The Middle East & North Africa Special Report – Implications of US President Joe Biden’s expected foreign policy for political and security landscape of the region
Executive summary – This report outlines the implications of President Joe Biden’s expected foreign policy for the political and security landscape in the Middle East and North Africa region, with an emphasis on the following areas:
Impact of US foreign policy on traditional allies
In Saudi Arabia and Yemen, in a major policy shift, the Biden administration has already announced the end of its support for the Saudi-led Coalition’s military campaign in Yemen, including “relevant arms sales”. Despite the US’s commitment to bolster Saudi defenses, Houthi-perpetrated aerial attacks into the Saudi interior are likely to continue. In Egypt, the US is likely to seek to ensure the stability of the Egyptian government and security environment while also increasing pressure on Cairo to alter its policies towards political detainees. Significant scrutiny and criticism of Egyptian policy may compel its leadership to seek new alliances. The US and Turkey have long-standing differences and the new administration has emphasized its condemnation of Turkey’s human rights record and regional military activities. Thus, tensions between the two are likely to persist, with the potential for further US sanctions and legislation targeting Ankara. The process of US-brokered normalization agreements between Israel and various Sunni Arab states is likely to slow down. However, mutual suspicion of Iran, particularly in the event of a US return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), will strengthen the alliance between Jerusalem and Saudi-aligned states. Washington will also restore ties with the Palestinians while refraining from launching a major diplomatic initiative to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the near future.
Iran Nuclear Deal
Biden has reiterated his willingness to resume negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. During the various stages of negotiation, namely, the current standoff between the US and Iran, prolonged negotiations, or the reaching of an agreement, Tehran is likely to use certain pressure tactics to gain concessions from Western actors involved in negotiations. These include arrests of foreign and dual nationals in Iran, increasing the risk associated with maritime activity in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, elevating the frequency and scope of cyberattacks against US-linked interests and those of its allies, and kinetic attacks via proxy actors against US regional assets and Washington’s allies. This is particularly likely to impact the security environment in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Israel, and Syria.
The US’s role in conflict zones
In Syria, the Biden administration is likely to increase its diplomatic engagement in the conflict and reinforce its military cooperation with the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Both of these endeavors are liable to increase tensions with the current power brokers in Syria. The US-led Coalition will also continue its counter-militancy campaign against the Islamic State (IS). In Iraq, the US will continue to support the Iraqi forces’ long-term counter-militancy campaign against IS. The remaining presence of US troops in Iraq will prolong the frequent rocket and IED attacks targeting US interests in the country, which may extend to civilian infrastructure. In Libya, the US is unlikely to deploy military assets amid the ongoing political process continues in the country, which will continue over the coming year. Washington will likely aim to support this process and build alliances with local political actors. In Yemen, the US will likely conduct periodic strikes against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) targets. Such strikes pose a risk of collateral damage to civilians and local infrastructure.
President Joe Biden’s effort to reinstate the US as a traditional global defender of ‘democratic values’ to impact US’s ties with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey
Throughout his presidential campaign, US President Joe Biden criticized the policies of his predecessor, Donald Trump, stating that the latter ignored global human rights violations, diminished the US’s global standing as a defender of democratic values, and eroded the US’s global influence through non-interference and compliance with autocratic leaders. Biden also stressed the importance of recovering the credibility of the US abroad as a “defender of democracy” through the injection of democratic values into the US’s foreign policy. The Biden-led administration has thus aimed to distinguish itself from the Trump-led administration through the global promotion of human rights. Biden also stressed that US pressure should be exerted on countries that violate human rights and destabilize peace processes, with specific reference to actors in the Middle East. The pursuit of such policies may pose challenges to Washington’s relations with several of its strategic partners in the Middle East.
Anticipated shift in US foreign policy stance vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia, Yemen under President Joe Biden-led administration
· On February 4, the US administration announced the end of its support for the Saudi-led Coalition’s military campaign in Yemen, including “relevant arms sales”. This marked a major shift in US policy vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, as Washington had supported the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen since 2015.
· Biden also balanced his statement by expressing Washington’s commitment to supporting Saudi Arabia to defend its sovereignty, which may manifest in the sale of advanced air defense systems to Riyadh. However, Saudi Arabia may perceive the loss of US support for the campaign as a broader indication of American indifference to Saudi security concerns, which could drive its leadership to seek alternative alliances and to purchase weaponry from alternative actors, including US adversaries.
- During his presidential campaign, Biden vowed to “reassess…[the US’s] relationship with Saudi Arabia, end US support for the Kingdom’s war in Yemen, and make sure that America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil.” This statement was given on the two-year anniversary of the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a political activist and US resident, who disappeared after entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018. These statements signaled the then-presidential candidate’s plans to embrace a tougher approach towards Saudi Arabia with regards to its military campaign in Yemen as well as human rights issues, particularly the detention of political activists.
- On February 4, Biden acted on one of his promises by announcing the end of US support for the Saudi-led Coalition’s military campaign in Yemen, including “relevant arms sales”. This followed his announcement on January 27 that the US was pausing the sale of 478 million USD worth of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia, a transfer the preceding administration approved in December 2020. This marked a major shift in US policy vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia, as Washington had supported the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen since 2015 under former presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. The new stance by the Biden-led administration highlights that it seeks to ensure that US weapons are not used to further the Saudi-led military operations in a way that exacerbates the existing humanitarian crisis in the country. This is particularly in light of accusations within Congress that such arms have been used indiscriminately by Saudi-led Coalition members during the years-long war in Yemen. Furthermore, the new policy stance is also likely perceived by Biden as a means to pressure the Coalition to seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict via the UN-led process.
- In addition to the arms sale suspension, the new US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, announced the revocation of the Trump-led administration’s designation of the Yemen-based, Iran-backed Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), effective from February 16, in “recognition of the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen”. This stance further highlights the Biden-led administration’s effort to mitigate the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen, contrary to the previous administration’s focus on an alliance with Saudi Arabia within the context of its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran and its regional allies. This is because the Biden-led administration believes that the designation will hinder the delivery of humanitarian aid to civilians in Houthi-controlled territories, as was also echoed by international humanitarian organizations. As a whole, these policy shifts highlight the increasing consideration for humanitarian issues in determining US foreign policy.
- That said, on February 12, Blinken stated that three Houthi leaders, namely, Abdelmalek al-Houthi, Abd al-Khaliq al-Houthi, and Abdullah Yahya al-Hakim, will remain under sanctions and that the US State Department will be “actively identifying additional targets for designation, especially those responsible for explosive boat attacks against commercial shipping in the Red Sea and [unmanned aerial vehicle] UAV and missile attacks into Saudi Arabia.” In this context, while the revocation of the FTO designation aims to prevent a situation in which sanctions curtail the delivery of goods to Houthi-controlled areas, by preserving sanctions over Houthi leaders, the Biden-led administration seeks to continue exerting pressure on the group. This also indicates that the Houthis continue to be perceived in Washington as a destabilizing force in the region. FORECAST: The US may therefore impose further sanctions on Houthi leaders over the coming months. This policy stance will also be used by the Iran-backed Houthi leadership to sustain its significant anti-US media campaign, preserving heightened anti-US sentiments among pro-Houthi segments of the Yemeni society.
- Biden has also expressed his commitment “to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity”. The US Department of the State has emphasized US support for the Kingdom’s self-defense, following the penetration of Riyadh’s airspace on January 23 and January 26. On February 10, Blinken condemned the Houthi attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abha International Airport, which struck a civilian aircraft. FORECAST: Against the backdrop of Saudi concerns over Washington’s changing foreign policies, the Biden-led administration will likely seek to bolster the Kingdom’s air defense capabilities. This may be undertaken via the sale of air defense technologies to Saudi Arabia, or alternatively, the bolstering of American air defense systems on Saudi soil to facilitate the interception of combat UAVs and missiles launched towards Saudi Arabia.
