colonel cassad’s survey of the new US administration’s probable policy in the middle east

US in the Middle East: what Biden’s decisions will determine the fate of the region
Boris Rozhin, RIA Novosti, Jan 23 2021
(Expert at the Center for Military and Political Journalism, author of the Colonel Cassad blog)

The inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on Jan 20 2021, as well as the transfer of control of the US Senate to the Democrat Party by the end of January, will lead to a situation where the Democrats will have full control over US foreign policy. At the same time, opponents from the Republican Party will have little opportunity to effectively challenge the main provisions of US foreign policy, which in the coming weeks will undergo significant adjustments in terms of goals, objectives, methodology and ideological content. What challenges await the administration of the new US President Joe Biden in the Middle East, in the material of Boris Rozhin, author of the Telegram channel Colonel Cassad.

The new US authorities do not hide in their statements that Donald Trump’s policy in general and the policy of the States under Trump in the Middle East are considered by them to be erroneous, weak and even criminal in terms of US interests as a world leader. Just as Trump has stated after coming to power that it is necessary to fight Obama’s “heritage,” Biden and Democrat Party officials are now stating the need to reconsider some key provisions of Republican policy. This revision has already begun with formal steps such as the US return to the Paris Climate Agreement or cooperation with WHO. However, much more interesting are those changes that will affect the US struggle to preserve its military and political hegemony in various regions of the world, where it in one way or another faces the interests of China, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Venezuela, North Korea and a number of other countries, which American propaganda regards as “dictatorships,” “non-free,” “non-democratic,” “totalitarian,” “terrorist” etc.

Since the Middle East has been one of the main drivers of global military, political and economic transformations in recent decades concerning the very basis of the late Washington world order, it will be appropriate to consider adjusting U..foreign policy through its prospects in a number of key issues affecting both the Middle East itself and the global balance of power in Eurasia. As the main nodes and problem points, we will consider Turkey, Israel, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Kurdistan, as well as the interests of China and Russia, which the US in one way or another faces in the region at the military, political and economic levels.

Turkey. Dangerous subjectivity

US relations with Turkey were clouded at the end of Barack Obama’s second term, when the first serious frictions related to the Kurdish project began. And the failed coup d’état (for which Ankara indirectly accused Washington and the US preacher Fethullah Gülen hiding in the US) led to tectonic changes in the region. Turkey actually fell out of the anti-Assad coalition and joined a situational partnership with Russia and Iran. This led to a whole chain of deals at the expense of the Kurds and the “Green opposition,” (Islamists – RB) as well as the signing of the Astana Agreements, which completely ignored the position of the US. From 2016 to 2020, this process actually led to the collapse of the Greens, which are now fully controlled by Turkey and concentrated in Idlib, with no prospects of overthrowing Bashar al-Assad. In addition, during the operations in the Al-Baba, Afrin and Ras al-Ain areas, Turkey prevented the creation of real Kurdish autonomy along the entire Syrian-Turkish border, by force. The Turkish government also demonstratively purchased S-400 air defense systems from Russia, expanded economic partnership with Russia and strengthened cooperation with China within the framework of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative. Sanctions against Turkey or a ban on the supply of F-35s did not stop Ankara, which is determined in its “disobedience.” By the end of Trump’s presidency, Erdogan had pursued his own subjective policy to expand spheres of influence in the Middle East, Caucasus and North Africa without much concern for Washington’s opinion.

