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Will a Biden Administration “Build Back Better” in the Middle East?

Sada asked experts to analyze potential flash points for the next U.S. administration—ranging from the globalization of Libya’s war to the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and increasing authoritarianism and violations of civil liberties and human rights.

by Jacqueline StomskiKirk H. SowellTaim Al-HajjFerhat GuriniMona AlamiOfer ZalzbergMoataz El Fegiery, and Nadine Dahan
Published on November 10, 2020


Jacqueline Stomski is a junior fellow in Carnegie’s Middle East Program. Follow her on Twitter @Jacq_Stomski.

After four tumultuous and unprecedented years under Donald Trump, the United States elected Joseph R. Biden Jr. to assume its highest office in January 2021. Domestically, Biden has come to represent a return to civility and decorum in leadership. And while capitals across the world joined the United States in celebration of his election, Biden is a seasoned politician with a long track record in the Middle East and North Africa. Were these eruptions of jubilation indicative of hopes for Biden policies across the region? What are the exceptions across the region for his administration?

Sada asked experts to analyze potential flash points for the next administration—ranging from the globalization of Libya’s war to the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen, the Arab Israeli conflict, and increasing authoritarianism and violations of civil liberties and human rights. Join the conversation in the comments or on Twitter and Facebook, and share your own views and expectations for a Biden administration in the Middle East and North Africa.

Biden Best Watch His Words Over Iraq

Kirk H. Sowell is the publisher of the biweekly newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics. Follow him on Twitter @uticarisk.

As Joe Biden prepares to take office, Iraq is experiencing another chapter in its seemingly permanent political crisis—combined with multiple security crises, including the threat from Sunni jihadists as well as Shia militias, plus Turkey’s operations in the north— and an intensifying fiscal crisis. No American administration can solve Iraq’s problems, but provocative statements from senior officials can complicate its politics and almost invariably make life harder for Iraqi politicians friendly to the United States. I would discourage public statements about Iraq’s domestic politics, especially those which make reference to ethno-sectarian issues. While forgotten by many Americans, in Iraq, Biden remains strongly linked to a controversial plan he advocated when he was in the Senate to establish autonomous regions for Sunni and Shia Arabs, as well as Kurds. The issue became current again in Iraqi media prior to the election, with both Shia and Sunni political figures suggesting that a President Biden would intervene in Iraq’s domestic squabbles.

When it comes to Iraq’s security crises, options exist to push Iran-backed militias out of sensitive areas in Baghdad, but more transformative efforts are likely to struggle due to Iraqi institutional weakness. While military training programs have been in place since 2003, only those focused on small, elite units have produced results.

Iraq is also experiencing a deep fiscal crisis which is likely to become an economic depression in 2021. While the drop in oil prices is the proximate cause, Iraq’s bloated public sector and limited capital investment combined with near-total reliance on oil revenue is the core problem. As recently as June, Iraq’s parliament blocked moderate measures by its current government to reform the country’s finances. The U.S. could help Iraq through its influence with the IMF to push for exceptional assistance, but any such aid must have strict conditionality requiring deep, permanent cuts to operational spending combined with long-term increases in infrastructure investment. Iraq’s cost structure is such that even when oil prices were in the $60 to $70 range, almost all revenues were absorbed keeping the government running. Without structural reform, including reforms advocated by Iraq’s current government, Iraq faces a permanent struggle to stay solvent, and indeed might well default on any money loaned to it.

Biden in Syria: Between Trump’s Legacy and Obama’s History

Taim Al-Hajj is an investigative reporter covering deep and complex issues related to Syria. Follow him on Twitter @TaimAlhajj.

From the start of the Syrian revolution until today, as President-elect Biden prepares to enter the White House, U.S. policy has focused on containing the problems in Syria, not solving them. 

Despite the similar policies toward Syria between the Obama and Trump administrations, both were armed with different tools and, in the end, Trump was ultimately more effective in tipping the scales. He curbed, with limitations, Iranian activity in Syria and used the Caesar Act to impose sanctions on the Syrian regime and its henchmen. He limited the role of the Russians in northeast Syria, preventing them from reaching the oil wells. Finally, he struck a deal with the Turks to allow them to stop Kurdish forces from building what Ankara described as a secessionist project on its southern border.

As for Obama, his policy was marked by the imposition of several red lines and accompanying threats upon their violation. His red lines were continually ignored by the Syrian regime and its partners, who used chemical weapons to bomb civilians several times, according to NGOs and international investigative commissions.

Now with Biden taking office, many Syrians expect U.S. policy to revert to something akin to the line that Obama was toeing in 2016. Syrians base this presumption on Biden’s former role as Obama’s two-term vice president and partner in implementing America’s policy in Syria.

Biden is opposed to sending ground troops into Syria and waging battles there, however he might be pressured to reevaluate this stance due to the reality that there are ground troops there today and the nature of their presence is different than it was under Obama. 

Today, the U.S. forces that lead the international coalition against ISIS control most of the important oil fields in Al-Haska and Deir Al-Zur. These troops form a stumbling block to Russia’s influence and ability to access oil in Syria. 

