There have been mixed feelings and reactions and across much of the Middle East, both during the US presidential elections last week and more so following its outcome, depending on which side of the fence you stand.
Varying Reactions to Biden’s Win
For some regional leaders, the news that Republican President Donald Trump had lost to Democratic Party rival and former Vice President Joe Biden came as a nightmarish shock.
For others in the region, however, there was jubilation and relief, similar to that witnessed in some EU countries. There was euphoria that the tumultuous Trump era as American president is now virtually over, despite the prevailing sense that the remaining 70 odd lame duck days until Biden’s official White House inauguration will not pass without some rough rides and potential turmoil from the Trump camp.
The mere fact that days of the fickle, pernicious, precariously dangerous and unpredictable Trump decisions and foreign policies are now numbered, were met with a feeling of relief in many circles, and gave many of those who look forward to a more rational, even-handed and realistic American approach to one of the most vital and volatile regions on the planet, a cause for celebration.
Although the majority of the region’s intellectual class, for example in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, appear quite convinced that all US presidents – regardless of being Republican or Democrat – are no more than “two sides of the same coin;” many see the bipartisan system as a mere political front entrusted to execute the policies devised by the so-called “Deep State.”
GOP leaders and activists have pledged to file lawsuits and challenge the outcome of what they call the “stolen election,” vowing not to concede power to Biden and his Vice President Kamala Harris, the first ever lady to occupy this post.
Will US Positions in the Middle East and North Africa Change Under Biden?
Syria, Iran, Libya and Yemen were among the countries worst-hit by American foreign policy in the region under Trump. Lebanon and Iraq were not much luckier though, with Lebanon suffering its worst economic and political crisis since the end of its Civil War in 1990. The almost nonstop daily meddling in Lebanon’s political life by the US ambassador in Beirut Dorothy C. Shea further complicated the situation and deepened the ongoing sectarian and ethnic rifts there. Many Lebanese have protested the ambassador’s flagrant interference, with some calling upon their government to expel the ambassador and officially brand her a persona non grata.
Meanwhile, unconfirmed reports have indicated that Biden’s intends to work on putting an end to the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Libya, and to pressurize Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to stop their catastrophic war of aggression on Yemen. The campaign in Yemen has failed to achieve any real goals over the past five years apart from destroying much of the impoverished country and creating one of the worst humanitarian crises in modern history.
Past presidential candidate and prominent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont – who will reportedly be tapped to hold a key post in Biden’s government – was quoted this week as saying: “Yemen does not need US bombs and rockets; it needs our help and aid instead”.
In Egypt – whose president General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi brags about his decades-old friendship with Trump – it was reported that leaders of the fundamentalist organisation the Muslim Brotherhood – labeled a “terrorist” group in many countries, most recently by Saudi Arabia – were elated by Biden’s election. The Brotherhood movement issued a statement hailing the choice of the American people; some analysts see the move by this hardline Islamist group as an aspiration to the resumption of the role the organization played in the so-called Arab Spring under the nose of – and some argue in collaboration with – the Obama administration.
Erdogan and MBS Have Real Reasons to Worry About a Biden Administration
Biden, answering a question by a reporter during his election campaign whether he would punish the Saudis responsible for the brutal murder of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, positively pledged to do exactly that. Such a statement must have sent some serious shivers down the spine of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). The most famous anonymous Saudi tweeter nicknamed Mujtahid – well known for his accurate leaks from within the Royal Palace in Riyadh – tweeted a couple of days ago that:
“MBS has opened a direct hotline with Trump’s brother-in-law and right-hand man Jared Kushner and pledged to financially cover all expenses incurred by Trump’s lawyers in their desperate effort to reverse the outcome of the elections in Trump’s favor.”
With regards to Turkey, it is well known that there’s no love lost between Biden and Turkish president Recep Tayyep Erdogan. The new White House administration, many experts expect, will endeavor to put an end to Erdogan’s expansionist policy in the region and beyond. Some pundits go as far as predicting that the President Elect will seek to help bring Erdogan down in any upcoming Turkish elections, which is something Biden indicated during his election campaign.
Biden’s Geopolitical Calculus
Arab researcher at the Paris Geopolitics Academy, Faisal Jalloul believes that “Biden is likely to return to the equation that arose during Barack Obama’s second term (2012-2016), where it was agreed that Saudi Arabia and Iran would share American influence in the Middle East, just as it is the case with Ethiopia.”
