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CWA # 384, 12 December 2020

US and the Middle East
Trump legacy leaves negligible space for any policy changes

  Rashmi Ramesh

Joe Biden will have to walk a tight rope while balancing between Arab states, human rights and the Palestinian cause, and Iran. 

The four years of President Donald Trump (2016-2020) was marked by criticism, debates, mockery, and also appreciation by several sections of the population who wanted to see America regain its lost lustre, return to its greatness. As Joe Biden awaits, Trump’s policies, his legacy and the expectations from the former are being deliberated upon. 

This article focuses on US-Middle east dynamics. It argues that Joe Biden will inherit a legacy that will constrain his policy choices and limit his options. 

Trump administration’s approach to the region
The Middle East is characterized by long-standing conflicts, civil wars, inter-state clandestine warfare, the role of foreign powers in regional affairs, resource politics, humanitarian crisis, so on. The United States, as a world power, has major stakes in every country in the Middle East. It also has a substantial role to play concerning the Islamic State and Kurdish forces.

Reverting boots on ground policy and ending the ‘unending wars’ was one of the major poll promises of Trump. After being embroiled in Iraq since 2003, the US is withdrawing its troops and reducing its presence. In November 2020, the US Secretary of Defence Christoph Miller announced the decision to reduce the deployment to 2500 troops. 

The US’s withdrawal signs probable better bilateral relations between Tehran and Washington but will pave the way for Iran’s greater role in the country. The Popular Mobilization Unit, an Iran-backed organization having strong political clout in Iraq, played the main role in passing the Parliament’s resolution on US withdrawal. As the US prepares for a complete withdrawal, Iran’s role is set to increase. Experts also speculate a greater space for the Islamic State in Iraq. In 2019, the terrorist organization conducted 1669 attacks, a 13 per cent increase from the previous year; and was responsible for more than 500 attacks in the first three months of 2020. 

The US has withdrawn from Syria, much to the ire of the Kurdish forces that depend on it to fight the regime. Trump administration continued the anti-regime stance and imposed sanctions that have crippled the Syrian economy to a large extent. However, Turkey and Russia have more stakes than the US in the present situation. 

Yemen, the most impoverished Arab country, is in the midst of a civil war between the government and the Houthi rebels, since 2015. While the government is supported by the Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia and UAE, the rebels are backed by Iran and its militias. The US, under Trump has substantially increased the sale of arms to the Arab coalition countries, despite a strong demand from the Congress to cut ties with Saudi Arabia in the wake of journalist Khashoggi’s killing and the war in Yemen. Nevertheless, in 2019, Trump administration managed to circumvent the Congressional review regarding major weapons sales worth USD eight billion, by declaring an emergency over the issue of Iran. This covert support to the Arab coalition, and its actions in Yemen has drawn strong criticisms from various quarters. 

The US military also was directly involved in the airstrikes conducted in Yemen, targeting certain suspected Al-Qaeda terrorists and their camps. Between 2017 and 2018, the airstrikes peaked. According to Airwars, an independent monitoring group, the collateral damage claimed at least 86 civilians. The outcome of both actions of the US is being witnessed in the form of the greatest humanitarian crisis in Yemen.  

The US has historically been Israel’s ally. Trump went a step further, by recognizing Jerusalem as its capital and moved the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on 14 May 2018. He has taken the assertive pro-Israel stance. On 19 November, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Psagot Winery, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank; and the occupied Golan Heights in Syria-Israel border. This is the first such visit of a top American official to the areas that are not recognized by the international community. His visit is a major step towards acknowledging Israel’s sovereignty over these occupied areas. US’s unwavering support to Israel’s policies and actions has boosted its confidence to think of an annexation plan. Whether Israel implements this or not, the fact that it could conceive such an idea, speaks volumes about the US’s support under Trump administration. 

Trump has also played a major role in brokering peace and restoring diplomatic relations between Israel and the Arab countries. Bahrain and UAE have marked official diplomatic relations with Israel by signing the Abraham Accords. The US expects more Arab nations to come into the fold. The Palestinian cause now seems to be brushed aside, with its traditional support base drifting away. It may also be observed that the non-Arab countries- Iran and Turkey are supporting the cause. In this regard, Arab vs non-Arab debates are becoming more evident. The Accords certainly acts as a major game-changer in the region. 

Iran, the US’s main rival in the Middle East, has continued the proxy wars and its support and training for the Shia militias planted across the region. Trump pursued a ‘maximum pressure policy’ aimed at choking Iran with a slew of sanctions. In November, the Supreme leader-linked foundation Islamic Revolution Mostazafan Foundation was blacklisted. Though facing immense pressure, Iran has stood firm in attempting to put up a resilient face. 

