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A review of the US administration’s position on regional issues

In a few weeks, Democratic President Joe Biden will occupy the Oval Office, in spite of the strenuous attempts of Republican President Donald Trump to flip the election results. Trump’s attempts to influence the electoral results are unprecedented and inconsistent with the Democratic process in the US. However, such dilemmas have become less eccentric at a world still reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic, whose devastating social, economic and political repercussions will leave deep scars around the world.  

Many Middle Eastern countries have concerns regarding US policies under Biden’s administration towards the region’s myriad of problems, especially that some of them benefited from Trump’s administration. However, everything is possible in a changing-policy world ruled only by interests. Therefore, all countries in the region should be willing to cope with any political changes. Coping with change is a key element in the success of powerful states’ foreign policies.  

The question is how will the Biden administration deal with the major contemporary issues in the Middle East and events that directly or indirectly affect the region’s stability? 

In this regard, there are five key determinants:

  • First, the Middle East, despite being in turmoil, will remain a strategic region, whose stability and security affect US strategic interests. Accordingly, the region will always be a priority for any US administration.  
  • Second, any US administration will have to be involved in one way or another in the conflicts plaguing the Middle East. However, there will be tactical differences in each administration’s method.   
  • Third, there cannot be sharp, drastic changes in the US policy under the Biden administration as promoted, as the general principles governing US policy worldwide are linked to fundamentals that take into account, first and foremost, achieving US interests. These fundamentals cannot easily be changed once a new administration is elected.
  • Fourth, 78-year-old Biden has been knocking around American politics for half a century. In addition, he is an adroit in international politics and Middle Eastern predicaments, and he has a high amount of expertise in addressing regional and international disputes and conflicts in a professional way. 

As a former vice president and chair of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, he served as a behind-the-scene adviser to former president Barack Obama and took active roles in formulating policies and making strategic decisions. 

  • Fifth, Democratic US administrations focus on human rights, which is also one of the priorities of the Biden administration. In this regard, two key factors must be taken into account. First, the new US administration must consider the important international variables that have taken place during the last decade, especially in the Middle East region. Second, despite the fact that human rights will have an impact, at least in part, on the Democratic administration’s relations with some countries, it shall not bring any dramatic change to US policy that prioritizes US interests.

In the Middle East, the new US administration will have to face a number of pressing issues, in which the Trump administration has been deeply involved due to their far-reaching impacts on US interests in the economic, military and political fields, at the regional and international levels. 

Furthermore, the Biden administration will be keen to restore relations with Europe and curb the negative effects of the escalating US fierce competition with Russia and China.

First: Relations with Egypt

Both Egypt and the Uٍ sustain and support their strategic political, economic, military and security relations, whether the US administration is Democratic or Republican. 

Egypt-US relations have been bolstered during the Republican administration, as President Trump described President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi as a “great president” and a “great friend” on many occasions. 

Egypt has succeeded in dealing with all US administrations, be they Republican or Democratic, and has given a great impetus to the existing strategic dialog between the two countries. Moreover, Egypt has succeeded in containing any disagreements in its relations with the US over different periods of time.

Egypt’s wise political leadership, while dealing with the Biden administration, will ensure that Egypt-US relations are sustained and developed on the grounds of common strategic interests that will contain any disagreements that might take place.

Egypt’s President Al-Sisi was amongst the first world leaders who congratulated Biden for winning the US presidential race. 

The Biden administration will continue to deal with Egypt as one of the most important pillars of stability and security in the region that has a distinguished strategic role. This is due to Egypt’s good relations with all parties in the region and its active involvement in contributing to solving current conflicts in the region in general, and the Palestinian cause, the Libyan crisis and combating terrorism, in particular.

Second: Relations with Israel

For the US, Israel is an important pillar in the Middle East for various security, political, military, economic, social, and moral considerations. Hence, Israel will be as important for President-elect Biden. Anyone who believes that the Biden administration will have influential positions against Israel, its most important ally, is mistaken. 

Maintaining Israel’s security and military superiority in the region is one of Biden administration’s commitments that it would not squander for any reason. It is worth noting that the most important arms deal between Israel and the US was concluded under Democratic president Barack Obama.

The new US administration will not abide by the US peace plan raised in January 2020, and will not adopt its principles, as Biden has a different perspective. 

Thus, the Biden administration will reaffirm the principle of the two-state solution in contravention of the deal of the century, especially with regard to allowing Israel to annex the Jordan Valley and pursue its settlement policies, from the standpoint of refusing that any party takes unilateral actions.