- Overall, the above actions highlight the tensions within the Biden administration’s policies. On the one hand, Biden is acting to reverse the decisions of his predecessor by revoking some key policy decisions and designations. On the other hand, the president is being cautious by refraining from making wholesale changes to the way in which the US operates and engages with the Saudi-Yemen region. FORECAST: Regardless of Washington’s efforts to balance its actions by, for instance, supporting Saudi Arabia’s defensive capabilities, the US’s other actions will be perceived by Riyadh as an indication of waning American support for its security. This may compel the Saudis to place pressure on the US by purchasing advanced military equipment from other regional actors or forming a strategic alliance with other states to advance its interests, against the will of the US.
·The continued Saudi involvement in the conflict in Yemen will have a continued impact on the security environment in Saudi Arabia as a result of Houthi-perpetrated aerial attacks against the Saudi interior, including major cities and strategic infrastructure.
US, Egypt to remain strategic allies despite the anticipated increase in tensions surrounding Cairo’s human rights record
· US President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken have criticized Egypt for its alleged human rights violations. The administration will likely place pressure on Cairo to release some political detainees.
· Egypt will likely adopt a pragmatic approach towards the US’s new foreign policy priorities, but will act with suspicion to the Democratic-led US administration and may be pushed into seeking new alliances.
· The US will seek to ensure the stability of the Egyptian government and security environment, with security cooperation thus remaining intact.
- The souring of relations between Washington and Cairo based on the former’s concerns of human rights violations and autocratic tendencies in Egypt is not unprecedented. The Obama-led administration halted the supply of military equipment to Egypt following the 2013 military coup led by current Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. In August 2017, the Trump-led administration halted 195 million USD in military aid to Egypt against the backdrop of Washington’s concerns over Egypt’s human rights record. That said, these measures were eventually temporary in nature, with both administrations resuming aid delivery, citing the importance of such aid to the US’s national security. Washington’s reluctance to sustain these sanctions, regardless of the administration in power, can be attributed to several factors, chiefly the strategic importance of stability in Egypt. This is primarily due to Egypt’s geographic location and its long-standing alliance with Israel, the US’s main ally in the Middle East, as well as its control over strategic infrastructure, including oil and gas facilities, and the Suez Canal.
- That said, the new Biden-led administration’s effort to propagate democratic values as part of its foreign policy is likely to be reflected in the US’s relations with Egypt. This was most underscored on July 12, 2020, when Biden referenced the “arresting, torturing, and exiling” of political activists in Egypt, calling for “no more blank checks for [then President] Trump’s favorite dictator”. This was also reflected in statements made by Binken after the Egyptian authorities arrested three employees of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) in November 2020 for holding a conference with Western diplomats to discuss human rights. In response to this, Blinken stated that “meeting with foreign diplomats is not a crime. Nor is peacefully advocating for human rights.”
- FORECAST: While the new US President and Secretary of State are yet to publicly address the human rights situation in Egypt, the aforementioned statements indicate that the new administration is likely willing to give such considerations greater gravity in its relations with Cairo over the coming months. One field where Washington may pressurize the Egyptian government is through projecting that US aid to Egypt will be scrutinized and potentially reduced in scope. Such measures may be backed by the US Congress, where the Democratic Party has gained an overall majority in both houses. This has furthered the capacity of Democratic congress members, who are more inclined to spearhead campaigns to halt arms sales and aid to recipients in the Middle East due to their human rights records, to promote such a campaign against Egypt. This was recently underscored on January 25, when two Congressmen inaugurated the “Egypt Human Rights Caucus”, which is aimed at “rebalancing” the US’s “unconditional support” to Egypt with an appreciation of Cairo’s human rights records. Furthermore, the Biden-led administration itself will likely release periodic public statements criticizing Egypt’s human rights records to put pressure on Cairo. While all of the above is not likely to impact the core partnership between the US and Egypt, it will likely be perceived by some Western actors as an indication of the erosion of Egypt’s global standing, which may, in turn, impact investor confidence in the country.
- FORECAST: Against this backdrop, the Egyptian government will likely project a pragmatic approach towards the US’s new set of priorities. Cairo may exercise more caution in terms of the arrest of dissidents and may also release some detainees as a measure to build trust with Washington. However, the government is unlikely to release perceived members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including several Egyptian-American dual citizens, and will overall continue to clamp down on the movement. This is because the Egyptian government has designated the Muslim Brotherhood a “terrorist organization” and President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi continues to perceive the movement to constitute the primary threat to his authority and power.
- FORECAST: Egypt will also likely seek to bolster its image as a broker of peace in the Middle East in a bid to raise its profile with Washington. This will likely manifest in the form of increased involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and stabilization efforts in Libya. That said, the current Egyptian leadership is liable to be largely suspicious of a Democratic-led administration. This is due to the perception among some members of the Sisi administration that the President Obama-led US government betrayed former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Thus, any far-reaching attempts by the US to compel Egypt to reform may compel the latter to pursue stronger relations and alliances with global actors that have become increasingly involved in the Middle East, such as Russia and China. Relations between the latter countries and Egypt have gradually improved in recent years, as both countries also represent an alternative channel for the procurement of aid and sophisticated arms.
The US will place more pressure on Egypt to implement democratic reforms but will continue to support Cairo’s efforts to stabilize the country’s security environment.
President Joe Biden’s incorporation of democratic values in the US’s foreign policy stance towards Turkey to intensify the rift between countries
· The US and Turkey have long-standing differences over multiple policy issues, particularly Ankara’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air defense system.
· Washington will likely seek to compel Ankara to change its regional activities and geopolitical alliances, rendering legislation and sanctions targeting Turkey a possibility over the coming years.
· Washington has an interest in keeping Ankara within its sphere of influence, rather than that of its adversaries, which may mitigate the diplomatic damage caused by the parties’ policy differences.
- The new US administration’s desire to incorporate the pursuit of democratic values in its foreign policy comes amid already elevated tensions between Washington and Ankara on several issues. This most notably surrounds Turkey’s decision to purchase the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, for which Washington has imposed sanctions on Turkey, as well as Turkey’s overall interventionist policies in the Middle East, particularly in Syria and Libya. These geopolitical rifts also come amid a trend of growing empowerment of the Turkish presidency, which has been deemed by domestic actors and international stakeholders, primarily the EU, as autocratic. This also includes a government crackdown on those perceived as critical of the government, which often includes the detainment of journalists and opposition political party members.
- Furthermore, in October 2020, Turkey passed the Social Media Law, which imposed regulations on primarily Western social media companies operating in the country, thus granting the Turkish government control over content dissemination through social media platforms within Turkey. Several major social media firms perceived the measure as infringing upon international standards of freedom of media and speech. More recently, this trend was also seen in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s appointment of a university rector linked to his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which sparked large-scale nationwide protests by Istanbul’s Bogazici University students and their supporters in denunciation of the move as undemocratic.
- FORECAST: Against the backdrop of the new Biden-led administration’s commitment to upholding democratic norms and human rights, the US is likely to seek to pressure Turkey to change its domestic policies. Domestic violations of human rights in Turkey will likely receive greater attention in public statements by the US, which will overall increase diplomatic tensions with Ankara, as the latter will perceive this as interference in Turkey’s internal affairs. In return, Erdogan is likely to resort to anti-US discourse, as was highlighted on February 15, when he accused the US of supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), designated a “terrorist organization” by Washington.
- FORECAST: Washington will also likely seek to compel Ankara to curb its military involvement in regional conflicts, such as in Syria and Libya, as well as in its rift with EU members over territorial rights in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. This may be pursued through legal frameworks that have already been put in place, such as the “Libya Stabilization Act”, through the enactment of new legislation by the US Congress, or direct sanctions on Turkish entities that are perceived as involved in destabilizing activities in the region. Thus, relations between Washington and Ankara are overall liable to deteriorate. That said, through repeated statements, the US continues to recognize the importance of Turkey as a strategic ally and NATO member. It is also in Washington’s interests to prevent the country from falling further into the sphere of influence of the US’s adversaries, including Russia, China, and Iran. There are also significant economic interests at play between the two countries. Therefore, efforts will likely be made by the parties over the coming months and years to bridge some of their policy differences.