Biden and his administration will face a rather difficult choice, given the statements about the restoration of “democratic principles and ideals” that do not correspond well with the nature of the political regime in Ankara. To normalize relations, the US will be forced to make certain concessions: to abandon sanctions for the S-400, to stop supporting the Kurdish project and the Gülenist networks. If there are no such concessions, Erdogan will continue to follow his chosen ‘neo-Ottomanist’ course, which, in addition to being a danger to Turkey’s neighbors, poses a threat to the American strategy related to the Kurds, as Ankara has made it clear that it intends to continue forceful operations against the Kurds to prevent the creation of a Kurdish state or autonomy. Despite this, there are circles in the Democrat Party that believe that they can turn a blind eye to Erdogan’s activities, and favor him over the Kurds in order to direct Turkey’s boiling activity against the interests of Russia and Iran, while destroying the existing bilateral deal regime in Syria. On the other hand, the return to administration of figures such as Brett McGurk indicates that the US is unlikely to completely abandon the Kurdish project, which the Obama administration once cultivated. Perhaps in the first stage of adjusting its policy towards Turkey, the US will prefer a cautious approach, trying to revive relations with Ankara without having to break with the Kurds. But the experience of the late Obama and Trump administrations has shown that the Turks are not very patient with this approach, reasonably believing that the US is leading them around by the nose and trying to distract them from the main threat to Turkish statehood. I believe that clarity will come after the inspection visits of representatives of the State Dept and the Pentagon to Syrian Kurdistan and clarification of prospects for supporting the Kurds against Russia, Iran and the Syrian Arab Republic.

Israel: The end of the honeymoon

It is already obvious that the time of Washington’s gifts for Israel is over. Israel has benefited a lot from the activities of the Trump administration, which recognized Jerusalem as the capital of the country and ensured the normalization of Israel’s relations with a number of Arab states. Of course, all these decisions cost the USA a lot. They actually lost the role of regional arbitrator on the Palestinian question, which was given to Iran and Turkey, who used it competitively to strengthen their positions in the Islamic world. The Democrats have officially agreed to continue the policy of recognizing Jerusalem, but on the first day of Biden’s presidency, a strange story began with the change of name of the US Embassy in Israel, where the West Bank and Gaza Strip went onto the embassy’s Twitter account separately from Israel. It is no great secret that the left wing of the Democrat Party supports the Palestinians’ view, so we can expect attempts to partially reverse Washington’s position on the Palestinian issue, and at least to restore adequate relations with moderate Palestinian leaders. On the other hand, the position on Jerusalem makes it incredibly difficult for the US to maneuver in this direction, as Iran and Turkey openly support Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem despite the opposition of of Washington.

It is unlikely that the Biden administration will take any course which sharply deteriorates relations with Israel, which will remain its main regional ally anyhow, but we can expect greater diversification of US policy. This will be due not only to the revision of relations with Turkey and Palestine, but also to the hypothetical possibility of the US return to the nuclear deal with Iran, which is considered a serious threat to the country’s already difficult situation in Israel. Representatives of the Biden administration say they are ready to restore the deal, but it is not yet clear whether they will agree to return to it on Iranian terms, or whether the US will continue to seek concessions from Iran in favor of Israel and Saudi Arabia. It is also worth noting that Netanyahu’s problems with corruption trials and the expectation of his departure are now unlikely to be hidden by expensive American gifts at anyone else’s expense. It cannot be ruled out that Washington may prefer to wait for the change of power in Tel Aviv, and work with a figure less compromised so far, that can be included in the equations related to Palestine and Iran.

Syria. You can’t leave and stay (Уйти нельзя остаться).

With regard to Syria, US policy is likely to be inertial. There is no indication that Washington under Biden intends to end the occupation of Al-Tanf and north-eastern Rojava in the medium term. The same people who criticized Trump’s withdrawal course and helped sabotage this strategy have now come to power. No progress is expected in recognizing Assad’s legitimacy or lifting sanctions on Syria. On the contrary, if the choice is made in favor of the Kurds in the Turk-Kurd dilemma, we can expect not only increased pressure on Damascus, but also an increase in the contingent of American troops in Syria to strengthen US positions in the oil areas. At the same time, depending on the outcome of negotiations to restore the nuclear deal with Iran, the motives for the American occupation may change. Since their claim to be combating terrorism has long looked unconvincing, Trump’s concept of “we’re here for the oil” can finally be replaced by a real reason: opposition to Iranian influence, which the State Dept and some generals in the Pentagon tried to achieve under Trump. If a deal with Iran is concluded, the illegal stay in the territories will continue under some other cover. In addition, the line of “depriving Russia of the fruits of victory in Syria” was openly spoken of in Democrat circles under Trump, and now it will clearly serve as a guide to action. Russia’s proposals for cooperation in the humanitarian and counter-terrorism spheres are unlikely to be accepted. Rather, on the contrary, pressure on Russian positions in Syria may increase, and not only along propaganda and sanctions lines. In general, we can expect US policy in Syria to develop in the first stages in the same way as under Trump, but the Kurdish issue and the deal with Iran may alter it by the summer of 2021.

