Analysis |

Six Months Into Biden’s Rule, the Mideast Is Learning It’s Not His Priority

Biden is crafting his foreign policy around China and Russia, and his decisions on Saudi Arabia and Iraq are sometimes seen as a tool in sealing an Iranian nuclear deal

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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U.S. troops at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in 2019.
U.S. troops at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in 2019.Credit: Alex Brandon / AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

James Cain, the co-owner of Delta Crescent Energy, wasn’t surprised when Joe Biden informed him last month that he was revoking the company’s waiver from the sanctions on Syria. Delta Crescent would no longer be able to produce oil in the northern Syrian fields controlled by Kurdish forces.

Cain, a former U.S. ambassador to Denmark appointed by George W. Bush in 2005, is a North Carolina Republican aiming to be elected to the Senate. He founded his oil industry consulting firm with James Reese, a retired Delta Force officer, and in 2020 signed a contract with the Syrian Kurds to produce oil in Syria’s north. Proceeds would also go to funding the Kurds’ war effort.

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Syria, stymied by U.S. sanctions keeping foreign companies away, and Russia, the holder of the major franchises in Syria, considered the activities of the American company an attempt by the Trump administration to “steal” Syria’s oil and help the rebel Kurds.

Donald Trump, who, under pressure from the Kurds and his advisers retreated from his declaration to withdraw his forces from Syria, granted Delta Crescent a one-year waiver from the sanctions. He used the exemption to justify leaving 900 American troops in northern Syria in addition to the approximately 200 stationed near the Tanf border crossing with Iraq to “protect” assets like the Kurds’ oil fields.

Biden came with new plans. He opposed withdrawing the U.S. forces from Syria but crafted his strategy around China and Russia, while the Middle East was demoted. When his administration said Delta Crescent’s waiver wasn’t being renewed, a senior administration official told the Al-Monitor website that the U.S. military wasn’t in Syria “to protect the oil. They are not there to exploit the oil resources. Syrian oil is there for the Syrian people, and we do not own, control or manage any of those resources, nor do we wish to.”

But these altruistic explanations haven’t gone down well with Biden’s critics. They have offered an alternative explanation: The president aims to mollify Russia and send a message to Iran that he seeks diplomatic reconciliation, not economic or military hostilities. If the northern Syrian oil wells are making blood boil in Damascus and Moscow, Biden will propose soothing gestures like revoking the sanctions waiver.

For the Kurds, who won the status of allies during the Trump administration, this might not only be a harsh economic blow, because U.S. backing granted them a barrier against attempts by the Syrian regime to retake the oil fields. It might also be a heavy hint that even if the U.S. forces aren’t withdrawn, they won’t necessarily embrace the Kurds’ political aspirations.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaking in Raleigh, North Carolina, Thursday.Credit: Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

September 11 redux

Ostensibly, the affair of the canceled waiver is symbolic. But in conjunction with new decisions largely linked to withdrawing American forces, weapons and equipment from the Middle East and Afghanistan, it seems that six months after Biden’s inauguration we can discern the outlines of his regional policy. Hundreds of American trucks and planes have already begun to pull tons of military equipment, weapons and ammunition out of Afghanistan, in preparation for the final withdrawal from the country after a 20-year stay.

It’s no coincidence that Biden made September 11 the date when the last American soldier would be withdrawn, the date whose events led to the war and occupation in Afghanistan. About 3,000 American soldiers are currently in Afghanistan. Biden hopes to close a deal with Turkey whereby its forces will guard the Kabul airport.

What will happen in Afghanistan after the American troops withdraw? Apparently more of the same: violent clashes between the Taliban and the weak national army, and maybe also a renewed Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, a country where that group already controls most regions. We can assume that the United States will forget about this shattered land just as it forgot about it after the war between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union, and if a civil war breaks out, Washington will of course send planes with medicine and food but not one soldier.