The diplomatic tensions between the US and Turkey are unlikely to have a major impact on operations within the latter country. However, the escalatory diplomatic rhetoric may create a hostile atmosphere for Western companies located in the country.
Process of normalization between Israel, Arab states to slow down; cooperation against Iran to intensify over the coming year
· The process of normalization between Israel and some Arab states that commenced during the previous US administration is liable to slow down under the Biden administration.
· This is both due to the change in the Trump administration’s transactional approach to foreign policy and the emphasis of prominent Arab states, primarily Saudi Arabia, on progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front.
· Regardless, the anti-Iran alliance, led by Israel, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, is likely to strengthen, especially in the event that the US returns to the JCPOA.
- In 2020, the Trump-led US administration brokered a series of normalization agreements to foster diplomatic relations between Israel and Arab states. On September 15, 2020, the UAE, Bahrain, and Israel signed the “Abraham Accords”. Sudan and Morocco followed suit by normalizing relations with Jerusalem in October and December 2020, respectively. These agreements constitute a major achievement for Israel. They will facilitate broader regional cooperation with the Sunni states, including on security issues, and enhance Israel’s standing in the Middle East. This rapprochement has primarily been driven by shifting geopolitical interests, such as a shared concern regarding Iran’s hegemonic aspirations.
- Saudi Arabia has expressed open support for, and partially driven, the “Abraham Accords” behind the scenes. The normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel would also be a major breakthrough due to the former country’s regional influence and status in the Muslim and Arab world. FORECAST: However, despite the Saudis’ tacit recognition of Israel, it remains unlikely that the Kingdom will also sign a normalization agreement with Israel over the coming months. Riyadh claims the status as leader of the Muslim world, also derived from its role as custodian of the two holy sites of Mecca and Medina. Full normalization of relations with Israel in the absence of major prior concessions by Israel to the Palestinians would be regarded by large parts of the Muslim world as an intolerable betrayal and undermine the Kingdom’s regional standing. The current political landscape in Israel and the upcoming March 23 elections will render it difficult for Jerusalem to grant significant concessions to the Palestinians, particularly over territory. In addition to significant concessions by Israel, Riyadh would only likely move towards US-brokered normalization if it can also secure major material or diplomatic concessions from Washington. The UAE and Morocco received such concessions from the Trump-led administration, as shown by the sale of F-35 aircraft to the UAE and the recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the disputed territory of Western Sahara.
- FORECAST: While the Biden-led administration endorsed the “Abraham Accords”, it is less likely to replicate the Trump-led administration’s transactional foreign policy approach, which set aside criticism of the normalizing Arab states’ domestic or regional policies. Given Biden’s explicit criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and other regional policies, Washington is unlikely to make major concessions to Riyadh in exchange for normalization with Israel. Furthermore, although additional GCC states, such as Oman and Qatar, tacitly recognize Israel, such actors are also less likely to establish official diplomatic ties with Israel. Muscat may fear that this will undermine its position as an independent regional actor, particularly vis-a-vis Iran. Similarly, Doha will likely refrain from full normalization as this may reduce its influence with Islamist movements, chiefly Hamas. Thus, it is less likely that additional normalization agreements between Arab states and Israel will be signed over the coming months.
- FORECAST: Despite the expected slowdown in the process of normalization, cooperation between Israel and Sunni Arab states, specifically Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their allies, will likely deepen in light of Biden’s willingness to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Shared fears of Tehran’s regional activities have already yielded years of covert security and intelligence cooperation between Israel and Sunni Arab states, which can be expected to intensify over the coming months. This will overall strengthen cooperation between the regional anti-Iran bloc.
- Arab-Israeli military interoperability could be further strengthened following the January 2021 shift of Israel from the purview of the US European Command (EUCOM) to the US Central Command (CENTCOM). This shift will allow CENTCOM to facilitate direct military cooperation between the US, its Arab allies, and Israel, giving Jerusalem an official forum for communicating with countries, even those that have not normalized relations. FORECAST: While the Biden-led administration has suggested that it will open a communication channel with its regional allies on the Iran negotiations, Israel and the Sunni Arab states will likely not be satisfied with any deal that does not address Iran’s missile program and regional proxies. Regardless, Biden may leverage the growing alliance between Israel and Sunni Arab states to increase pressure on Tehran and highlight its regional isolation.
The normalization agreements reached between Israel and some Arab states will create opportunities for economic cooperation and will likely stabilize the wider region over the coming months and years.
President Joe Biden to increase rapprochement with PA, take a more critical stance towards Israel’s policies in West Bank
· The Biden administration will abandon the parameters of Trump’s “Deal of the Century”, which was perceived by the Palestinians as extremely biased towards Israel.
· The new administration will likely restore ties with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and take a more critical stance towards Israeli actions in the West Bank.
· The administration is unlikely to prioritize launching a diplomatic initiative over the coming year at least, due to both domestic priorities and conditions within the local region.
- FORECAST: Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Biden-led administration will likely abandon the parameters of the Trump-led administration’s “Deal of the Century” peace plan, which was perceived by the Palestinians as biased towards Israel, and adopt a more even-handed approach, in line with pre-Trump administration US positions promoting a two-state solution. Biden will likely seek to restore formal ties with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and may thus reverse several economic and diplomatic measures taken by the Trump-led administration against the PA throughout 2018. It is likely that over the coming months, the US will reopen both the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) mission in Washington and the US Consulate in East Jerusalem as well as resume funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA), In August 2018, the Trump-led administration discontinued its financial assistance to the UNRWA, stating that the organization is “irredeemably flawed”.
- FORECAST: However, as the Biden administration is expected to prioritize domestic issues during its initial phase in office, it is unlikely that it will develop and bring forward a peace plan, at least not in the coming months. This is also due to the slated Palestinian legislative elections on May 22 and presidential elections on July 31. It is far from certain that the elections will be held. This is given both the precedent of similar efforts over the past years when attempts to hold elections have failed due to disputes between the Fatah and Hamas parties as well as Israeli objections to Palestinians voting in East Jerusalem, which it claims as its sovereign territory. However, the decision by PA leader Mahmoud Abbas to formally announce the legislation by issuing a presidential decree and Palestinian factions’ reported agreement to proceed with the election process during a meeting in Cairo on February 8 likely reflect a Palestinian effort to gain favor with the Biden administration by demonstrating the PA’s efforts to promote Palestinian reconciliation and readiness for statehood. In light of this development, alongside ongoing political instability in Israel, the US is highly unlikely to compel either party to make major concessions over the coming months.
- FORECAST: Meanwhile, the Biden-led administration will likely take a more critical stance towards perceived Israeli transgressions, such as the construction of housing in Israeli communities in the West Bank. However, Biden has publicly ruled out that he will condition US military aid on Israeli concessions. Thus, the Israeli government will likely continue such activities while also avoiding public confrontations and tensions with the Biden administration. Taken together, all of these factors render the likelihood of any meaningful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over the coming year low. Regardless, with the exception of likely tensions over a return to an Iranian nuclear deal, which will be discussed later, strategic military and diplomatic cooperation between the US and Israel is unlikely to significantly alter under Biden’s presidency. Israel continues to be the US’s main ally in the Middle East.
The likely continuation of the political status quo in the Israel-Palestinian Territories region over the coming year will likely maintain the relatively stable security situation. However, both the Israeli elections and proposed Palestinian elections are potential sources of tensions that may impact the security environment.
Different stages in the negotiation process surrounding the Iranian nuclear deal have a varied impact on the security situation in the Middle East
· President Biden has stated his intention to resume negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program as part of a potential return to the JCPOA. However, a standoff is currently being witnessed, with both sides refusing to make the first move.