However, Biden will not rescind the decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, or the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, though he will ensure that the Jerusalem issue remains an open issue to be permanently resolved in negotiations.

In tandem, the new US administration shall confirm its deep relationship with Israel through reaffirming its recognition of Judaization, and it shall not change its position even if the Middle East peace process is resumed.

There is a great possibility that Biden will reconsider Trump’s decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, as this issue can be resolved only through Israeli-Syrian negotiations.

Third: Relations with the Palestinian Authority

Palestinian-US relations have not experienced a period of deterioration more than that during the term of President Trump, who made all political and economic decisions, not only against the Palestinian cause, but also against the Palestinian Authority, whether by launching “the deal of the century” with clear bias towards Israel, or through punitive decisions against the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

The Palestinian Authority’s recent decision to re-establish security coordination with Israel after a period of stalemate is a direct message to Biden’s administration of the Palestinian Authority’s willingness to deal with the new administration, and to re-establish positive relations through substantive dialog that brings peace to all parties in the region.

Biden will focus on dealing quietly with the Palestinian Authority, returning the privileges enjoyed by the PLO office in Washington, returning allocations to the UNRWA, and resuming financial aid to the Palestinian Authority. Israel, on its side, will not be able to object to these measures that have always been in effect except during Trump’s term.

Biden’s administration will also seek to resume the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations according to the “two-state solution” instead of “the deal of the century”, provided that all final solution issues are subject to negotiation.

Fourth: Arab-Israeli relations

Historically, the US Democratic administration, headed by president Jimmy Carter, was the first to have made the cornerstone of Israeli-Arab relations by being a sponsor and a partner in the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty signed on 26 March 1979.

Democratic president Bill Clinton sponsored the 2000 Camp David Summit to reach a final and comprehensive settlement to the Palestinian cause. The summit included some positive and negative points, but ultimately it did not succeed.

President Trump has played an important role in Israeli normalization with the UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan, either to support his personal status or that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This raises the question of whether normalization with other countries shall follow in the next phase.

President Biden’s administration will not oppose this approach toward normalization, and will continue to support the expansion of Arab-Israeli relations, even if this path slows down. Moreover, there will be US-Israeli coordination to agree on the countries with which relations will be normalized.

Fifth: The Libyan conflict

The US was not directly involved in the Libyan conflict as much as Russia or Turkey were. At the same time, Washington was keen to maintain channels of communication with most of the actors, and interfere in this crisis at intervals according to its interests, especially with regard to Libya’s Oil Crescent region.

However, President Trump’s administration actively participated in the Libyan conflict settlement efforts. In January 2020, it participated in the Berlin International Conference, then welcomed the June 2020 Cairo Declaration to resolve the conflict and establish a unified Libyan national state.

It is expected that the Democratic US administration will not make a clear change in the US policy toward the Libyan conflict. It shall not strongly engage in the conflict and have a calculated role that achieves US interests, especially securing oil regions, confronting Russian influence, and curbing Turkish ambitions.

 Sixth: Relations with Gulf states

For the US, the Gulf is one of the most important strategic regions with which it is keen to maintain continuous and developed relations. This is due to many political, economic, military and security considerations. The US has strong relations with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar.

Biden’s administration will ensure that its relations with all Gulf states remain strong. There will be no strategic differences that affect those relations, and any expected differences shall be only tactical. The new US administration’s contribution to Gulf reconciliation cannot be ruled out.

The new administration’s relations with Iran will be one of the most important keys of US relations with Gulf states during the coming stage, as Biden’s administration will assure them that any likely positive development in the US-Iranian relations will not be at the expense of the US-Gulf relations, and that the Democratic administration will not allow Iran to threaten the Gulf.

Seventh: Relations with Iran

President Trump took the decision on 18 May 2018 to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear agreement, while tightening sanctions on the Iranian regime and its institutions, in an effort to pressure the regime to change its hostile policies toward the countries of the region in general and the Gulf states in particular. Washington set 12 new conditions that Iran should abide by before signing a new nuclear agreement with the US. Iran refused these conditions. 

Nevertheless, Iran has been careful not to compromise its position, to emphasize the continuation of its nuclear and missile programs, and to take a decision to resume uranium enrichment. However, other European countries (the UK, France, Germany, and Russia) have not withdrawn from the nuclear agreement, and have not severed their relations with Iran, expressing only some reservations on Iranian policies, then tried to dissuade President Trump from his stance, to no avail. 