Iraq. How not to drown in the sands

The most problematic situation for the US so far has developed in Iraq. Because of the mistakes of the Trump administration, Iran achieved what it wanted: a Shi’ite bridge passing through Iraq was built; a law was adopted to expel US troops from that country; attacks on US facilities and columns became regular, and the Embassy could not actually function. The strikes on Shi’ite militias, as well as the murder of IRGC General Qassem Suleimani and Deputy Head of Hashd al-Shaabi Abu Mahdi Muhandis, did not solve the problems of the US, but only exacerbated them, forcing to reduce its military presence in Iraq under external pressure, surrendering some of its military facilities to the Iraqi army. The anti-American campaign itself allowed Iran to strengthen its position in Iraq and achieve a situational alliance with the “Sadrists” aiming at the expulsion of the US from Iraq. Attempts to repeal the inconvenient decree in the Iraqi Parliament have failed, as have attempts to incite the Iraqi army against the Hashd al-Shaabi, the Asaib Ahl’al-Haqq and the Qata’ib Hezbollah. This struggle has shown Iran’s huge informal influence on present-day Iraq, from which it is almost impossible to expel Iran now. The US has two obvious ways to go here:

  1. The course of escalation with Iran will lead to new strikes on Iranian targets in Iraq and Syria, a struggle for influence on the government and parliament of Iraq, and constant attacks by Iranian proxies on the remaining US facilities. This is likely to lead to the need not to withdraw, but to bring new contingents into Iraq, else forces of PMCs, even despite the opposition of local governments and parliament, just as Turkey is doing, ignoring Iraq’s protests over Turkey’s systematic military operations on Iraqi territory.
  2. Alternatively, the policy of restoring the nuclear deal and partial de-escalation, including through Qatar’s mediation, may lead to a reduction in tension in Iraq and a low-intensity level of conflict, where the US will prefer to strengthen its position in Iraqi Kurdistan while maintaining 1 or 2 bases in Greater Iraq.

The fate of the nuclear deal, the possible reduction of tensions in the Persian Gulf through Qatar, and the format of further support for the Kurdish project will be key factors for this choice.

Iran. Existential opponents in search of dialogue

If we do not take the key opponents of the US, Iran represents the main problem for Washington in the Middle East. Despite the pressure, ranging from sanctions to the assassination of Suleimani, Iran has seriously strengthened its position throughout the region in recent years, despite economic problems, clearly indicating claims to the role of a regional superpower, which is largely lacking only nuclear weapons. Democrats throughout Trump’s presidency fiercely criticized his course towards Tehran and regarded withdrawal from the nuclear deal as a big mistake that he made in the heat of fighting Obama’s “heritage” and playing for Israel. Already now, the new leadership of the State Dept does not deny the possibility of returning to a nuclear deal, the key question here is how to do it without “loss of face” for Washington. Iran has made it clear that a return to the deal is possible on the terms of 2015 with the lifting of Trump’s sanctions. Together, of course, this will look like a manifestation of weakness on the part of the US, so the choice will obviously be made in favor of a bargaining process, which will pass through intermediaries in the coming months. In this regard, the role of Qatar, through which informal contacts between Washington and Tehran have already taken place, is extremely important.

It can be assumed that the US will try to include partial de-escalation in Iraq, Iran’s reduced support for the Houthis in Yemen, the level of influence of Hizbollah on the Lebanese state, and a reduction in Iran’s presence in Syria. Iran has previously made it clear that it is ready to negotiate regarding Yemen (the proposals were voiced by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) and de-escalation with Saudi Arabia (before the murder of Suleymani, Tehran was in active contact with MbS). Only on the Syrian issue was Iran reluctant to follow Israel’s lead, even with Russian mediation. In general, there are bargaining opportunities, but Iran is clearly not satisfied with adding these concessions to the simple restoration of the nuclear deal and partial lifting of sanctions. The US will have to offer something else, and here Biden has room for maneuver related to reducing support for Kurds (especially Iranian Kurds) and Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Most likely, negotiations between the US and Iran will enter an active phase this spring, but it is not inevitable that they will succeed.