· There are three possible scenarios of how the Biden administration’s engagement with Iran will pan out: 1) a return to negotiations via trust-building measures and eventual resumption of the JCPOA or a similar agreement; 2) prolonged negotiations between the parties; 3) a complete breakdown in talks and escalation of tensions. These scenarios will have a significant impact on regional security.
The relationship between Iran and the previous US administration was characterized by tensions and hostile rhetoric between the parties. Since withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in May 2018, the Trump administration reimposed economic sanctions on Iran under its “maximum pressure” campaign, to which Iran has responded by incrementally boosting its nuclear program outside the permitted scope of the JCPOA. In this context, the transfer of power in the US has been greatly anticipated by Iran’s leadership. However, despite the new US President Joe Biden’s stated willingness to return to the JCPOA and resume diplomatic talks with Iran, a standoff has been witnessed over recent weeks, with both sides refusing to make the first move. Washington maintains that Iran should return to full compliance with the terms of the JCPOA before the US allows any sanctions relief, while Iran insists that the US must lift all sanctions before Iran returns to full compliance.
Against this overall backdrop, there are three possible scenarios of how the Biden-led administration’s engagement with Iran may pan out:
- Despite the current standoff, there is a possibility that both Iran and the US may gradually take steps to build trust. This could possibly entail the US’s lifting of limited sanctions on Iran to allow the latter to receive some economic benefits that are less valuable, rather than the complete sanctions relief that it received under the JCPOA, in return for Iran’s gradual reversal of certain breaches of the accord. Such an approach could promote good faith between the two states during direct negotiations, which may ultimately culminate in the reaching of an agreement. Although US allies, primarily Israel and Saudi Arabia, will voice opposition to providing Iran economic benefits, the reaching of an agreement may also reduce the potential for hostilities, particularly the intensity of attacks launched by Iran-backed proxies against targets linked to the US and its allies, which would thus contribute to increased stability in the region. However, given precedent, this is an overall unlikely scenario. Sanctions relief would enable Iran to increase the funding and arming of its proxies, which would overall undermine efforts to stabilize the region.
- It is likely that the negotiations regarding an eventual return to or a new version of the deal will be prolonged. This is particularly given that the Biden-led administration has indicated that the JCPOA in its current form is redundant as Iran has already breached several aspects of the nuclear deal, and signaled that it will pursue negotiations for a new agreement that also addresses Iran’s ballistic missile program and support for armed groups across the region. However, it is likely that any future attempt by Washington to curtail Iran’s conventional military capabilities, which Tehran considers as integral to its deterrence vis-a-vis its adversaries, will likely invoke opposition from the latter’s lawmakers and decision-makers, especially hardliners in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Such a scenario will heighten anti-US sentiments within Iran in the months leading up to the presidential elections in Iran, which are slated for June. This will furthermore diminish the influence of the “moderate” reformist camp that is represented by the incumbent Hassan Rouhani-led administration and amplify the prospects for the ascension of a presidential candidate from the hardline IRGC-linked camp.
- In a scenario wherein the US maintains an inflexible position regarding Iran’s ballistic missile program and perceived belligerent activities, Tehran may become exasperated. This is especially given that Tehran’s economy has been severely deteriorating over recent years since Washington’s reimposition of sanctions in 2019, particularly on its oil and banking sectors, which has been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. This, combined with the possible election of a hardline IRGC-linked president, may accentuate the prospects for a complete breakdown in talks. This will result in heightened tensions between the two countries, which will increase the potential for a direct military confrontation in the region, especially as Iran is likely to undertake accelerated measures towards achieving nuclear weapons.
The manner in which negotiations proceed will have a significant impact on the regional security environment, with Iran liable to use various pressure tactics in an attempt to gain concessions.
Impact on Regional Stability
The trajectory of US-Iran relations will have a significant impact on regional stability. Should the current standoff persist over the coming months, Iran may seek to increase pressure on the US through various means. This will broadly include measures such as arrests of Western/dual nationals in Iran; maritime-related security incidents; cyber-attacks and direct attacks by Iran-backed groups against targets linked to the US and its allies across the region; and attacks by Iranian proxies based in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen against the US and its allies. Similar pressure tactics of varying intensity will also likely be witnessed in the event of protracted negotiations over a return to the JCPOA or towards formulating a new agreement that limits Tehran’s nuclear program. A possible breakdown of talks over the coming year has the potential to increase the scope for direct hostilities, possibly in the form of Israeli or US military action against sensitive nuclear or military infrastructure in Iran. Although unlikely, this scenario will increase the chances for broad-scale armed conflict in the region.
Iran has various means at its disposal to mount pressure on the US during the various stages of negotiation:
1) Arrest of foreign and dual nations to use in potential prisoner exchanges and gain leverage
2) Increase the risk attached to maritime navigation in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea
3) Intensify the scope and frequency of cyberattacks against the US and its allies
4) Kinetic attacks by proxy actors against the interests of the US and its regional allies
Means by which Iran will likely seek to mount pressure on the US:
1. Arrest of foreign, dual nationals within Iran
The Iranian authorities have periodically arrested dual and foreign nationals, particularly Westerners, with approximately eight such instances reported between 2019-20. A significant number of the arrestees were detained on espionage-related charges or for partaking in alleged anti-government activities. For instance, an American-Iranian businessman was reportedly arrested as he attempted to “illegally” flee Iran on January 14. Thus, in the scenario that the talks between the US and Iran stagnate, Tehran may seek to detain dual/foreign nationals and hand lengthy prison sentences to these individuals in order to obtain leverage and strengthen its negotiating power vis-a-vis the US and its allies. Moreover, such arrests may serve as an opportunity for Iran to induce a prisoner exchange agreement, particularly with the US. This is illustrated by the periodic materialization of prisoner swaps involving foreign detainees in Iran. For instance, on June 4, 2020, Iran released a US Navy veteran in exchange for the release of a dual American-Iranian doctor who was prosecuted in the US. Overall, the tensions arising from the protraction or even the failure of the talks with the US are liable to increase Tehran’s motive to utilize foreign detainees, thereby elevating the risk to foreign nationals, particularly Westerners, operating or residing in Iran.
2. Increase risk associated with navigating through Persian Gulf, Red Sea
- Iran may increase its activity along maritime routes if it perceives that the negotiations with the US are not in its favor. This may manifest in the form of direct and disruptive acts by the Iranian authorities or through covert activities via an Iranian proxy, such as the Yemen-based Houthis, which will thus heighten the risk posed to navigation in the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, and the Red Sea.
- Iran has periodically seized or detained several commercial vessels and oil tankers in the Persian Gulf over recent years. Approximately four such instances wherein the Iranian authorities seized foreign vessels navigating through the Persian Gulf were recorded in 2020. Most recently, on January 4, the Iranian authorities seized a South Korean vessel in the Strait of Hormuz over allegations of violation of marine environmental laws. Tehran later released the vessel on February 2. FORECAST: Thus, if the negotiations with the US stagnate or fail, Iran will likely step up its efforts to impose its authority and project itself as the predominant naval power in the Persian Gulf, which it considers as part of its “backyard”. This is particularly given the strategic nature of the territorial waters surrounding Iran, as the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz constitute a major international oil trade route. Thus, Iran may seize oil tankers and commercial vessels to convey to international stakeholders, particularly the US and its allies, that it is capable of disrupting maritime activities, thereby adversely impacting international trade.
- FORECAST: If the talks with the US do not result in the lifting of the embargo on Iran’s oil trade, the latter may attempt to at least temporarily blockade the Strait of Hormuz, which it has repeatedly threatened to close over recent years. This would enable Tehran to both retaliate and gain leverage over the US and its allies given that approximately 40 to 60 percent of the world’s oil exports pass through this chokepoint. Moreover, covert attacks carried out by the IRGC against US-linked maritime vessels operating in the Red Sea, the Bab-al Mandab Strait, and in the Persian Gulf cannot be ruled out. This may be similar to the “act of sabotage” recorded on two Saudi oil tankers near the territorial waters of Fujairah in the Gulf of Oman on May 12, 2019, which was likely conducted by Iran-linked elements.