Democrats were not on the Republican Party’s line regarding the policy of maximum pressure on Iran, which became more rigorous. The ultimate goal of the US policy is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The Democratic administration believes that this goal can be achieved not through brinkmanship, but by activating diplomatic action, dialog, and re-joining the nuclear agreement (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), on the condition that Iran abides by all its nuclear and missile provisions without exception.

At the same time, President Biden’s administration will wait until it explores the nature and conduct of Iran’s actions and the viability of its policy of threatening its neighbours and other countries in the region, and the viability of its proxy war, which has become an integral part of its regional policy. President Biden will then, following the assessment of this period, set a policy for future US engagement with Iran, whether negatively or positively.

Eighth: Relations with Turkey

President Trump’s administration has dealt with the Turkish regime in a way that has been both ambiguous and different. Moreover, Turkey and the US have different views regarding Syria, the Kurds, and Libya. 

Despite Turkey’s developed relations with Russia and its access to the Russian S-400 Air Defence System, these Turkish trends have not led Washington to change its policies or try to put real pressure on Turkey, especially with Turkey’s threats to Greece and its attempt to extend its influence in the exclusive economic zones of the Eastern Mediterranean, which are within the Greek maritime boundaries. In addition, the economic sanctions that Washington imposed on the Turkish regime did not discourage it from continuing its extremist policies.

The Democratic administration will adopt more specific and clear policy toward Turkey, with the aim of controlling relations with it, so that Turkey does not pursue policies that contradict US interests in the region or in other parts of the world. This may lead to putting more pressure on the Turkish regime to curb its illicit ambitions and increasing influence. Erdogan has begun to prepare for the Biden administration phase, hoping that relations between the two countries will not deteriorate.

Ninth: The Syrian crisis

The Trump administration sought not to be strongly involved in the Syrian crisis, and to limit its military presence to a small number of troops and experts following its withdrawal from eastern Syria in December 2018.

Washington has made moves in order to achieve balance with the increasing Russian presence in Syria, and to try to curb the Iranian influence. The US has also changed its attitude toward the Syrian regime and moved from adopting the necessity of removing it immediately to paving the way for the possibility of accepting its term.

There is no clear change in the position of Biden’s administration toward this crisis. The Democratic administration will support every effort to stabilize Syria and curb the Iranian influence.

This is related to the improvement of US relations with both Russia and Iran (there are a number of US forces around oil sites to prevent terrorist groups or even the regime itself from reaching them. There are also a number of US forces on the line of contact with Kurdish regions).

President Biden will also ensure that there is continued coordination with Israel regarding Iran’s presence in Syria as a threat to Israeli security, and that there is no Israeli intervention in the Syrian crisis that could further complicate the prospect of a political settlement.

The Biden administration will continue to adhere to the Caesar Syria Civil Protection Act, which imposes sanctions on Syrian officials, countries and institutions that support the Syrian regime. However, there is a possibility that this act will be cancelled to enhance Syria’s humanitarian procedures and halt violence against civilians.

The Biden administration will not move toward removing the current Syrian regime, whose survival is required by many countries at the regional and international levels, so that terrorism can be fully refuted and political stability allowed for the presidential elections to materialize. Consequently, the Syrians will choose who will govern them. There may be a change in Syrian policy to address the new administration in order to open channels of communication with it.

Tenth: Relations with Iraq

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 under the Republican administration led by President Bush Jr. was one of the factors that affected the status of the strong state of Iraq, which became unstable, besides taking into account the Iranian role that led Iraq to this deterioration. 

After the decision to withdraw its troops from Iraq and eliminate the Islamic State (IS), the US dealt with Iraq in a more civilized manner, trying to provide it with military, security, and economic aid. However, IS cells are gradually returning, making the Iraqi arena recently suffer from instability due to its atrocities and military operations.

The key task of the new US administration is to stop the return of IS or any other terrorist group to Iraq. It should also promote Iraq’s stability, while keeping the military and security presence limited to training experts and advisers. 

On the other hand, curbing the Iranian influence in Iraq is a difficult mission, and will be related to improving US-Iranian relations in general.

In this regard, the Biden administration will face another challenge: The Council of Representatives of Iraq’s decision to force the Iraqi government to end the presence of all foreign troops from Iraqi territory (the current number of US troops in Iraq is about 2,500).

Eleventh: The Yemeni crisis

One of the most important US targets in the Yemeni crisis is to preserve security in the region’s vital waterways (Bab Al-Mandab Strait and the Strait of Hormuz), thereby seeking an extensive naval presence in and near the region to maintain the international trade that uses these waterways.