If Biden chooses to withdraw militarily, the playing cards will be shuffled and stacked in favor of Russia and the Syrian regime, the latter of which simply needs access to oil to get the economy moving again. 

I foresee Biden applying a Syria policy that builds on what Trump has started. He will at least continue to apply sanctions in accordance with the Caesar Act, avoiding a return to Obama’s hesitant approach. As for supporting the Syrian resistance, Biden is among the staunchest opponents of arming the opposition, so it is unlikely he will change his position and the reality on the ground will remain as it is in that regard. 

Time for Hardball with Turkey?

Ferhat Gurini is a freelance journalist based in London focusing on the transnational Kurdish issue and Turkish politics. Follow him on Twitter @FerhatGurini.

It is no secret that Trump has a surprisingly friendly relationship with Erdogan—leading some commentators to label Trump as the most pro-Turkish president in U.S. history. Nor is it a secret that Trump during his presidency has upended the expectations of how an American president should act—and nowhere is this more true than in the case of NATO, where Trump even considered the option of leaving the international military alliance. With Biden now taking the lead, restoring faith in the workings of this alliance will most likely be one of his foremost priorities. One of the biggest internal divisions facing the alliance at the moment are the growing tensions between Greece and Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean over gas exploration. Shortly put, Greece believes that it should be granted an extensive economic zone. Meanwhile, Turkey argues that the Anatolian mainland is a continental shelf in itself, and thus limits the scope of the zone scope of the Greek islands. Due to the lack of U.S. leadership (so far), this issue has shifted from NATO to being confined to the EU. But the EU is split and its two main actors have been unable to act in a unitary manner, with Germany taking on a mediating role and France arguing for sanctions.

Dealing with the Eastern Mediterranean tensions therefore provides a chance to both resuscitate NATO and assert U.S. leadership within it. While Biden may not be able to stop Turkey from asserting itself in the Eastern Mediterranean, bringing Ankara to the negotiation table is not far from U.S. means. It is important to note that when Turkey downed a Russian jet in 2015 — its first reaction was to turn to NATO for security. Likewise, Russia’s increasingly threatening posture toward Turkey following the 2015 incident eventually led Turkey to apologize to Moscow in June 2016. And in the same vein, when U.S. tariffs were introduced on Turkish steel in August 2018, in reaction to the detainment of Pastor Andrew Brunson, Turkey was eventually forced to release Pastor Brunson.

In other words, playing hardball with Turkey works. And now that cracks are showing in the Turko-Russo relationship and Turkey has lost its most important ally in Washington (Trump), Turkey’s need for security from and accommodation toward Biden are not small. Biden’s critique of Erdogan has been vocal and when assuming office, he will also face pressure from Congress to implement sanctions on Turkey for Ankara’s testing of the S400 missile system. In effect, this means that while Biden will take steps to not push Turkey away from NATO and the United States, Turkey should expect Washington to challenge its agenda in the Eastern Mediterranean.

A Lighter Approach for Lebanon

Mona Alami is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and at Trends Research and Advisory. Follow her on Twitter @monaalami.

The election of Joe Biden to the U.S presidency will translate into a softer or at least a less hardline approach to Lebanon than the one adopted under Trump, which considered Lebanon totally subservient to Hezbollah and to Iran. Biden’s administration will make a distinction between the Lebanese state and Hezbollah. This distinction could reflect positively in terms of U.S. aid provided to the Lebanese army and reduce (or even put an end to) sanctions, specifically those against Lebanese political figures outside of Hezbollah.

Nonetheless, Lebanon is not a priority in the regional game for the Biden administration and the political class governing Lebanon has lost credibility since the 2019 Intifada, which means that not much will change in terms of how the next administration deals with the Lebanese government. The United States, like many European countries, will not provide the government with a blank check. Aid will hinge on the implementation of much needed and necessary reforms. When it comes to Hezbollah, sanctions against the party will remain, although they might be less frequent. Biden has also promised to reengage in the JCPOA. If he does and this results in reduced economic sanctions against Iran, Hezbollah will benefit financially and will be placed at an advantage compared to its rivals, given Lebanon’s catastrophic economic situation.

Leveraging Arab-Israeli Rapprochement for Israeli-Palestinian Progress

Ofer Zalzberg is the Middle East Program Director at the Herbert Kelman Institute for Conflict Transformation. Follow him on Twitter @OferZalzberg.

President-elect Biden will likely seek a gradual, bipartisan policy shift on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This would help him limit friction with Israel mostly on the Iranian question and maintain some Republican support despite resetting U.S.-PLO relations by reversing Trump policies.

Biden will probably set modest goals, cognizant of the fundamental disagreements between Israel and the Palestinians and intuitively averse to clashing with Israel. Given peak polarization in the United States and likely Republican control of the Senate, Biden will require some level of bipartisan support. Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this means avoiding unnecessary clashes, both domestically and abroad, particularly by avoiding premature final status negotiations. Biden might focus instead on improving conditions on the ground while gradually narrowing political differences between the conflict parties.

