The commitment or non-commitment of the US President-elect Joe Biden in the Middle East still raises questions. After Iran, other problematic issues of the region are waiting for a sign from the new Administration.
Beyond the diminishing US military footprint in the Middle East, begun by President Barrack Obama and reaching its peak during Donald Trump's term, the scenario is almost certain that the era of US "interventionism" is over.
Biden does not seem to be interested in nation-building or overthrowing governments. The new president also said that for Washington's engagement, any problems in the Middle East must primarily pose a direct threat to the American interests.
Therefore, wherever US security interests are not at stake, it is unlikely that US soldiers will play a significant role!
What Biden said (or didn't say!) about the crisis in Syria
Syria has been almost completely absent from the presidential election messages of the US president-elect, despite the presence of US troops on the ground. Biden's team said little on the subject, other than that there was no question of a withdrawal from Syria. But, in essence, Biden seems to maintain a largely similar approach to that of the Trump administration:
reduced military presence in north-eastern Syria (albeit with greater support for the Kurdish forces, which Trump has largely abandoned;
supporting the UN-mediated political process;
maintaining sanctions on Syria.
Biden is unlikely to launch a diplomatic offensive to resolve the crisis, a path that would be further complicated by the US Democrats' relationship with the Kremlin. On the other hand, Biden could not afford to support a more incisive position of Washington, given the expansion of calls in the US for disengagement from Middle East. While Trump has largely seen the anti-Islamic State (IS) mission accomplished, Biden could offer renewed military support to prevent the rebirth of the terrorist group.
This approach could be the basis for a continued US presence in Syria and Iraq, including a less antagonistic stance on Baghdad - despite the Iraqi capital's ties to Tehran - providing political and economic support for the country's stabilization. The policy of maximum pressure against Iran and its allies, including Iraq and Lebanon, could be diluted, as the new administration seems to show greater recognition of the destabilizing impact of the US approach to the Middle East issue.
In conclusion, any move towards normalizing ties with the Syrian regime is virtually impossible. A continuation of the deployment of US special forces in the north-eastern Syria, to combat IS and support local actors, is perceived as a smart, strong and lasting movement. But when the Biden Administration begins to settle in Washington's offices, the crisis in Syria will be reached a decade later, in March 2021. Although many members of President Biden's team have influenced US policy during Syria's most complicated years (2011- 2016), it is clear that the tragedy that struck Syria, as well as its global ramifications, will remain only a source of regret. Instead of ending, the crisis in Syria will only enter a new and more complex phase, one that, if not prevented, is likely to bring another round of instability that will certainly affect the region, and beyond.
Beyond what is happening in Yemen, the interest of the president-elect is focused more on developments in Riyadh.
"Under a Biden Administration, we will re-evaluate our relationship with the Kingdom, we will end US support for the Riyadh war in Yemen and we will make sure that America does not deny its values to sell weapons or buy oil" Biden said in October. This seemingly strong message is rather an echo of the positions repeatedly taken by the Democrats. The reasons for this campaign to "punish" Riyadh are clear: the humanitarian costs of the war in Yemen, the assassination of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabia Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, and the Trump administration's open support for the Saudi regime throughout these affairs. Riyadh was the destination of President Donald Trump's first visit abroad, and he boasted that he protected Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) after Khashoggi's assassination, despite the Democrats' attempts to hold him accountable.
However, there is often a difference between the promises made in the campaign and the reality on the ground, approached as the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth, one that has historically always sought to remain friendly to Saudi Arabia. As a result, Biden is more likely to take a balanced approach that, while different from Trump's, will not be a repudiation of the Saudi Arabia, as some Democrats would like.
Saudi officials have expressed concern over Biden's likely unfavorable policies, anticipating a return to the policies of former President Barack Obama's mandate, particularly the Iranian nuclear deal and the potential risk represented by Tehran to the Arab Gulf states who see Iran as their main threat. Relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia have cooled during Obama, who supported some uprisings in the Arab Spring, oversaw the rapprochement with Iran, and was somewhat critical of respect for human rights in the Saudi kingdom.
In conclusion, it seems more than plausible an approach by the Biden Administration to put an end to the perception that the Saudi leadership enjoys almost unconditional support in the White House; an objective approach that serves both US and Saudi interests. We must not forget the arms sales contracts: a quarter of US arms sales between 2014 and 2019 were to Saudi Arabia, an increasing from 7.4 percent compared to 2010-2014!
Will peace come to Yemen?
Beyond the billions of dollars in arms sales contracts to the Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the United States has provided logistical and intelligence support for the Saudi Coalition's war effort in Yemen. In April 2019, both chambers of Congress passed a resolution to end US involvement in the war, only that it was invalidated by Trump's veto. At the time, the president argued his decision by saying that peace in Yemen could only come through a negotiated solution. The question now is whether Biden will be more fortunate to bring such a solution.
However, ending Saudi involvement in Yemen will not necessarily mean an end to the country's more complex conflicts. The withdrawal of Riyadh may be the first step, but it is much more difficult to end the Yemeni civil war. In addition to the Saudi Arabia 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 gaining an advance, expanding its power base 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.
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 re-launching 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 Saudi Arabia 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 Saudi Arabia have re-established channels of communication with Iran to prevent further regional escalation. Riyadh could demonstrate greater flexibility, given the need to rehabilitate its awkward position with the Biden Administration. As a presidential candidate, Biden sent harsh messages about the Saudi Arabia'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 Saudi Arabia and the UAE are already pursuing, albeit unsuccessfully, a diplomatic solution to the conflict.
The Palestinian case
When it comes to Israel-Palestine, most of the world thinks of the Biden Administration with a sigh of relief. While few expect the new president to prioritize the case, there is hope that he will at least give up some of the negative consequences of the Trump era, returning to renewed aid to the Palestinians, reopening the Palestinian mission in Washington and resuming the traditional position of resolving the issue through the "two states" solution. 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 is unlikely to be a complete return to the previous status quo in 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 more than 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.
In conclusion, most likely, the president-elect will simply move away from Trump's pro-annexation policies and return to the traditional American theoretical support for a two-state solution, without doing much to advance it, because there is no a common basis for negotiation for both parties. 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 must do what the Israeli lobby and its donors dictate, and his administration will follow the same approach!
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