The Trump administration has also backed Saudi Arabia’s position on the Yemeni crisis, believing that Yemen is one of the KSA’s national security threats. Therefore, it supported the Arab coalition that aims at countering Iranian influence in Yemen, or in other words, their agent in the region, the Houthis, who became capable of threatening the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, by launching ballistic missiles and drones on important Saudi sites, especially oil sites and airports.

Biden’s administration will try not to get involved, and will seek to support the political settlement of the Yemeni crisis by coordinating with both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and trying to implement the Gulf Initiative, the outcomes of the National Dialog, and UN Resolution 2216. 

The future of relations between the new US administration and Iran will also have a clear impact on resolving this crisis and reducing the risks of the Houthis that are threatening Gulf States.

Twelfth: Relations with Sudan

The period following the fall of Omar Al-Bashir’s regime paved the way for the US to deal with Sudan, especially with Abdallah Hamdok’s assumption of the premiership and the good relations between Washington and chairman of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council Abdul-Fattah Al-Burhan.

The recent normalization of relations between Sudan and Israel has been a key factor that paved the way for the US to remove Sudan from the list of countries sponsoring terrorism and agree to start offering economic aid to it.

There will be no significant changes in the Biden administration’s dealing with Sudan, as it will continue its relationship with it on these new bases and provide further support for it to reach a successful end to the transitional period. It also supported Sudan’s position toward achieving stability in Darfur region and the success of the agreement signed in Juba last October between the Sudanese government and armed factions.

Thirteenth: The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam dispute

President Trump’s administration has made remarkable progress in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) negotiations through its effective mediation, together with the World Bank, from November 2019 until an integrated agreement on the management and operation of the GERD was reached at the end of February 2020.

Only Egypt, represented by the foreign minister, signed the agreement. Ethiopia was absent from the meeting while Sudan did not sign the agreement. Thus, no progress has been made in the negotiations since this time despite the mediation of the African Union.

This is an issue that President Biden’s administration can address and deliver, as it will not start from scratch, and there were many previous agreements. The success in the GERD issue will be a success for the new US administration, especially if this happens in the first year of its coming to power.

The most important obstacles to the new administration may be the nature of Ethiopia’s internal unrest. Current statements by the US Democratic Party are critical of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed about the negative humanitarian effects and the displacement of thousands of people as a result of this deterioration. 

Fourteenth: Combating terrorism

President Trump has made some achievements in the field of combating terrorism since the beginning of his rule, as he succeeded in eliminating IS’ presence in Iraq.

He then succeeded in killing some prominent IS members that he considered models of terrorism in the region, including Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, who was killed in October 2019 in Idlib, northwest of Syria, and Qassem Sulimani, the commander of the Jerusalem Corps, who was killed in Baghdad in January 2020.

Combating all forms of terrorism is one of the most important common elements for all US administrations, although the Biden administration will have to deal with the new attempts by some terrorist groups, especially IS, to return, especially in Iraq or Syria, mercenaries, militias in Libya, and other groups that extend their activity to the Sahel and the Sahara. The new administration will be keen to continue the successes of the former administration in facing terrorism.

Conclusion

With each US administration adopting different views, it is normal the new Democratic administration will review the US’ regional policies. The new administration’s first task will be to confront the effects of the coronavirus that is spreading in the US.

Future Arab relations with President Biden’s Democratic administration will not be at risk, for two key factors. First, Arab countries have real political and economic influence in international politics. Second, the Middle East is a strategic area that the US is keen to stabilize to preserve its interests, especially in the presence of Russian, Iranian and Turkish extended influence, and any element that may threaten US interests directly or indirectly.

Thus, Biden’s administration will not make any significant decisions that run counter to these interests, especially as the next stage may witness the start of reconstruction in some of the region’s countries that are starting their path of political compromise.

Therefore, what is required during the next stage, within the framework of a more comprehensive vision of Arab relations with the new Democratic administration, is that we must first have confidence in the capabilities of what we have. Second, a good, thorough analysis of the Biden administration’s vision of dealing with the region’s issues and leaders. Third, the importance of getting close to the new officials nominated for managing regional and international issues (Former Assistant National Security Advisor Tony Blinken nominated as Foreign Minister, Jake Sullivan nominated as National Security Advisor).

Hence, there is a need to reprioritize the Arab collective or individual interaction with the new US administration, according to the Arabs’ past experience and the world’s recent changes. In this regard, the positive outcomes will be maximized and the negative repercussions will be minimized, and interacting on the basis of equality and objectivity within the framework of the strategic relations that benefit both sides must be a top priority.

Gen. Mohamed Eldewery
Deputy Manager

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