarian costs of the war in Yemen, the assassination of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in the SA consulate from Istanbul, in October 2018, and the Trump’s administration open support for the Saudi regime in these businesses. Riyadh was the destination of the first visit Donald Trump made abroad and he always said he protected the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after the killing of Khashoggi, despite democrats’ attempt to make him responsible for it.

However, there is often a long way between the promises made during the campaign and the reality on the field, approached from the  perspective of the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth, one which, historically speaking, has always sought to keep a friendly relation with SA. Therefore, it is more likely for Biden to adopt a balanced approach which, although different from Trump’s, will not reject SA, as some democrats want.

The Saudi officials have expressed their concerns on the probably less favorable policies Biden will initiate, anticipating a comeback to Barrack Obama’s policies, especially the Iranian nuclear treaty and the risk Tehran might provoke for the Arab states in the Gulf, which see Iran as their main threat. The relations between the US and SA have been cold during the Obama administration, as the president supported some revolutions from the Arab Spring, has monitored the closeness to Iran and was kind of judgmental to the breach of the human rights in the Saudi Kingdom.

So, it seem more likely for the Biden Administration to come up with an approach that will end the idea according to which the Saudi leadership can have the unconditional White House’s support; an approach targeting objectives to favor both the US and the Saudi interests. Bear in mind the arm deals… A quarter of the US arm sales between 2014 and 2019 were signed with SA, with a 7,4% increase comparing to 2010-2014 period!

Will Yemen meet peace?

Despite the billions of dollars from the arm contracts with the SA and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the US supported, from the intelligence and the logistics perspective, the war effort of the Saudi coalition in Yemen. In April 2019, both chambers of the Congress have adopted a resolution to end the US interference in the war, but it got rejected due to Trump’s veto. At that time, the president argued that the peace in Yemen cannot be installed but through a negotiated solution. The question here is whether Biden will be luckier lucky with finding such a solution.

“I think the Biden Administration can have a positive impact on ending the war in Yemen”, said Gregory Johnsen, former member of the UN Security Council’s Group of experts from Yemen. “Indeed, the US could be the only country which can put enough diplomatic pressure on SA to end the war in Yemen”.

However, ending Saudi actions in Yemen will not necessarily represent an end to the country's more complex conflicts. Riyadh’s withdrawal may be the first step, but it is much more difficult to end the Yemeni civil war. In addition to the SA and the UAE, the war in Yemen involves several warring parties, including the internationally recognized government, Iran (Houthi rebel allies) and the separatist Southern Transitional Council. Fighting has intensified in recent months, with Houthi being a few steps ahead, expanding its power in the north of the country and hosting a large number of internally displaced people. If the Biden Administration succeeds in a policy of pressure for peace negotiations, it will come while the Houthi seem to take the lead on the battlefield. And this situation does not necessarily urge that a negotiated agreement will lead to the end of the war on the ground...

And yet...

Biden's team stressed support for a diplomatic approach that would reduce tensions between Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. His election could give impetus to reestablishing the regional security dialogue, with US efforts most likely to ensure the participation of regional states traditionally opposed to diplomatic relations with Iran, especially the SA and the UAE. There is some hope that these states are already more willing to explore diplomatic engagement, given the failure of Trump's maximum pressure campaign to counter Iran's regional behavior. Both the UAE and the SA have reestablished communication channels with Iran to prevent further regional escalation. Riyadh could show greater flexibility, given the need to rehabilitate its awkward position with the Biden Administration. As a presidential candidate, Biden sent harsh messages about the AS's regional policy, especially in Yemen, and about respect for human rights by the Crown Prince, MBS.

The conflict in Yemen can provide a special opportunity for progress. Biden has made it clear that he will stop US support for the war, and both the SA and the UAE are already pursuing, albeit unsuccessfully, a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

The Palestinian file

When it comes to Israel and Palestine, most of the world thinks of the Biden Administration with relief. Even if a few people expect for the new president to prioritize the file, there is hope he will give up at least the negative consequences of the Trump era and that he will renew the help offered to the Palestinians, reopen the Palestinian mission to Washington and get back to the traditional position of solving the problem the problem following the “two states” option.

This change in Washington's approach will encourage the Palestinian leadership to renew cooperation with Israel and possibly declare its readiness to re-enter the US-mediated negotiations.

However, there are less chances to witness a complete return to the previous status quo in terms of reversing Trump's decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Biden's approach could also be limited by a Congress that has considerable power over this issue. But in the absence of a deeper repositioning, this will be nothing but the resumption of a failed strategy. Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have long been supporters of Israel, although some Israeli officials are concerned about the cooling of US-Israel relations under Obama.

Although Biden is unlikely to reverse any of Trump's major actions in Israel, he has expressed his goal of restoring support for the Palestinians, suspended by the Trump administration. It includes "immediate measures to restore economic and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people, address the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, reopen the US consulate in East Jerusalem and reopen the Palestinian mission in Washington". And under the Israel-UAE Normalization Agreement, Israel has pledged to freeze annexation efforts in the West Bank by 2024.

Thus, most likely, the president-elect will simply distance himself from the pro-annexation policies Trump has promoted and will get back to the US traditional theoretical support of a solution with two states, without actually taking concrete steps to make it happen, because there is no common foundation coming from both sides. Trump's modus operandi is not expected to change significantly in Biden's term. The president-elect has already said he will not move the embassy back to Tel Aviv, nor will he reverse Trump's recognition of Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights. What differentiates Biden is his commitment to reverse Trump's withdrawal of economic and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians and his intention to reopen the US Consulate in East Jerusalem and the Palestinian mission in Washington.

So Biden's approach to the Palestinian issue will probably be more of a continuation of Trump's vision, not a reset ... Much of the contributions to a conventional democratic presidential campaign come from Jewish pockets. The result is that Biden cannot afford, even if he wants to, an independent approach to US policy toward Israel. He has to do what the Israeli lobby and its donors want, and the Administration will follow the same approach!

Translated by Andreea Soare