Sayed Ghoneim, PhD in Political Science, Chairman IGSDA.
U-Tokyo (ROLES & IGSDA) 2nd Seminar on 26 February 2021
At the outset, we have to admit that it is a clear fact on the ground that the U.S. is no longer in control of the keys to matters in the Middle East as the situation was before. The Biden administration has started with a wave of executive actions addressing pressing foreign policy issues with an immediate reversal of several procedures that had been taken by the Trump administration, in an attempt to rebuild the international order in a way that seems focusing once again on American standards and values, as well as on international agreements and treaties. This shows Biden’s attempts to restore or even reformulate the six regional orders with the international order context, including the Middle East region. However, the Biden administration faces many variables and challenges that may hinder its efforts in the region.
- MAIN U.S. GOALS IN THE MIDDLE EAST.
- CHANGES AND CHALLENGES CONFRONT BIDEN’S ADMINISTRATION IN THE MIDDLE EAST.
- FINAL REMARKS AND POSSIBLE CONFRONTATION.
MAIN U.S. GOALS IN THE MIDDLE EAST
- Energy security:
- Securing energy resources in the Middle East for the U.S. and for its allies. ()
- The advantage of selling oil only in U.S. dollars;
- Both enable the U.S. to control the energy and the industrial countries in general in front of its main competitors, Russia the OPEC member state and China the non-OPEC state.
2. Full support to Israel. ()
3. Fight terrorism. ()
4. Confront the U.S. competitors.
5. Maintain freedom of the U.S. maritime navigation and global commercial passage through the main sea lanes in the Middle East – the Strait of Hormuz, the Bab al-Mandab Strait, and the Suez Canal.
CHANGES AND CHALLENGES CONFRONT BIDEN’S ADMINISTRATION IN THE MIDDLE EAST
Is it possible to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)?
Despite the issuance of the decision to lift the U.S. sanctions on Iran, and the initiation of the new U.S. administration to return with the JCPOA to before May 2018, there is a serious problem that resulted from Trump’s wrong policies towards Iran, which is that Iran succeeded to upgrade its nuclear project as an internal reaction to Trump’s policies. Who guarantees the capabilities of the Iranian nuclear project today compared to the capabilities of the same project two and a half years ago? Iran has the right to be a strong and stable country, but if it acquires a nuclear weapon or increases its nuclear capabilities, who is the guarantor of the future stability of the region? On the other hand, the Iranian nuclear program is no longer what threatens Israel and the Gulf countries alone, as there is a consensus from Saudi Arabia and Israel that the Iranian missile arsenal has become a serious threat; this was confirmed by Rouhani’s statement on 14th of December 2020: “The ballistic missile program and regional issues are not negotiable”.
Is it possible to restore the U.S. strategic alliance with Turkey?
Two principal factors have driven a wedge into Turkish once-robust relationship with the U.S.:
- The U.S. support to the Kurds in Syria against Daesh(), providing weapons to the Syria-based People’s Protection Units militia (colloquially known as the YPG) because of its close links to the Kurdish Worker’s Party, which has long been the principal terrorist threat to the Turkish state
- The U.S.’s attitudes toward the Fethullah Gulen movement(), which Turks broadly blame for the failed summer 2016 coup against the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In the wake of the attempted putsch, Erdogan launched a sweeping nationwide crackdown on suspected Gulen collaborators, as a result of which thousands of state employees were removed from their posts and more than 20,000 teachers and academics were fired. But Erdogan has not been content to simply purge Gulenist influence from Turkish politics. For nearly three years, his government has actively pressured the U.S. to extradite the movement’s reclusive leader, Fethullah Gulen, from his residence-in-exile in Pennsylvania’s Poconos mountains. So far, the U.S. government has resisted this pressure — something that has bred significant resentment not only among regime loyalists but nationalist Turks as well
Equally divisive has been Turkey’s decision to acquire advanced Russian air defenses (the S-400). This is not the only issue, relation between Turkey and Russia have become more interconnected. On the other hand, we find the tense Turkish relations with its neighbors in the Middle East and Europe; these all create more challenges and burdens in front the U.S. interests in the Middle East and Europe.
The Deal of The Century and Israel’s annexation of the Palestinian settlements: will they continue?