The US unilaterally withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018, much to the discontentment of other countries part of the deal. This paves the way for Iran to strengthen its nuclear programme. It will now return back to the commitments of JCPOA only if the US returns to the deal. The outcome is regional imbalance and instability. 

In January 2020, US drone strikes in Baghdad killed the decorated Iranian military officer Gen Qasem Soleimani. It evoked an emotional response from the Iranian public and the regime. The assassination had a moral impact. However, the activities of the Quds Force and the IRGC continue in a similar fashion. 

In its attempt to isolate Tehran further in the region, the Trump administration has up to some extent, united its regional rivals. The Abraham Accords may be a peace plan to unite Israel and Arab states, but it also perceived as a tool that unites these countries against Iran, the primary concern in the region at present. In domestic issues, Trump has stood behind the anti-regime protestors in Iran. This was evident during the protests in 2019, when US’s envoy for Iran Brian Hook said that “the administration was very pleased with the protests.” But Iran initiated a crackdown on protests and subsequently ended it. 

Apart from states, it is important to note US’s role in tackling the non-state actors, particularly the Islamic State. In 2019, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the chief of ISIS was killed by an operation by the US special forces in Northwest Syria. This was a big step towards decimating the terrorist outfit. But the Trump administration has a mixed approach in dealing with the ISIS. It has assassinated the top leadership, fought alongside Iraq in destroying the organizational set up and reclaimed the captured territories. The Syrian government too launched several attacks against the outfit. However, the death of Gen Soleimani is a step backwards in the fight against ISIS. The US also aims for complete withdrawal from Iraq, which will result in more space for the outfit. The Islamic State continues to be a threat to West Asia. 

Trump’s Legacy and Biden’s Options
Trump’s policies in the Middle East can be summed up as following: First, his unwavering, unconditional support to Israel. His policies in this respect are unprecedentedly Zionist. Second, he is a President who aimed for a “peaceful” Middle East. It may be premature to label it as a complete, inclusive peace plan, as there is categorical support for one side against the other. But it is an attempt towards better diplomatic relations and defusal of tensions. The US will see the Middle East through the lens of the Abraham Accords and project this as the major achievement of the outgoing regime. Third, he has a business/transactional outlook, that is not very different from other presidencies. Trump abandoned all those policies that did not benefit him or his administration. Increased arms sales to Gulf countries aimed at increasing American revenues. Sudan’s recognition of Israel was a move in return to be removed from the State Sponsorers of Terrorism List, thereby ensuring that Israel gains what it wants. 

Trump’s approach to the Middle East gives little space for Biden to manoeuvre. His policy choices will mostly be constrained to a reversal of Trump’s policies. This applies to not only the Middle East but also to other regions of the world. This section looks at Biden’s policy options in the Middle East. 

First, he may scrutinize Saudi Arabia for its human rights violations and war in Yemen. Given that the humanitarian crisis in Yemen will continue in the coming years, Biden may reduce the sale of arms and ammunition to Saudi Arabia and UAE, going in accordance with the Congress. 

Second, Biden may traverse in a slightly different path in the case of Yemen. His administration may not be able to put an end to the war completely but will make an attempt to break the silence and question both Houthis and the government supported by the Arab Coalition, regarding the war crimes. He may also choose multilateralism as an option to bring the UN and other world powers on board to address the crisis in a better fashion. 

Third, he can reduce the intensity of the sanction regime against Iran, even though complete revocation of sanctions may not be a viable option. Biden has indicated that he will return back to JCPOA, and include Iran’s regional rivals, especially Saudi Arabia into the process. However, Biden will be perceived as pro-Iran for overturning Trump’s policies. 

Lastly, Trump’s biggest legacy in the Middle East. Joe Biden will not be taking a backstep on the peace process and the Abraham Accords. He has also appreciated Trump for initiating the process and starting the diplomatic ties between the concerned parties. As a Senator, Biden has a record of being a strong Zionist. Therefore his approach to the issue will be based on his strong pro-Israel beliefs. He may adopt a more nuanced path, but will not abandon the Accords, the peace process, and the embassy in Jerusalem. He will have to walk a tight rope while balancing between Arab states, human rights and the Palestinian cause, and Iran. 


About the author

Rashmi is a PhD scholar at the Science Diplomacy Programme, in School of Conflict and Security Studies, National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS). Her research interests include the Arctic geopolitics and governance, climate change, maritime security and India's foreign policy. Currently, she is pursuing a PhD on "Governance in the Arctic: The role of Institutions with special reference to the Arctic Council, Saami Council and the Arctic Circle"

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