- FORECAST: Iran may also encourage its regional proxies, such as the Houthis, to increasingly launch attacks in the Red Sea and the Bab al-Mandab Strait. This is primarily given that the Red Sea constitutes a strategic waterway for oil shipments through which the US’s close allies, such as Saudi Arabia, transport a majority of their crude oil. Thus, such attacks, which increase the risk associated with maritime navigation through the region, would serve Iran’s efforts to disrupt the economies of the US’s allies, while also allowing Tehran to maintain plausible deniability. Furthermore, Iran may also instruct the Houthis to broaden the geographical scope of their attacks around Yemen’s territorial waters towards the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea, which could be launched from an Iranian vessel. Overall, such attacks will likely involve the use of naval mines and explosive-laden boats, which the Houthis are known to possess and have persistently utilized over recent months. Such security incidents will carry the risk of damage to foreign vessels. This is bolstered by the damage sustained to a foreign oil tanker in a Houthi-launched explosive-laden boat attack off the coast of Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah on December 14, 2020 and to a commercial cargo ship by a Houthi-planted naval mine in the southern Red Sea on December 25, 2020.
3. Cyber Warfare
- Iran-backed acts of cyber warfare have periodically targeted key government bodies, infrastructure facilities, and private companies involved in sensitive operations, such as shipping, logistics, and supply chain operations, over recent years. While this is part of Tehran’s known non-kinetic method of warfare, it has increased in frequency and scope over the past year. Reports indicate that Iran-linked cyberattacks increased significantly following the US-perpetrated killing of Iran’s IRGC-Quds Force (QF) commander, Qassem Soleimani, in Baghdad on January 2, 2020. With respect to the US, the FBI published an advisory on December 23, 2020 and January 15, 2021 warning of “Iranian activity [cyber] intended to create fear, divisions, and mistrust in the US and undermine public confidence in the US electoral process”.
- Iran-backed cyberattacks have particularly intensified with respect to Israel and have targeted critical infrastructure. For instance, in April 2020, a water distribution facility in Israel was targeted; several private Israeli entities, servers, and databases were targeted throughout 2020, with Iran-linked actors alleged to have hacked over 40 Israeli companies in the month of December 2020 alone. In January 2021, cyber actors affiliated with the Iranian proxy, Hezbollah, were accused of hacking the servers and databases of hundreds of companies in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Territories. Recently, in February 2021, sensitive government institutions of Kuwait and the UAE were targeted in an alleged Iran-linked cyber espionage attack.
- These developments are indicative of Iran-linked cyber actors’ relatively sophisticated capabilities. This is evidenced by their ability to carry out successful operations targeting several countries, some of which occur almost simultaneously. The scope and swift materialization of some of these attacks point towards their planned and coordinated nature. Meanwhile, the perpetrators and targets of the attacks indicate that they are meant to extract sensitive information or find weaknesses in cyber protocols rather than being motivated by financial gain.
- FORECAST: The status of the US-Iran talks is unlikely to significantly diminish Iran’s cyberwarfare campaign. This can be attributed to the challenges posed in tracing the Internet Protocol (IP) addresses of such cyber actors, which gives them plausible deniability, thereby reducing the risk of retaliation, at least in terms of military action. The ongoing Iran-backed cyberwarfare campaign will be furthermore sustained given its relatively inexpensive nature, as compared to kinetic means of warfare, such as missile, rocket, or UAV attacks. The fact that cyberattacks do not put actors under direct physical risk will further sustain Iran’s cyberwarfare campaign.
- FORECAST: That said, tensions between Washington and Tehran will likely at least impact the short-term frequency or scope of cyberattacks targeting US-linked interests, as evidenced by the reported uptick in Iran-linked cyber-attacks following the US’s assassination of Qassem Soleimani in January 2020. In this context, should Iran perceive the talks as turning unfavorable, it may prompt it to order its linked actors to increase the frequency, scope, or sophistication of cyberattacks targeting US government bodies, infrastructure, as well as the servers and databases of private US companies, as well as those of Washington’s allies.
4. Attacks by proxy actors against US allies, interests
- Over recent years, the Yemen-based Houthis have been able to launch persistent cross-border attacks targeting Saudi Arabia. The US and its allies have attributed Iran with helping the Houthis to develop its missile and UAV arsenal. This is further bolstered by the reported shipments from Iran to the Houthis, which are periodically intercepted by the Saudi-led Coalition and the US in the Arabian and Red seas. For example, according to an unconfirmed January 13 report drawn from purported satellite imagery, the presence of Iran-made “Shahed-136” UAVs was found in Houthi-held areas of al-Jawf Governorate.
- Therefore, the support received from Iran has likely facilitated the Houthis’ persistent ability to launch cross-border attacks into Saudi Arabia. Such attacks have included the targeting of airports, such as the February 15 Houthi-claimed UAV attack targeting the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah and the Abha International Airport in Asir Province and the February 10 attack on Abha International Airport, which resulted in material damage to a civilian aircraft. They have also targeted oil-related facilities, such as the November 23, 2020 “Quds-2” cruise missile attack against an oil distribution station in Jeddah and the September 14, 2019 attack targeting Saudi state-owned oil facilities in Buqayq and Khurais in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. According to the Saudi authorities, the November 23, 2020 attack was carried out using Iran-made cruise missiles and UAVs. However, while the Houthis reportedly receive financial, diplomatic, and military support from Iran, they somewhat act on their own accord, according to their own goals of compelling Saudi Arabia to lift the naval blockade over Houthi-controlled territories and halt its aerial campaign in Yemen.
- The Kingdom’s major cities continue to face persistent threats in recent weeks, mostly in the form of projectiles, missiles, and UAV attacks. This was witnessed on January 23 and January 26, when two projectiles were intercepted by the Royal Saudi Air Defense (RSAD) as they flew over the country’s capital, Riyadh, which the Houthis denied it was responsible for. However, another group, the “al-Waad al-Haq Brigades”, which is based in Iraq and reported to be linked to Iran, claimed responsibility for the January 23 attack. Additionally, there has been an uptick in Houthi-perpetrated cross-border attacks targeting Saudi Arabia’s southern provinces over recent weeks. All of these events highlight the ability of Saudi Arabia’s adversaries to militarily target the country’s interior and strategic assets.
- FORECAST: Biden’s desire to re-engage with Iran on the nuclear deal may lead to a variation in the intensity of attacks by the Houthis on Saudi Arabia. In the event that the US and Iran reach an agreement, Tehran would likely be incentivized to encourage the Houthis to temporarily de-escalate tensions vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia. However, if talks are protracted, Iran may order attacks against Saudi Arabia to increase pressure on the US through the targeting of its regional allies. Such action would allow Iran to maintain plausible deniability and thus allow it to project itself as a non-aggressor while harming the Saudi security environment.
- Iran, through its proxies and linked actors, exercises significant military, political, and economic influence within Iraq. This is evidenced by the prolonged entrenchment of Iran-linked actors across key domestic institutions, with Iran-linked parties accounting for a significant portion of Iraq’s parliament. Almost all Iran-linked actors, both military and political, have demanded the expulsion of US military personnel from the country as they perceive such presence as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. To this effect, Iran-backed Shiite militias have sustained a long-standing campaign targeting US-linked interests in Iraq over the past year. This has manifested in the form of IED attacks against logistics convoys contracted by the US-led Coalition as well as rocket attacks targeting US facilities, such as the US Embassy, and facilities housing US troops, such as the Baghdad International Airport.
