The President-elect is expected to refocus US policy in the region on multilateralism and normative values, but it could increasingly become tied to domestic concerns.
With Democratic nominee Joe Biden securing a hotly contested presidential election by defeating Republican incumbent Donald Trump, a bigger challenge soon looms for the freshly crowned President-elect.
Legal challenges notwithstanding, after Trump leaves the White House and President-elect Biden is officially inaugurated in January 2021 begins the road to reversing what Trump’s critics consider the cornerstone of his administration’s foreign policy: disregarding despotism and human rights abuses in favour of realpolitik.
However, to many across the Middle East, Washington under Trump just dropped its façade of support for democracy in a region dotted with US-backed strongmen.
Biden will inherit a turbulent region in the midst of a significant realignment, with a raft of difficult choices to make to repair what is perceived to have been diminished US strategic influence. He is expected to refocus US policy on multilateralism and push for respect of normative values across the region.
And it could well be a foreign policy tied to domestic concerns, as much of Biden’s political capital is set to be tasked with domestic emergencies like tackling the Covid-19 pandemic and resuscitating a battered economy.
This is likely to mean an administration whose appetite for foreign adventurism will be more tempered, alongside the continuation of protracted US withdrawal from the region.
While Biden’s strategy for the broader region remains unclear in the aftermath of the election, this is what we do know and can glean from past statements:
Compared to Trump, whom Benjamin Netanyahu called “the best friend Israel ever had in the White House,” Biden who claims ironclad support for Israel, has said he wants to curb annexation and has backed a two-state solution in the long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
He says he will keep the US Embassy in occupied-Jerusalem after Trump moved it from Tel Aviv. The expectation is that he will attempt to renew US aid to Palestinians and re-open the Palestinian mission in Washington. However, there is unlikely to be a return to the status quo ante in terms of reversing Trump’s decision to recognise Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.
Biden has also resisted pro-Palestinians proposals from within his party.
Absent a deeper rethink at the level of international diplomacy, it will represent nothing more than doubling down on a strategy that has entrenched a one-state reality of unequal rights and unending occupation upon Palestinians.
On Trump’s recently brokered normalisation deals between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, Biden appears to be supportive of it, calling them “historic breakthroughs” and has even promised to push for more countries in the region to sign up to similar agreements.
Trump’s unconditional embrace of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) is likely to be challenged by Biden, who has condemned Washington’s “dangerous blank cheque” for Riyadh under Trump.
He also promised, on the second death anniversary of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi no less, to review relations with Saudi Arabia and vowed to no longer abandon American values “at the cloakroom to sell weapons or buy oil”.
This could have implications for the Saudi-UAE war being waged in Yemen that has plunged the country into a humanitarian crisis. Biden has pledged to cease US support for the Saudi-led campaign, even though he oversaw the sales of billions of dollars in arms to Saudi as it bombed Yemen while serving as Vice President under the Obama administration.
Biden has declared that he would restore the Obama-era nuclear deal – known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – with Iran, which Trump withdrew from in May 2018. Since then, Washington imposed some of the toughest sanctions Tehran has ever endured.
While US and Iranian-backed militias both fought to defeat Daesh, the group’s defeat coincided with the elevation of Trump’s so-called “maximum pressure” approach towards Iran – setting the stage for regular flare-ups in a region that appeared teetering on the edge, from Iran launching its largest-ever ballistic missile attack on US positions to the US’s assassination of top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani.
Biden meanwhile has indicated an appetite to return to the Obama-era policy line of carrots and sticks. Whether a much more hardliner government in Tehran will be willing to come to the table to negotiate without being compensated for economic damage in some form remains to be seen and is more likely to drive a tough bargain.
Syria and Iraq were noticeably absent from the US presidential campaign, despite US troop presence in both countries. Biden’s team has said little on Syria other than that he will not withdraw troops, for the moment at least.
While the main difference from the Trump administration appears to be one of unified messaging, on substance Biden is likely to retain his predecessor’s approach of preserving a military presence in north-eastern Syria (albeit with greater support for the YPG-dominated SDF), supporting the UN political process, and maintaining sanctions on Bashar al Assad’s regime.
Biden may offer renewed military support to prevent Daesh resurgence, which will underpin ongoing US presence in Syria and Iraq. This could lead to a less antagonistic approach towards Baghdad, despite its ties to Tehran, offering political and economic support to help stabilise the country.
A Biden presidency is likely to usher in most change in relations with Egypt. Trump was largely supportive of President Abdel Fattah al Sisi, who he called “my favourite dictator,” while Biden has strongly criticised Egypt’s human rights violations and will be encouraged to chart out a tougher line seeing as many in foreign policy circles believe that Egypt has become less of an important regional partner.
In Libya, there is little indication that US inaction will be shifted. Given that Biden was reportedly against the 2011 intervention, it seems unlikely that he will prioritise stabilising the country absent of a Daesh re-emergence, which could provoke narrow US military action.
Elsewhere in North Africa there is likely to be greater continuity of the Trump administration’s view of the Maghreb through the lens of counterterrorism and in the context of limiting Russian and Chinese influence in Africa.
Under a Biden administration, relations between Washington and Ankara will begin under a cloud of apprehension on both sides. Top of the agenda will be Tukey’s purchase of S-400s from Russia, and whether Biden will impose CAATSA sanctions on Turkey.
While Congress remains persistent on the issue, Biden is likely to have similar concerns as Trump did: that imposing sanctions would alienate an important NATO ally.
Washington-Ankara ties fell on hard times after the latter supported the YPG in northern Syria, side-lining Turkey's concerns. YPG/PYD is the Syrian extension of the PKK terror organisation.
The question of US support to YPG will be the elephant in the room between the two sides moving forward.