The U.S. Democratic Party, mainly Biden, were against Israel’s annexation of the Palestinian settlements and against moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. The U.S. Democratic Party sees the Palestinian Cause from a different angle of Trump; and the current situation forms a challenge to Biden administration. Even though, it will be very difficult to undo the developments that the Trump administration has established in this regard. I may here recall what my American colleague Dr. John Siko said to me literally concerning this issue: “I would explicitly add that the U.S. Jewish community overwhelmingly supports the Democratic party.” These may invite Biden to reconsider the solution to the Palestinian issue, perhaps far from Kushner’s deal of the century.()
How to stop the escalation of the crises and the deterioration of the security environment in the region?
In Syria, al-Assad is still in control of the situation, in the time the U.S. and the European forces fighting terrorism are less influential than Russia. The U.S. was not able to “lift a finger” in front of the Turkish military forces expansion in Syria and at the borders with Iraq, but Russia was able to manage and contain the competition between the regional powers (Turkey, Iran, and Israel), in a way that achieves Russian interests and enables it to maintain its influence in Syria. ()
In Lebanon, political, economic and security situation depends, to a large extent, on the nature of future relations between the U.S. and Iran. Iran still has a considerable influence in Lebanon and largely controls its political decision and controls the Lebanese security situation, especially with the continued rule of Assad in Syria, which affects the strategy of the U.S. and its interests in the Middle East.
In Yemen, I think that Biden sees the humanitarian crisis as exacerbating and the terrorist activity of Al-Qaeda continuing just as the enemies of the U.S. have increased after including the Houthis in the U.S. list of proscribed terrorist organizations. This severely threaten the security of navigation in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, which considers one of the main U.S. five goals in the Middle East
As for Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean, they have become areas of dispute over economic wealth and influence, and they become a foothold for Russia politically and militarily, and China may soon have a political role, in a way that form a direct threat to the interests and security of Europe and NATO and weakens the influence of the US.
All of the above constitute major dilemmas facing the Biden administration, especially with the prospects of further diminishing American influence in the region in general and reducing the military presence / support in particular.
How to restore trust of the countries of the region on the US?
Specific issues have negatively affected the degree of trust of Arab countries on the US, mainly the U.S. strategic mistakes, with Russian fake news targeting the reputation of the U.S. and China’s soft policy and its economic approach to the region. Not to mention the lack of confidence of the Arabs in the policies of the Democratic Party towards them in the first place, we find many Arab countries, including the Palestinian Authority don’t trust on either Democrats or Republicans. The Trump administration had put on red lines that should not be crossed, the most important of which is the security of Israel and control of Gulf oil and money. More specifically, I think that despite Trump’s constant support for some Arab leaders, he did not achieve fundamental gains for his Gulf allies or Egypt compared to what he achieved for Israel, such as, (Palestinian settlements’ annexation – moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem – normalizing relations between Some Arab countries and Israel – recognizing the sovereignty of Israel on the Golan Heights, …).
The Arabs also see Biden and the Democrats representing a country that claims values and ethics, but with double standards exploit human rights and freedoms as a pressure card at the expense of other important national constants and interests; the main goal was to maintain the U.S. interests.
Is it possible to maintain a balance of the U.S. foreign policy toward the region between the U.S. values and interests?
Democrats used to protect the U.S. values inside the U.S. and all over the world, mainly the Middle East. Although Obama was supporting the values of Arab Spring revolutions, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton differed with him as they saw the fall of the Mubarak regime, which used to preserve political balance in the region, will turn the region to chaos, and will severely affect the U.S. interests in the Middle East.
On the other hand, Trump sided very pragmatically with what he considered (American economic interests) without any regard for the values. Hence, I think that Biden will face the problem of restoring the balance between American values and interests, as Trump used to provide full support to some Arab leaders from the perspective of the purely American interest (this includes all aspects of the U.S. interests).
Is it possible to restore the U.S. prestige in the region, in more partnerships with more allies, mainly in front of its competitors (China and Russia)?
I think that the U.S. policy towards Israel and its allies from Arab Gulf states was one of the main factors that allowed Russian influence to leak out in the region, as well as created the appropriate conditions for China to exercise new military and political movements in the region, such as, joint military manoeuvres with Russia and Iran, and launching an invitation for open dialogue platform between the Gulf countries and Iran based on the JCPOA. This was also helped by the immunity that the U.S. guarantees to Israel, such as the ambition of hegemony and the nuclear arsenal, which reduced Washington’s credibility with other regional players and made it vulnerable to approaches by competitors. These all affected the U.S. hegemony and influence in the region.
What Biden Administration will do if Mohamed Bin Salman (MBS) becomes a King tomorrow for any reason?
