Biden White House could return to Obama-era Middle East policies despite failing record on Syria

By Kit Roberts

AS President, Joe Biden could seek a stronger leadership role in the Middle East, an expert has told Redaction Politics.

Nonetheless, it remains unclear whether Biden will pursue a more interventionist strategy, as advocated by Hilary Clinton, or move more towards Obama’s approach of conciliation and caution. 

Obama-era concessions towards Iran have been criticised by many as emboldening the country in projecting power beyond its own borders, in particular its continued proxy support of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria. 

An Syrian economist specialising in global trade in the region, who wished not to be named, told Redaction Politics: “You can say that the Trump administration changed foreign policy but then, a lot of these changes began before the Trump administration. The region changed more during the Obama period, especially including the Syria situation expanding, the refugee crisis, a lot of these things happened prior to the Trump administration.

“I’m not sure that you can say from that region’s perspective, that the Trump administration was radically different from US policy.

“The Iranian intervention and the Russian intervention happened prior to the Trump administration, and the US would be expected in a traditional Middle-East security system to stop that, or at least push back against that.”

Obama received a lot of criticism for his unwillingness to intervene in Syria. Many commentators still see this as the Obama / Biden administration standing by and allowing the Assad family to remain in power even after Obama’s so-called “red line” of chemical weapons attacks was repeatedly crossed. 

The regime and its Russian support also makes frequent use of “double tap” strikes, where a second attack is made on the same location to specifically target aid workers responding to the initial strike. This has drawn wide and loud condemnation from the international community, but very little meaningful response.

Today, some commentators argue that the opportunity to remove Assad from power is long gone.

Writing for the New York Times, Syrian journalist and filmmaker Waad Al-Kateab said: “In the past week I have met officials from the House of Representatives and the Senate. In each meeting, I have just minutes to explain what is happening in Idlib.

“I tell them everything, and it feels like nothing. I don’t believe it will change anything. The Syrian people have been abandoned. Some politicians and U.N. officials tell me they hope for an end to the violence. Others tell me they can do nothing. We are left to face death alone.”

Trump’s approach has also, perhaps inevitably, complicated the situation. His withdrawal of US military support for Kurdish forces in Northern Syria and Iraq risked severe reprisals from anti-Kurdish xenophobia in Turkey, and severely damaged the US relationship with its Kurdish allies. 

In Iraq the planned removal of the stabilising presence of US personnel has emboldened Iranian proxy Kataib Hezbollah.

Trump also ordered the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani on Iraqi soil without notifying the Iraqi government of his intentions, prompting accusations that he had violated Iraqi sovereignty. 

The bloodied but very much alive remnants of Daesh also continue to lurk in the shadows. 

This gives signals that Trump acted more on impulse than calculation. The expert said: “The thing with the Trump administration is that it didn’t seem to have any kind of coherent or overall strategy.

“Maybe with Biden that will be translated to a more active leadership role, so trying to bring all the other actors, Europe, the Gulf, Saudi, into a bit more of a unified position, but it is not easy to tell.

“My expectation is that they will try a diplomatic approach but slightly more present, or more aggressive.

“They would have more pressure to try and reach some sort of solution to the issue. It’s a bit tricky now because they are going to be stuck between all these different actors, you also have the problem of the Gulf and Turkey being opposed to each other while they’re both US allies. So it’s not going to be easy.”

Trump has certainly managed to alienate many US allies in the region, and it will be no easy task to rebuild a constructive relationship.

Nonetheless, the motivating factors of Obama’s strategy are now nowhere near as prescient as they were when he was in office. From a domestic standpoint, the Iraq War is no longer as fresh in the memories of the US electorate. 

Biden has more flexibility in the strategies that he can pursue, and his appointments to Secretary of State do not suggest that a wild departure from previous US policies is imminent. 

His appointments to Secretary of State do not suggest that a wild departure from previous US policies is imminent. 

Such is the scale of the chaos in the region that all policy is likely to draw criticism. Should the US choose to take on a more involved role, the challenges will be immense.

The expert explains: “Obama ran on an anti Iraq War campaign, that was one of the main messages to become president. Biden doesn’t have that pressure. 

“The Iraq War was an obvious US presence in the region, but when the US withdrawal, especially under the Obama administration happened, did that really help improve the situation or probably make it worse? You could probably think it made it worse. Maybe now they see it as less of an issue than the legacy of the war.”

Featured Image: Pixabay

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