At the beginning of this month the U.S. administration announced the withdrawal of Patriot anti-missile systems from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan and Iraq for “maintenance.” This decision was declared by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a phone call on June 2. According to the Pentagon, the conversation revolved around the war in Yemen and the United States’ commitment to “Saudi Arabia’s self-defense.”

And that’s the heart of the message. Saudi Arabia, the administration believes, has improved its military capabilities and can defend itself. Washington will confine itself to selling arms and advising, but not fighting alongside the Saudis if a war breaks out.

Thus Biden hasn’t done much different than Trump, who made clear to the Saudis that he wouldn’t fight their wars, even against Iran. If they wanted help, they’d have to pay for it, Trump said.

Still, Biden’s move to remove the Patriots Trump sent to Saudi Arabia has translated Trump’s declarations into action on the ground, as Washington talks with the government in Baghdad about withdrawing the U.S. troops from Iraq.

Currently there are about 2,500 American military personnel in Iraq after the United States withdrew a similar number following the Iraqi parliament’s decision in January 2020 to expel all U.S. troops from the country in response to the assassination of Iranian Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani.

U.S. troops handing over a camp to the Afghan army last month. Credit: AP

Dueling scenarios

As in the Saudi case, the U.S. administration believes that the Iraqi army can cope with its military challenges and there’s no longer any need for American involvement.

U.S. spokespeople say that the United States will keep thousands of troops in the region and that it’s not abandoning the Middle East, but every redeployment of troops is interpreted as a diplomatic move. Just as with the denial of the waiver for the U.S. oil company in Syria, Biden’s decision on troop reductions in Saudi Arabia and Iraq are being depicted as moves aimed at fostering a new nuclear agreement with Iran and showing Tehran that the United States seeks no military conflict with it.

Some even believe that these are confidence-building gestures with the aim of expanding the dialogue with the Iranians down the road. Unnamed U.S. military sources have noted to Western media outlets that their country’s military presence in Iraq and Saudi Arabia hasn’t prevented attacks by Shi’ite militias on American targets in Iraq or Iran's attacks on Saudi Arabia, so withdrawing the troops from those countries shouldn’t affect efforts to stop attacks on them.

This explanation makes you wonder why the American military presence in the Middle East has lasted so long if there’s no defensive benefit. The more important question is: How will Iran, Russia and China interpret the redeployment of the American forces, and what conclusions will the Gulf states draw?

The prevailing view is that with the signing of the nuclear agreement and the lifting of the sanctions, Iran will no longer have an incentive to negotiate with the United States and cooperate on resolving regional conflicts or reducing its involvement in countries in the region. This assumption also covers the vast sums that will be at Iran’s disposal, which it will use to expand its influence, fund terror groups and develop its ballistic missiles, strengthening its conventional threat.

But there’s a chance for a different scenario as suggested by some of Biden’s advisers: Iran’s reentry in the world oil market and international trade in general could force it to negotiate with the Saudis at the very least on coordinating oil prices. It will remain dependent on China, which has signed long-term oil purchase contracts with Iran in return for huge infrastructure investments for 25 years.

Plus, it won’t be able sever dealings with the United States at least in banking and money transfers. It will seek to emerge from the tight corner in which it must achieve influence via proxies like Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and the Shi’ite militias in Iraq.

In this optimistic assessment, the legitimacy Iran will gain after the nuclear deal will grant the regime direct access to countries that have hitherto rejected it like Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states, mainly because of their adherence to Washington’s anti-Iran policy. They’ll be able to renew their relations with Tehran without fear of American sanctions or pressure.

But this assessment requires an examination of Iranian domestic politics after Ebrahim Raisi comes to power. The president-elect represents the radical conservative approach that opposes relations with the United States.

Biden’s “movements” in the region ostensibly reflect a contradiction between his declaration at the NATO summit that “America is back” and its application on the ground. But America is coming back with new diplomatic baggage that could lead to a regional shake-up, and not by military means.

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