This is what President Biden will not do in the Middle East
On 20 January, Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th president of the United States. This will end four years of Donald Trump's foreign policy that has upset allies, angered friends and, sometimes, benefitted foes. However, amending foreign policy in the bitterly divided US will neither be easy nor cost-free – domestically.
Biden’s foreign policy team is already assembled, pending Congress confirmation. Here is an account of what Biden will not do in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region:
Starting from Morocco and moving eastwards, all the way to Afghanistan, Biden has several foreign policy decisions to make, none of which are straightforward.
President Trump’s surprising decision to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara region angered Algeria and its ally, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, who claim the territory for a future state.
Decades of United Nations (UN) mediations in the dispute have so far failed. This means, in the eyes of international law, the area is still a disputed territory. Therefore, the US move does not change much, nor does it serve any US interest but to further discredit it as an acceptable mediator. Biden will neither reverse the move, nor pursue it any further. Trump’s policy change is linked to his brokered normalisation of ties between Morocco and Israel. Expect nothing here.
The next hotspot is Libya, where the outgoing president failed to play any major role after his predecessor helped destroy the country in 2011. Trump has sent confusing messages to local antagonists. When Libya’s strong general, Khalifa Haftar, started his war in April 2019 against the UN-recognised government in Tripoli, President Trump phoned him to praise his efforts in the war on “terrorism”. Following this, Libya was left to US Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland to do the talking, warning of the increased Russian presence in the country, but nothing else.
Here too, Biden will do nothing but more talking. He is known to have initially opposed the military intervention by his former boss Barak Obama in 2011. It is reported that he then asked the simple question: what will happen to Libya once the Muammar Gaddafi government is toppled? Neither he, nor anyone else in the Obama administration, gave him an answer then, and of course, he still does not have one now that Libya is in tatters.
Next door is Egypt, a US ally in the MENA region. President Trump once described Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi as his “favourite dictator”, without doing anything about his alleged human rights abuses. Biden will do more talking, but little else. He might, as punishment for human rights violations, follow the path of his former boss Obama, by withholding some of the $1.5 billion the US gives to Egypt every year. This will neither force Cairo to change its human rights domestic policy, nor amount to a preferred US policy.
Then we have Israel, where Trump has made huge leaps favouring Israel at the expense of the Palestinians. He blackmailed several Arab countries – including the far-away Sudan – to normalise ties with Israel, recognised Jerusalem as its capital and moved the US embassy there. Biden will not reverse any of that, but he could appease the Palestinian Authority (PA) by reopening the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO)’s Washington bureau and resume humanitarian funding to UN-affiliated organisations catering for the Palestinian refugees. None of that will benefit the majority of Palestinians suffering under the brutal Israeli occupation. In particular, the decade-long blockade of Gaza will remain in place.
In Syria, the US hardly has the tools to alter the situation there, with the exception of more retreating. Smaller US military contingents will remain in northwestern Syria, Daesh will continue to rebound and recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights will stay.
President Biden will not take any drastic military decision to, for example, fight Daesh again, and if he does it will be too little, too late. He will, though, seek more partnership with others like Turkey and Russia, the main players in Syria. Tightening the sanctions against Bashar Al-Assad’s government is always favoured and the easier course of action, while stealing Syrian oil, will continue.
In Saudi Arabia, a strong historical US ally, Biden is likely to do more talking with possible occasional angry outbursts, should authoritarian Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman make another blunder – similar to murdering journalist Jamal Khashoggi two years ago. Despite Biden’s pledge that the US will: “Never again check its principles at the door just to buy oil or sell weapons,” that is exactly what he will do. He needs corrupt Saudis to pressure Iran. Saudis are pondering normalisation with Israel, and Biden cannot afford to ignore their concerns in any Iran policy.
Iraq remains a serious foreign policy issue. US troop reduction will continue at a slower pace without reducing the mounting public and political pressure within Iraq, calling for complete US military departure. Iran will continue to make life difficult for the US in Iraq and is likely to leverage this when Biden turns his attention to the nuclear deal – a campaign promise.
Across from Iraq and the Gulf waters is Iran proper, where Biden has pledged to bring back the US to the Iran Nuclear deal that his predecessor left. However, this will be a hard regional sell as two allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel, reject the move. Iran’s sanctions will not be immediately lifted without Iranian concessions. Do not expect much before 2022, at the earliest.
Going into the greater Middle East, with the inclusion of Afghanistan, we can expect Biden to continue Trump’s “America First” policy by bringing more troops home. The idea here is to refocus US military strategy by narrowing its scope to target Al-Qaeda and Daesh in the country. However, contact with the Taliban, another Trump legacy, will not be stopped but will continue on and off with little substance, while the Taliban takes over the country, little by little.