On 16 February 2021, White House said: “Biden will only deal with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman directly”. This is, I think, embarrassing Prince MBS in front of the world, and limits his freedom in Saudi foreign relations. And this may create direct enmity with the Saudi crown prince in the future, especially if he ascended the throne soon for any reason
FINAL REMARKS AND FUTURE PERSPECTIVES
- There is no doubt that the U.S. is become no longer fully Influencing the Middle East region. The reality on the ground says that China and Russia have become partners (Annex A). China’s approach in the Middle East is considered a major factor of the transformation of the economic, political and security dynamics in the Middle East.
- Very skillfully, Russia practices a true difficult maneuver in its foreign policy, which is the “Containment Policy”, whereby Russia was, and still, able to contain the competitors in Syria and may seek to adopt same policy in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean. The U.S. was not used to practice this policy among the rivaling actors; the U.S. is used to adopt a grand strategy, branched to specialized strategies (political – military – economic – …), exercising its relations with the countries (through two main lists of friends and enemies). I think that this will make the U.S. lose the necessary flexibility in its international relations.
To confront these challenges in the Middle East, Biden administration may work to achieve the following:
- Prepare a new U.S. grand (comprehensive) strategy that carries priorities to undermine the quick moves of its competitors in the region (China and Russia), trying by all means to hinder the Russian roles and stop its political and military infiltration in the Middle East (which China may depend on), and to direct China to the negotiation tables from a weaker position.
- On the other hand, Biden may work flexibly in his foreign policy on two axes:
- Restore the U.S. strategic allies, mainly, Turkey, Gulf countries and Egypt, in a precise balance between the U.S. interests and values.
- Reduce the U.S. list of enemies, containing them with more flexible initiatives and agreements, in addition to replace economic and economic sanctions and pressures with more effective negotiation tools.
3. It is still likely that the U.S. will have to reduce (not to stop) its intervention in the internal issues of the countries in the region, avoiding involvement in counter-terrorism operations or confronting the dictatorial governments, as a step to shift to focus on global competition in the regions of the economic growth resources; bearing in mind that terrorism continues as long as its roots remain, and the US, regardless of its economic power, must set its practical priorities.
Chinese / Russian Strategic Alliance: ()
Day after day, the Sino-Russian relations are deepening and deepening, moving beyond the stage of bilateral cooperation to comprehensive strategic participation. After the Moscow summit on June 5, 2019 – and since its inception in 1949 – the relations between the two countries reached an unprecedented level of participation and multi-field strategic cooperation following the signature of the two presidents A wide range of agreements, on top of which is the joint declaration to develop full-participation and strategic cooperation relations that include new missions and long-term milestones, in addition to more than thirty agreements in all areas of civil, military and security cooperation, political, economic, humanitarian and other issues between them. Among the most prominent indications and dimensions established by the Moscow summit between the two countries are the following:
- Confirming Russia and China’s principled stance towards promoting global stability, and declaring their rejection of the U.S. approach adopted by President Donald Trump to withdraw the United States from international agreements on arms control in general and missiles in particular, and their insistence on refusing to destroy the current system of agreements in the field of arms control, disarmament and prevention Spread it.
- The two countries’ “leaders” continuous declaration of their rejection of the American approach based on imposing hegemony and the continuity of a unipolar world order led by the United States, and their presentation in return for a new vision of the world and global policies based on pluralism, respect for the law, principles of justice and the promotion of interests and economic development gains for all international parties. Including developing countries. ()
- The two countries have sought to implement their strategic cooperation in several crises raised by the U.S. on the political level, as Beijing decided to stand and support Moscow after the incident of poisoning the former colonel in the Russian military intelligence “Sergei Skripal” and his daughter “Yulia” in Britain Russia(). also supported China against the trade war launched by Trump’s administration. ()
- The two countries sent more than one message of anger and warning to the United States based on attacking American decisions and describing them as the unilateral approach whereby the United States seeks to impose its own interests and completely ignore the interests of the others, which have nothing to do with diplomacy. ()
- In response to the U.S. National Security Strategy 2017 and the 2018 National Defense Strategy issued by the U.S. Department of Defense (Pentagon) that both China and Russia pose a great and imminent threat to U.S. security () – The Chinese and Russian Presidents realized that there is no alternative for them but coordination and alliance together This will create a deterrent force capable of ending American hegemony. The military cooperation and alliance included conducting military maneuvers between the Chinese and Russian armies in September 2018, which experts described as the largest in Russia’s history, which was called “Vostok 2018”. The two sides agreed on the joint military manufacture of combat aircraft and missiles, and the modernization of old Russian and Chinese aircraft.