If the Trump administration generated any momentum on which Biden could build, it is Arab-Israeli rapprochement. Biden could advance it in a piecemeal fashion, with every Arab-Israeli step linked to Israeli-Palestinian progress toward a two-state reality (as opposed to a comprehensive two-state solution). Palestinian leaders would have to decide whether middle-of-the-road policies, like placing more territory under PA rule, opening Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem, and connecting Gaza and the West Bank, justify their backing. Such Palestinian support could shield Arab governments from accusations of betraying the Palestinian cause or the al-Aqsa Mosque, thus opening hitherto closed avenues in the Arab world.

The Abraham Accords demonstrated the potent benefits of engaging religious and cultural traditions. Most notable is the bold shift of many Evangelical members of Congress and the Netanyahu government from promoting Israeli annexation of West Bank territories to supporting Arab-Israeli peace. A Biden policy framed as building on this thrust might provide a uniquely broad basis for advancing a two-state reality. This will require putting forward an agenda that, on the one hand, features enough of Trump’s policy to secure Republican and Israeli backing and, on the other hand, enough change to elicit Palestinian support.

Joe Biden’s Nomination and the Tenth Anniversary of the Arab Spring  

Moataz El-Fegiery is an Egyptian academic and human rights activist. Follow him on Twitter @elfegiery. 

In an attempt to rescue U.S. foreign policy after President Donald Trump’s departure, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has committed to prioritizing the United States’ return as global leaderHis foreign policy agenda will focus on resisting authoritarianism and defending human rights at home and abroad Biden’s assumption of the presidency in January 2021 will coincide with the tenth anniversary of the Arab Spring, which represented aspirations of freedom and justice, especially for youth across the Middle East and North Africa—who bore the brunt of the counter revolution policies.  

In Egypt, the political arena has since witnessed the rise of military authoritarianism accompanied by increased violations of human rightsTrump’s four-year term represented a safety valve for the United States’ authoritarian allies in the Arab regiona cohort led by Egyptian President Abdel Fatah Al-SisiMeanwhile, Biden directed a July 2020 tweet at Al-Sisi, writing that there would be no more blank checks for Trump’s favorite dictator” if he were elected president.  

There is no longer a safe space in Egypt within which to discuss injustices amid the restrictions on independent civil society, the cooptation of the free press, and the control of parliament by the state security apparatus. Ruthless and unchecked oppression in Egypt has made any act of opposition a gravely dangerous venture. Moreover, the regime does not help secure itself through restricting the public sphere and increasing societal repression amid the worsening living conditions of EgyptiansThese measures do not stop Egyptians from becoming angrythey are waiting for a chance to express themselves, even if out of public viewThe security apparatus’ grip has not stopped Egyptians from spontaneously gathering in the streets of the poorest and most marginalized areas on multiple occasions over the last two years. 

The Egyptian government gives great importance to its political and military relationship with the United States. This fact was reflected in the public disappointment in Biden’s victory expressed by regime-affiliated media and the security apparatus. It is naïve to expect that the incoming Biden administration will create a moral revolution in its bilateral relationship with the Egyptian government in light of the region’s volatility and the international climate more generally 

However, Biden has the tools to pressure Egypt in multiple theaters, including by advocating for the release of political prisoners, against the mistreatment of the independent human rights movement, for expanding the margin of tolerance for political opposition, and by rejecting Egypt’s use of U.S. military supportintended for anti-terrorism operationsas a cover for the government’s brutal and bloody policiesMoreover, the inclusion of human rights discourse in the bilateral relationship and at the UN Human Rights Council creates an international environment that is more welcoming to human rights activistsA Biden administration policy of siding with human rights and democratic activists in Egypt would not only align with the values of global humanity that Biden has spoken about on multiple occasions, but also is necessary to avoid further catastrophic outcomes on the cohesion and stability of Egyptian society caused by the policies of the ruling regime.  

A Little Leeway for Libya?

Nadine Dahan is a legal researcher and MENA consultant at Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers. Follow her on Twitter @NadineDahan.

The United States had already effectively disengaged from the situation in Libya before the end of the Obama administration, leaving it to Europe and focusing on greater political priorities and interests elsewhere. Aside from his encouragement of authoritarian regional rulers and turning a blind eye to their interventions, Trump’s policy toward Libya did not represent a major change from this de-prioritization. As Biden takes office, his attention will certainly be consumed by more urgent issues in the foreign policy sphere, such as Russia and the rise of China, and when his attention turns to the Middle East and North Africa region, it will be foremost to the Gulf countries, Israel, and Iran.

Thus, Libya is unlikely to figure any higher in the United States’ priorities than it has done over the last six years, and U.S. policy will likely continue to be primarily one of indifference. However, increased scrutiny from the Biden administration toward other regional actors such as the UAE and Turkey may reduce the leeway they have to conduct reckless and destabilizing interventions in the country in the way that they have over the course of the Trump administration, making it more possible for the European efforts at mediation and stabilization to succeed.

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.