Kate Backshall | United States Fellow
The Biden administration has some enormous problems at home, but regardless of the size of domestic challenges, foreign affairs demand attention. The US is still deeply tied-up in many of the conflicts plaguing the Middle East region. Biden has stated he wants to ‘restore America's international engagement’ and the Middle East is already presenting tough decisions in this space.
The Middle East includes several fully or partially failed states like Syria and Yemen, as well as others teetering on the edge under the pressures of war. The conflicts destabilising these states are largely proxy wars. Some of these conflicts were born of the Cold War as seen in Afghanistan – the US’ longest-running war. In Syria, the proxy conflict has just reached its grim 10-year anniversary. It began as an uprising, then developed to include an array of state and non-state actors competing for influence at the expense of Syrians. The last decade has seen the US bolster support behind their Saudi and Israeli allies to counter Iranian influence, but providing weapons and stoking these conflicts has had grave consequences. Inevitability these wars have led to the world's worst humanitarian crisis in Yemen and such extreme devastation in Syria the UN stopped counting the dead five years ago.
The US’ relationships both with allies and adversaries in the region continue to require careful line‑treading as the Biden administration negotiates a new approach. Biden repeated “America is back” at a foreign policy speech in February. This is meant to imply a break from former President Trump’s ‘America First’ agenda. But while there certainly are changes, there is continuity in many aspects too.
Trump and Obama’s rhetoric on ending wars in the Middle East is something Biden has echoed, Trump had created a deal with the Taliban to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021, but as the date approaches Biden has described the deadline as hard to meet for ‘tactical reasons’ requiring renegotiation. With the negotiations in the Middle East already so fraught with complexity, simply diverting from the policy of a former administration in this fashion can damage trust.
The de-escalation of US-Iranian tensions is perhaps the most pressing priority for the Biden administration, given its centrality in multiple conflicts. This relationship became especially challenged after President Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) deal in 2018 and again after the assassination of Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani in 2020. Trump’s campaign of ‘maximum pressure’ - using sanctions to dampen Iran’s hostility - has had little success.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has suggested Iran is now only months away from having the capacity to build a nuclear weapon. Biden has indicated re-joining the JCPOA is a priority and Tehran has indicated interest in re-establishing the deal. But that step is complicated by an increasingly confident Iranian government with its own election looming.
The Saudis also remain important to the new administration, but Biden has opted for an emphasis on human rights in foreign policy, in contrast to Trump’s realpolitik approach. As such, Biden is having to create some tactful distance, particularly with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman due to the recent revelations of his involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Washington is now favouring the term ‘security partner’ over ‘ally’, when referring to the Saudis and has broached recalibrating the relationship.
Despite the talk of a new diplomatic approach, there is some contradiction in Washington’s action in the Middle East. President Biden has carried out an airstrike in Syria targeting an Iranian-backed militia. This was in retaliation to a rocket attack on February 15, which wounded US troops within Iraq. The airstrike was intended to warn Iran not to target US interests. But in practice, it has been described as limited in scope and done in a “deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq,” likely with the hope to keep JCPOA negotiations on the table. These strikes have been widely criticised and described as a continuation of Trump’s escalatory behaviours.
Biden wants to scale back the US’ presence in this region much like his predecessors did. It is too early to tell if his well-intentioned pivot to a human rights and diplomacy approach will be implemented in practice, as balancing the complex relationships in the region can present pressure to react quickly. But despite using war authorisations to enact his February strikes, Biden is considering repealing these same authorisations. This, amidst a clear realignment with a US foreign policy that advocates democratic principles abroad, suggests that he is making moves to rein in the US’ role in the region.
Kate Backshall is the United States Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.