Daniel Byman and Sara Bjerg Moller, The U.S. and the Middle East: Interests, Risks, and Costs in Jeremi Suri and Benjamin valentine (eds.,) , Sustainable Security: Rethinking American : National Security Strategy, The Tobin Project, Oxford University Press. 2016.pp. 3-9.
Aksan, Cihan, and Jon Bailes. “Gilbert Achcar: The United States in the Middle East.” In: Weapon of the Strong: Conversations on U.S. State Terrorism, 173-92. London: Pluto Press, 2013. Accessed January 30, 2020.
Micah Zenko, U.S. Military Policy in the Middle East: An Appraisal, U.S. and the Americas Programme, Research Paper, The Royal Institute of International Affairs. October 2018. Pp.9-14.
Sirwan Kajjo, Syrian Kurds Optimistic About Continued U.S. Support Under Biden Presidency, November 11, 2020, https://www.voanews.com/extremism-watch/syrian-kurds-optimistic-about-continued-us-support-under-biden-presidency
Max Hoffman, Flashpoints in U.S.-Turkey Relations in 2021, Center For America Progress, January 19, 2021, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/security/reports/2021/01/19/494738/flashpoints-u-s-turkey-relations-2021/
REE/RL, Putin, Erdogan, Rohani Set For Sochi Summit On Syria, February 04, 2019, https://www.rferl.org/a/putin-erdogan-rohani-russia-turkey-iran-sochi-summit-syria/29749645.html
White House said: “Biden will only deal with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman directly, Middle East Eye, 16 February 2021, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/biden-communicate-saudi-arabia-king-salman-bypassing-mbs
Russia Kremlin, press statements following Russian-Chinese talks, 05/06/2019.
The Interpreter, The Lowy Institute, What Russia wants in a multipolar world, 31/10/2019.
BBC News, Russian spy: What happened to Sergei and Yulia Skripal?, 27/09/2018.
The Interpreter, The Lowy Institute, What Russia wants in a multipolar world, 31/10/2019.
Other open resources
) Daniel Byman and Sara Bjerg Moller, The U.S. and the Middle East: Interests, Risks, and Costs in Jeremi Suri and Benjamin valentine (eds.,) , Sustainable Security: Rethinking American : National Security Strategy, The Tobin Project, Oxford University Press. 2016.pp. 3-9.
) Aksan, Cihan, and Jon Bailes. “Gilbert Achcar: The United States in the Middle East.” In: Weapon of the Strong: Conversations on U.S. State Terrorism, 173-92. London: Pluto Press, 2013. Accessed January 30, 2020.
) Micah Zenko, U.S. Military Policy in the Middle East: An Appraisal, U.S. and the Americas Programme, Research Paper, The Royal Institute of International Affairs. October 2018. Pp.9-14.
() Sirwan Kajjo, Syrian Kurds Optimistic About Continued U.S. Support Under Biden Presidency, November 11, 2020, https://www.voanews.com/extremism-watch/syrian-kurds-optimistic-about-continued-us-support-under-biden-presidency
() BBC News, Turkey coup: What is Gulen movement and what does it want? 21 July 2016, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36855846
() Maayan Lubell, Rami Ayyub, Analysis: What will survive of U.S.-Middle East policy under Biden?, Reuters, JANUARY 20, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-legacy-mideast-analysis-idUSKBN29P1RB
() REE/RL, Putin, Erdogan, Rohani Set For Sochi Summit On Syria, February 04, 2019, https://www.rferl.org/a/putin-erdogan-rohani-russia-turkey-iran-sochi-summit-syria/29749645.html
() White House said: “Biden will only deal with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman directly, Middle East Eye, 16 February 2021, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/biden-communicate-saudi-arabia-king-salman-bypassing-mbs
) Russia Kremlin, press statements following Russian-Chinese talks, 05/06/2019.
) The Interpreter, The Lowy Institute, What Russia wants in a multipolar world, 31/10/2019.
) BBC News, Russian spy: What happened to Sergei and Yulia Skripal?, 27/09/2018.
) The Interpreter, The Lowy Institute, What Russia wants in a multipolar world, 31/10/2019.
) الخليج، روسيا والصين.. تعاون أم شراكة استراتيجية؟ 13 يونيو 2019.
) سابق, The White House National Security Strategy, December 2017, Introduction, A competitive World, PP 2-3