- While the number of US troops in Iraq has reduced over the past year, it is highly unlikely that the Biden-led administration will order their complete withdrawal in the foreseeable future. This is because the continued presence of US military personnel in Iraq is considered a prerequisite to countering Iranian influence in Iraq as well as in the larger Middle East region. This presence has been furthermore sustained on account of increased attacks by the Sunni jihadist militant group, the Islamic State (IS), over the past year. This has likely reinforced for Washington the importance of its operational support to the Iraqi security forces for their anti-IS campaign.
- FORECAST: In this context, should Iran perceive negotiations with the US as turning in its favor, the former may order its proxies to reduce the frequency or scale of attacks targeting US-linked interests in Iraq. That said, given certain hardline Shiite militias’ long-standing goal of removing US military troops from the country for Iraqi nationalist reasons, irrespective of Iran, periodic attacks targeting US-linked interests will nevertheless likely persist in Iraq. In the event that Iran perceives the talks with the US as turning against it, either due to the stagnation of negotiations or the complete breakdown of talks, it may order its proxies and backed forces to employ pressure tactics to gain leverage or concessions with regard to the negotiations. To achieve this, Iran-backed militias may increase the frequency, scope, or sophistication of attacks targeting US-linked interests in Iraq.
Syria, Lebanon, Israel
- In Syria, the IRGC, as well as Iranian proxies, such as Hezbollah, and other backed forces maintain considerable military presence under the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad led-security apparatus. Their presence has been particularly observed in parts of central and eastern Syria, especially along the Syria-Iraq border in Deir Ezzor Province, and in parts of southwestern Syria, in the vicinity of the Syria-Israel border. In Lebanon, Iran’s most well-established proxy, Hezbollah, continues to maintain a significant military, political, and economic influence in the country. A Hezbollah-led Shiite political bloc has considerable influence and power in the Lebanese political landscape, holding a large part of the parliament’s seats, and the group’s military wing maintains sophisticated military capabilities and areas of control within Lebanon. With respect to Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Iran lends support to both Hamas, to some extent, and more so to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in the Gaza Strip that are responsible for conducting rocket and explosive-laden balloon campaigns into Israel. Iranian proxies also periodically conduct low-sophistication militant attacks along the Israel-Syria and Israel-Lebanon borders.
- These proxies and have been operating under Iranian command structures for multiple years. With respect to Syria and Lebanon, this has manifested in the continual and persistent deployment of Iran-backed fighters, stockpiling of arms and ammunition, and the establishment of Iran-linked military bases. In Syria’s context, Israel has stated that these actors’ efforts to develop military capabilities and infrastructure is aimed at establishing a second front against Jerusalem, in addition to the one established in Lebanon by Hezbollah. This has sustained Israel’s prolonged airstrike campaign targeting Iran-linked personnel and infrastructure across Syria. Meanwhile, with respect to Lebanon, this has contributed to the Israeli Defense Forces’ (IDF) vigilance along the Israeli-Lebanese border area to thwart potential militant attacks into northern Israel. While Iran-linked militant actors in the Gaza Strip function relatively more independently from Iran as compared to Iran-linked actors in Syria and Lebanon, they nevertheless constitute part of Iran’s plans to expand its military goals in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
- FORECAST: Should Iran consider the talks to be disadvantageous or should they completely fail, it may seek to order its proxies to escalate hostilities with US-linked actors, Israel, and their allies, to gain leverage with respect to the talks. With respect to Syria and Lebanon, this may materialize in the form of a resurgence of attempted low-sophistication militant attacks along the Israel-Syria and Israel-Lebanon borders. However, given Israel’s unparalleled military and intelligence-gathering capabilities vis-a-vis Syria and Lebanon and continued heightened vigilance along these borders, such attacks will likely be thwarted. In the specific context of Syria, regardless of the outcome of the US-Iran negotiations, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) will continue its ongoing airstrike campaign in Syria. With respect to Israel, this may materialize in the form of a PIJ-perpetrated rocket barrage or explosive-laden balloon attack campaign into Israel, which, given precedent, will be met with a forceful Israeli military retaliation.
The various stages of potential negotiations between Iran and the US, including prior to their materialization and in the event of a collapse of talks, are liable to have a significant impact on the security environment in the MENA region. The threat of kinetic attacks via proxy actors targeting US interests in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and somewhat in Israel, demonstrates the potential risk posed to aviation. This is combined with the risk attached to maritime activity in and near Iran’s territorial waters and the increased interest of Iran and Iran-linked actors to conduct cyberattacks against US interests, which can grant Tehran a certain degree of plausible deniability. As negotiations proceed, a preemptive military attack through either kinetic or cyber means by opponents of a potential agreement cannot be entirely ruled out.
President Joe Biden to attempt to reinforce the US’s role as primary mediator in regional conflicts
During Biden’s presidential campaign, he vowed to reinforce the US’s role as a global leader. The US’s involvement in regional conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa diminished over the duration of the Trump presidency, which allowed for Washington’s regional rivals, namely Tehran, Moscow, and Ankara, to expand their influence in the region through various political, military, and economic policies. In this context, the Biden-led administration will likely broadly seek a greater diplomatic role in terms of conflict resolution in Syria, Iraq, and Libya in order to cement the US’s role as a global leader. The new US administration will also place slightly more of an emphasis on the US’s global counter-militancy efforts in each of these countries, as well as in Yemen. However, this is unlikely to manifest in any significant change in the US’s foreign policy in terms of military involvement in the Middle East and North Africa, both due to the American public’s aversion to foreign troop deployment as well as other constraints within the region.
Syria: New US administration likely to seek a more prominent political role in Syrian conflict vis-a-vis regional rivals, maintain a minimal military footprint
· The Biden-led US administration is likely to aim to slightly increase its diplomatic engagement in Syria and reinforce its military cooperation with the Kurdish-dominated SDF.
· The former endeavor may increase tensions with the current power brokers in Syria, namely Iran, Russia, and Turkey. The latter will particularly raise tensions with Turkey, given its perception of the SDF as a militant group with ties to the PKK.
· The US will continue its counter-militancy cooperation against IS alongside the SDF.
- The Biden-led administration has yet to announce its policy towards Syria. However, the appointment of Antony Blinken as the US Secretary of State gives an insight into Washington’s intended approach towards the country. Blinken served as the deputy National Security Adviser and later as the Deputy Secretary of State during the Obama-led US administration, during which time he strongly advocated for an engaged, yet restrained, approach towards Syria. This is evidenced by his September 2020 statement that a “large-scale, open-ended deployment of large, standing US forces in conflict zones with no clear strategy…will end under his [Biden’s] watch” but should be distinguished from “discrete, small-scale, sustainable operations…to support local actors”. Moreover, over recent years, Russia and Iran have positioned themselves as powerbrokers in Syria by extending military support to the Bashar al-Assad-led government in the ongoing conflict. FORECAST: Therefore, while the US is unlikely to drastically alter its current policy regarding a minimal military footprint in Syria over the coming months, it will likely seek a more prominent role in the Syrian conflict vis-a-vis Russia, Iran, and Turkey.
- FORECAST: This will likely most visibly be witnessed through the US’s relations with its on-ground partners in Syria, particularly the predominantly-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). In October 2019, Biden criticized Trump for withdrawing US troops from Syria, deeming it a “betrayal” of the US’s Kurdish allies and damaging to Washington’s “moral authority.” Blinken also criticized Trump’s troop withdrawal and expressed support for maintaining some military presence in Syria. This indicates that the Biden-led administration will prioritize the rebuilding of trust with its Kurdish allies, namely the SDF, which functions as the ground fighting force for the US-led Coalition’s anti-IS operation titled “Operation Inherent Resolve”.
- FORECAST: A renewed US-Kurdish alliance will serve to bolster the SDF’s efforts to hinder Turkish-backed forces’ ability to fortify their positions along the 30 km-deep security corridor, which runs along the Syria-Turkey border and extends from Raqqa’s Tal Abyad and Ayn Issa to Hasakah’s Ras al-Ayn towards Tal Tamr in northeastern Syria. This is evidenced by reports from early February that the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which comprise the chief component of the SDF, have already become more active in their stance towards Turkish-backed forces in northeastern Syria and that the number of attacks by Kurdish armed groups in the region have overall increased.