Kurdistan. Kurdish tool requires a new configuration

One of the key questions for the US is what to do about the Kurds: either to maintain the course of destruction of Iraq and Syria, or put the project on pause to revive relations with Turkey and Iran. In fact, Biden’s administration now includes both supporters of such normalization and architects of the “Kurdish project.” The victory of the former will mean difficult times for the Kurds, who will once again become victims of “big politics,” where they will again act as a token of concession. The choice of the second option will revive again in practical terms the issues of the isolation of Iraqi Kurdistan from Iraq (interrupted by the loss of Kirkuk by the Kurds) and the further autonomy of north-eastern Rojava. In addition, this path will lead to further support for Iranian Kurds, which will increase the instability of both north-eastern Iraq and the border Iranian provinces where Kurdish militants operate. This, of course, does not guarantee success for the Kurds to get their state, but implies their use as a ramming of American policy to reformat the borders of the region. Here, the Kurdish question is partly related to the prospects for a nuclear deal with Iran and the restoration of relations with Turkey. This problem is unlikely to be clarified for the Kurds before the summer of 2021, but if circumstances are in their favor, they will surely receive additional support from the US against the background of the general escalation of the military situation in Syria and Iraq.

Global chessboard – China and Russia as strategic enemies of the US in the Middle East

Along with regional difficulties, there are two serious global problems that Americans face in the Middle East theater of operations. On the one hand, there is Russia, which has strengthened its military and political position; on the other hand, China is continuing its economic expansion. The US is in a state of cold war with both countries, and both are identified as opponents of the US in the fundamental strategic documents of the State Dept and the Pentagon. It is hardly expected that these approaches will change, but we can assume a change in the methodology of the fight. In the case of the Russian Federation, the US has made it clear that it will continue to try to prevent Moscow from realizing all the benefits of the won war in Syria, as well as exert pressure on Assad, block access to Syrian oil and put pressure on Russian oil companies in Iraq. In the situation with China, the US does not hide the fact that the creation of instability in a number of countries in the Middle East serves its global strategic goal of blocking the laying of Chinese economic corridors as part of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ strategy through the countries of the region. Iran and Turkey, which are involved in the main Chinese economic project, are key here.

If you look at the previously described regional difficulties, you can see how the US can use them to make problems for Russia and China in a global confrontation beyond the Middle East. Local theatres of war, as during the Cold War, serve global purposes related to the accumulation of small military, political and economic benefits that should serve to serve to strengthen the position of the US and weaken its main opponents. Therefore, further escalation of US-Russian relations may affect some aspects of US policy in Syria and Iraq, where the Russian factor will play a significant role in making a decision on Kurdish, Turkish or Iranian issues. Similarly, the escalation of relations with China and the increase in resistance to Chinese economic expansion may affect US policy towards Iran and Turkey, where the destabilization of these countries is considered an important factor in blocking China’s economic strategy. I believe that Washington will place emphasis on the level and priorities of the escalation of the Cold War quite soon, which will allow to more accurately identify the countries of the region that are waiting for serious pressure or destabilization in the interests of the US global strategy aimed at maintaining world hegemony.

Results

The US expects a serious foreign policy adjustment in the coming months, in which it will have to make a number of important strategic elections, and Biden will not be able to follow the paradigm that determined the course of the second Obama administration. In five years, the situation in the region has changed significantly, and the old approaches are unlikely to be effective, even if an attempt is made to “roll back to the past.” The key contradictions of the intricate Middle East hybrid wars, over which the superstructure of confrontation with China and Russia rises, will require concrete solutions that will bring the US both certain benefits and problems on the local theatres of war, where the interests of certain parties to conflicts will be decided to be sacrificed. On the one hand, the US does have a wide choice, as the slogan “get rid of Trump’s legacy” and control over the Senate and the House of Representatives provides great opportunities for rapid diplomatic action that can change the situation in the region. On the other hand, a wide choice also poses great risks to the already weakened position of the US in the Middle East by Trump. In any case, the decisions taken in Washington in the coming months may determine the contours of regional conflicts in the Middle East for years to come.

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