“That’s why Washington agreed to sign the deal on the Iranian nuclear file. Iran, in return, had begun to help Washington withdraw from Afghanistan and Iraq, Whereas Saudi Arabia and Arab Gulf states preferred rapprochement with Israel in exchange for isolating Iran,” Jalloul outlined.
“Therefore, the Saudis bet on Trump, who worked in a direction that favors Israel, which does not want any international and legitimate recognition of the Iranian key role in the Middle East,” Jalloul maintained in an interview with Tunisian daily le Maghreb, adding that “It is not unlikely that Biden will resume work according to that equation, particularly given the fact that the war in Yemen, which broke out on the side-lines of the Gulf-which has embarked on a process of rapprochement with Israel along with a hostile divergence with Iran, has failed to achieve its desired results, and is likely to escalate in a manner that could further weakens the Arab Gulf states, while increasing Iran’s power and regional influence.”
The Importance of Trump’s Recent Dismissal of Sec Def Mark Esper
Trump’s recent firing of Secretary of Defence Mark Esper is widely seen as a reflection of the President’s state of mind following his defeat in the election. While the move might have taken some pundits by surprise, the mere timing in itself did not shock many others. Nabih El Bourgi, one of Lebanon’s top columnists, reflected on Trump’s move, based on similar incidents and decisions made by Trump in the past:
“We know that Trump could not put up with James Mattis because whenever he entered the Oval Office, made sure the president heard him marching in(as a general). Trump could not also tolerate the other General’ Herbert McMaster, the National Security Adviser, and later General John Kelly, the Chief of Staff of the White House; they had refused to wash the dishes for Mrs. Melania”, Bourgi maintained.
“However, Mark Esper, although a professional general, was a true gentleman, not a confrontational figure. His problem was that he has refused to escalate tension with Iran to the point of launching a military strike. Any war with it means a 100 Years’ War (Asper believes), that will be strategically manipulated by both the Russian Bear, and the Chinese Dragon, given the region’s wealth of historical and natural resources as well as strategic significance”’ Bourgi added.
Were Trump’s Collisions with Top Military Brass a Blessing in Disguise?
Many regional experts and international analysts believe that Trump’s recurrent clashes with US military commanders and intelligence chiefs over his potentially disastrous schemes as well as trigger-happy megalomaniac obsessions, could have almost certainly saved the United States another humiliating Pearl Harbor-like defeat, this time at the hands of the Iranians.
US intelligence agencies had information that Tehran had prepared a series of massive retaliatory strikes against all key American bases and assets in the Gulf region and elsewhere, and that the deadly Iranian missile attack on the US base of Ain Al Assad near Bagdad following General Qasem Suleimani’s assassination by a US drone, was a tiny sample of what was to come in case Iran was attacked. Moreover, Iran’s control over the strategic Straits of Hormuz could block some 40% of world oil supplies and seriously impact most world economies.
Middle East’s Fingers Crossed for a Post-Trump Change in US Policy
While it is too soon to anticipate with utter certainty the impact and scope of change in US policies in the Middle East following Biden’s election – and despite the turbulent ten weeks or so till the President Elect is officially sworn in as America’s 46th president – many Syrians as well as others in the region will hold their breath, keeping their fingers crossed that an overhaul of the entirety of Trump’s isolationist, antagonistic and unstable policies and decisions lies ahead. The chance that Biden and his upcoming government might cherish a peaceful and stable Middle East is still a possibility.
Trump seems to have left America with hardly any friends in the region – apart from Israel – and has helped put the whole region on a collision course with each another and with Washington. While Biden and his team have massive national challenges at home, such as the COVID-19 pandemic that has hit America extremely hard, the frozen Obama health care system known also as ACA (Affordable Care Act) and racial discrimination issues, the new White House boss cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that the US maintains troops and bases in Syria, Iraq and many other countries that could be targeted should rising regional tensions continue.
Moreover, recent religion-triggered violence in France and elsewhere – coupled with massive unrest across America regarding civil rights issues – highlights the need for more balanced and rational White House policies both internally and externally that are based on wisdom, fairness and tolerance particularly in a region that has had more than enough of wars, destruction and bloodshed.