- FORECAST: While Turkey’s growing military intervention in Syria can in part be attributed to the US’s waning presence in the region under the former US administration, increased support for Kurdish fighters is unlikely to deter Ankara’s activities in the country. This is partly because Ankara believes that it has the right to intervene in Syria to mitigate what it perceives as the Kurdish militant threat to its country. Moreover, Turkey has recently shown an unwillingness to alter its policies based on the pressure by Western states, particularly the US. Therefore, an increase in hostilities may be witnessed between Kurdish and Turkish-backed forces along the frontlines in northeastern Syria over the coming months. This will also serve to increase geopolitical tensions between Washington and Ankara.
- FORECAST: Although this alliance may serve to provide Biden with a more legitimate justification for the US’s presence in Syria, it will pose significant challenges to any potential future diplomatic engagements with the Assad-led government. This is particularly given that Damascus is largely opposed to both the Kurdish movement’s aspirations for autonomy and any US presence in the country, which the Syrian government perceives as an “occupying force” that is extracting Syria’s oil wealth for its interests. In this context, on January 20, Dr. Bashar al-Jaafari, Syria’s Ambassador to the UN Security Council (UNSC), called on the Biden-led administration to withdraw its troops and “end” Trump’s policies. The Syrian government is unlikely to change its stance towards the new US administration over the coming months.
- FORECAST: The Biden-led administration will also prioritize countering IS’s resurgence in the country. It is also possible that Washington will focus on combating the resurgence of IS and other jihadist groups as a common goal with Moscow and thereby seek to diplomatically engage with the latter. This would also allow the US to engage with the current powerbrokers in Syria and thereby reinforce its role as a global leader. Regardless, given Blinken’s stated interest in conducting limited operations in Syria, the Biden-led administration will likely continue to maintain a limited military presence, currently standing at about 700-900 troops, in the country. A significant increase in US military deployment to the country is unlikely over the coming months. Therefore, the US’s policies are unlikely to significantly alter the broad security situation in Syria, at least in the initial stages of Biden’s term.
The US-led Coalition’s continued involvement in the counter-militancy campaign in Syria will constitute an essential factor in the prevention of a long-term reemergence of IS and other jihadist groups. However, a greater US involvement in the Syrian political process may further complicate developments and is unlikely to end the conflict in the near future.
Iraq: President Joe Biden likely to attempt to build stronger diplomatic ties with the Iraqi government
· The Biden-led US administration will continue to engage with the Iraqi government in an effort to stabilize the country and hinder Iranian efforts to gain influence in the country.
· The US will likely maintain its military presence in the country in order to continue the anti-IS campaign alongside Iraqi security forces. Thus, a further reduction to the US troop deployment is unlikely.
· The American military presence will continue to prompt Iran-backed militias to conduct attacks against US interests and assets in the country.
- Although Iraq was largely absent from Biden’s campaign discourse, it constitutes a strategic state for the US’s involvement in the Middle East with regards to its regional anti-IS campaign, “Operation Inherent Resolve”, energy interests, and countering the influence of Iran. FORECAST: Biden will likely seek to reassure its Iraqi counterpart that Washington will remain an ally to Baghdad. This is particularly given the Trump-led administration’s reported warning in September 2020 that it would close the US Embassy in Baghdad unless the Iraqi government prevents Iran-backed Shiite militias from targeting US diplomatic missions and assets in the country. However, the Biden-led administration will likely attempt to contrast this approach by fostering better diplomatic ties with the Iraqi government over the coming months in order to safeguard Washington’s interests. Biden will likely capitalize on Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s willingness to deepen diplomatic engagements with the US. This is evidenced by the Iraq-US “Strategic Dialogue”, which aims to discuss “security, energy, and economic issues”, and indicates al-Kadhimi’s willingness to cooperate with the US in various sectors.
- FORECAST: Biden will particularly attempt to bolster diplomatic ties with the Iraqi government to counter Tehran’s influence in the country. This is because, while Kadhimi has stated his willingness to crack down on Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq, he partially relies on Tehran to maintain a stable government, given the influence the Islamic Republic holds in Iraqi politics. This is also because Iran is the primary exporter of electricity to Iraq and a halt in such supplies has in the past triggered nationwide anti-government protests in Iraq, which has led to severe political instability. Tehran has often used this as leverage to influence Iraqi domestic politics. In June 2020, Iran signed a two-year contract with Iraq to export electricity to the latter, likely as part of an effort to forge an Iran-friendly government in Iraq. In this context, the US may seek to bolster Iraq’s currently deteriorating and indebted economy over the coming months, particularly ahead of Iraq’s general elections, slated for October 2021. This will serve to diminish Iraq’s economic dependence on Iran by enabling it to become more self-sufficient in the long-term and more reliant on US-aligned economic interests in the medium term.
- Meanwhile, while Baghdad declared victory over IS in December 2017, Biden will likely continue to prioritize counter-militancy operations in Iraq. This is particularly in light of the recent IS-perpetrated twin suicide bombing in central Baghdad’s Tayaran Square, located near an entrance to the Green Zone, which houses the US Embassy, on January 21. FORECAST: However, this is unlikely to result in an increase in US troop deployment to Iraq, both due to the US public’s opposition to such a policy and due to the risk posed to US personnel on the ground by Shiite militias. In this context, Biden will likely use the 3,000 troops currently stationed in Iraq to support Iraqi forces and for targeted missions to pursue the US’s counter-militancy objectives. Taken as a whole, the on-ground security situation is unlikely to dramatically change due to Biden’s diplomatic and security approach to Iraq.
Iran-backed Shiite militias will likely continue to conduct rocket attacks against US military and government interests and potentially US-linked civilian companies and organizations that are based in Iraq.
Libya: US’s political interests in Libya unlikely to impact domestic security situation, likely to increase regional tensions in Eastern Mediterranean Sea
· The US will likely refrain from deploying a significant military presence in Libya while the current political process aimed at unifying state institutions and organizing elections in December 2021 is ongoing.
· However, Biden will aim to increase the US’s influence in the country over the course of his presidential term by supporting the political process and creating alliances with political actors in the country.
- The former US administration was almost nearly absent from the Libyan conflict. Near the end of his term, the US Congress passed the “Libya Stabilization Act” on November 18, 2020, which allows the US administration to sanction any foreign actors backing either the Government of National Accord (GNA) or the Libyan National Army (LNA). It also allows the US to sanction individuals who illicitly exploit Libya’s oil resources or financial institutions as well as those complicit in human rights abuses. This came amid ongoing negotiations between the GNA on one side, and the House of Representatives (HoR) and the LNA on the other, to unify all state institutions as well as the country’s security and military apparatuses with the aim of ending the Libyan conflict. The “Libya Stabilization Act” was thus likely part of an effort by US lawmakers to partially project their willingness to diplomatically intervene in the Libya conflict by seeking to ensure that both the GNA and the LNA adhere to the terms of the ceasefire agreement that they signed in October 2020, which stipulated that both parties would terminate the international military support that they receive from their respective backers and withdraw foreign forces from the frontlines in Libya. This was particularly because the withdrawal of foreign troops from Libya is a heavily disputed issue as both sides are dependent upon foreign military aid to defend their frontlines and positions against a potential offensive by their rival.
- Since Biden’s inauguration as the US President on January 20, rival parties in Libya have organized and conducted an election via the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), under the auspices of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), to establish the new temporary Government of National Unity (GNU). This resulted in the election of Abdel Hamid al-Dbeibah as the new Prime Minister (PM) of Libya and Mohammed Yunus al-Menfi as the new President of the Presidency Council (PC) on February 5. While the Biden-led administration has issued several statements highlighting its support for the political peace process in Libya since January 20, there have been few indications with regards to the policies that the US will implement in the country. This can be attributed to two factors. Given the US’s current priorities with regards to its relationship with Iran as well as its activities in Iraq and Syria, Libya likely does not constitute a priority for the Biden-led administration at this time. Moreover, the GNU is mandated with the organization of Libya’s national elections, slated for December 24, rather than taking over Libya’s governance from the GNA or the HoR. In this context, it is unlikely that the Biden-led administration will formulate any concrete military or political policies for Libya over the coming months, which may be deemed to be influencing this process.
- That said, on January 29, the Biden-led administration reportedly called for the immediate withdrawal of Turkish and Russian forces from Libya, which provides support to the GNA and the LNA, respectively. As Vice President during the Obama-led administration, Biden was largely opposed to the NATO-led intervention in the country. FORECAST: Against this backdrop, it is unlikely that the Biden-led administration will deploy military assets to Libya, including support for the HoR and the LNA, which is backed by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, vis-a-vis the GNA, which is backed by Turkey. This is because should the US choose to provide military support for any rival party in the country, it would undermine the ongoing UN-led political process and may prompt increased interference in Libya by the other international actors.
- FORECAST: However, Biden will likely seek a greater political role in the country over the course of his term. This is because, amid the US’s absence from this regional conflict, Turkey and Russia have emerged as key power brokers in the country. This is highlighted by the fact that prior to the October 2020 ceasefire agreement, Egypt and Russia, which back the LNA, and Turkey, which support the GNA, attended the Berlin Conference on Libya on January 19, 2020, wherein they agreed to implement a ceasefire agreement. Although EU states, such as France and Italy, also partook in this process, the US was absent from it. In this context, as supporters of the primary actors in Libya, Russia, Egypt, and Turkey have been able to exert their influence in the Libyan political process thus far. Biden’s campaign statement indicated that one of his primary goals is to reinforce the US’s role as a global leader. The US will thus likely aim to counter Russia’s and Turkey’s growing influence in Libya. This will likely manifest in support for the organization of Libya’s national elections via the UN. The US may also choose to diplomatically engage with certain candidates that may provide Washington with a domestic partner prior to the elections and will attempt to build an alliance with an upcoming government over the coming years.
- The US will continue to have a vested interest in countering the resurgence of militant groups in Libya. While IS activity has been rare over recent years, the group nonetheless is known to conduct periodic operations in Libya’s central and southern regions. On May 28, 2020, IS claimed an IED attack on a police headquarters in Taraghin, the burning of crops in Ghadduwah, and the bombing of two shops in Umm al-Aranib. Prior to this, on May 21, 2020, IS claimed three separate rocket attacks against multiple LNA facilities in the Fezzan region. However, the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) reported in October 2019 that only 150 IS fighters remained in Libya. It further stated that it has been monitoring IS’s recruitment and training activities in its camps in Libya as part of its concern that the group is taking advantage of the ongoing civil war in the country to expand its capabilities. FORECAST: Given IS’s overall depleted capacities in Libya, the US is unlikely to engage in significant counter-militancy operations in the country. However, given precedent, periodic airstrikes targeting IS elements by US AFRICOM may be recorded under the Biden-led administration. Overall, the US is unlikely to change its current military policies in Libya, both with regards to the current conflict and the militancy situation. Hence, the overall status-quo regarding the security situation will not change over the coming months as a result of the Biden-led administration’s policies.
Eastern Mediterranean Sea
- Beyond Libya’s domestic sphere, the US will likely attempt to counter Turkey’s maneuvers in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. In November 2019, Ankara signed two Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) with the GNA regarding military cooperation and the bilateral demarcation of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) between Libya and Turkey. This allows Ankara to claim oil drilling rights in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea at the expense of Greece and Cyprus, which believe that this agreement is a violation of their territorial waters. The latter perceives this as a threat to its economic interests as Turkish operations in the region would serve to disrupt the planned EastMed pipeline project, which connects the Leviathan (Israel) and Aphrodite (Greece) gas fields to Europe via the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, the Greek island of Crete, the Greek mainland, and finally, Italy. This project is also backed by the US. Moreover, in June 2019, Greece gave a US-based oil company and a France-based oil company drilling rights off the coast of Crete.
- In this context, the US has an interest in protecting its oil interests and those of its EU allies vis-a-vis Turkey. The US sent a warship to the Greek island of Crete in August 2020 in an effort to “monitor” the escalating tensions between Greece and Turkey. The US and French navies also conducted naval training exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea in October 2020. These incidents highlight the US’s willingness to militarily support its EU allies as well as protect its own economic interests in the region. FORECAST: While the Biden-led administration is unlikely to prioritize engagement in Libya, it will likely continue its efforts to deter any perceived threats to its oil interests in the region. This may manifest in the form of military supplies to EU states that have deployed or intend to deploy naval vessels in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Moreover, given this interest, the US may attempt to hinder any alliance between Turkey and the GNU as well as any permanent government elected in December. This is particularly given that Turkey has already reportedly stated that the establishment of this new government will not impact its MoUs with the GNA. This will likely elevate the US’s vigilance of Turkey’s activities in Libya and may prompt Washington to bolster its presence in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. The US may also deploy additional warships to the region with the mandate of monitoring these regional tensions, particularly if they continue to increase.
The US is unlikely to deploy military assets to Libya. Its primary military involvement in the context of the Libyan arena will likely be through a more prominent presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, in opposition to the Turkey-GNA MoU. This is with the aim of strengthening its alliance with EU states and protecting US security and commercial interests in the region, thus adding to the militarization of the region.
Yemen: US likely to prioritize counter-militancy campaign in Yemen, conduct periodic strikes against AQAP
The US will continue the Trump administration’s practice of conducting periodic strikes against AQAP militants and infrastructure in areas where the group remains entrenched.
- Under the Trump-led administration, the US significantly increased the frequency of its airstrikes as well as ground operations in Yemen, as part of Washington’s overall policy of targeting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and, periodically, IS-affiliated Wilayat Yemen. In March 2017, the administration declared Abyan, Bayda, and Shabwa governorates as “areas of active hostilities” and conducted persistent UAV strikes against AQAP positions. The frequency of these operations significantly decreased near the end of Trump’s term, likely because the airstrikes weakened AQAP’s capabilities and command-and-control structures. This is particularly given that the US-perpetrated airstrikes have led to the killing of several high-ranking AQAP operatives, including the former AQAP Emir Qasim al-Rimi, which was reported on January 27, 2020. Since then, there has been a significant decrease in AQAP-perpetrated attacks in Yemen, with about only 30 such incidents recorded in 2020 as compared 105 in 2019 in the governorates of Bayda, Shabwa, Abyan, and Hadramout.
- FORECAST: Against this backdrop, the lack of official statements from Biden regarding counter-militancy operations in Yemen likely indicates that this will not constitute a priority for his administration over the coming months. That said, the US National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, stated on February 4 that the US will continue its “military actions” against AQAP “in service of protecting the homeland and protecting American interests in the region and allies and partners”, regardless of Washington’s decision to end its support for the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen. This is because, while AQAP has reduced the pace of its attacks over recent years, the group still retains some operational presence in several southern governorates of Yemen, which is perceived by the US as a threat to regional and global security. This is because al-Qaeda has used Yemen in the past as a launch pad for its operations in other parts of the world. Thus, the new US administration may continue to periodically conduct airstrikes targeting AQAP militants and infrastructure in Bayda, Marib, Abyan, and Shabwa governorates, where the militant group continues to remain entrenched. This may periodically result in collateral damage to civilians and civil infrastructure. Regardless, US counter-militancy operations in Yemen will likely remain largely limited in terms of scope and scale and are therefore unlikely to significantly impact the country’s security environment.
The continuation of US-perpetrated airstrikes against AQAP will aid in hindering the militant organization’s regrouping in Yemen. However, they pose a risk of collateral damage to civilians and civil infrastructure.