Robert Ford
Robert Ford is a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute for Near East Policy in Washington

What is Biden Thinking about the Middle East?

Here in the United States when we are not worrying about coronavirus, we monitor the presidential election campaign. We probably will know who will be the candidate from the Democratic Party after the primary elections in six states on March 10. Most analysts think that Joseph Biden will beat Bernie Sanders and become the Democratic candidate to compete against Donald Trump next November.

Foreign policy questions are not a big issue in the campaign, but it is reasonable to ask what would be the foreign policy of Biden if he wins in November? It is impossible to know exactly. Presidents often respond to crises and we don’t know what the world will be in January 2021. We only know what Biden says in the campaign and what he has done in the past and we also know who some of his advisors are. It is important to note that most of the traditional Democratic Party experts in foreign policy now support Joseph Biden.

Biden of course criticizes President Trump’s Middle East policy. One of the differences between Biden and Trump is the position on Saudi Arabia and the war in Yemen. Biden is similarly very critical of Turkey because of its human rights violations. A Biden administration perhaps would have more difficulties with these two states than the Obama administration.

It is important to remember that after the fiasco of the war in Iraq, Biden was more cautious about using the American army in countries like Afghanistan and Syria. Biden is part of the strong majority in the Democratic Party that insist now on withdrawing the big majority of American soldiers out of Afghanistan and the Middle East. Biden rejects using the American military to change regimes.

In 2016, he defended the Obama policy of not using American forces against Bashar Assad because Washington didn’t want a repeat of the bitter experience after the fall of Saddam Hussein. He says that the American priority in the Middle East now is counter-terrorism, and he proposes using small numbers of American special operations forces in cooperation with local partners to fight al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Syria and the American partnership with the YPG and the Syrian Democratic Forces is his model. It is worth noting that Biden emphasized that Trump committed a shameful act by redeploying American troops from Syrian Kurdish areas last October. I doubt Biden would leave the American bases in Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. He says that protecting maritime transit of oil tankers is still an American vital interest, and he promised that he would use American forces to protect shipping.

Sending big land forces to a new war in the Middle East is a different issue.

Biden recognizes that Iran is a big challenge for the United States and stability in the Middle East. He said that Washington should work with allies to resist expansion of Iranian influence but it is not clear how he would succeed without cooperation with Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Biden sharply criticizes Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear agreement. Biden pledges to return to the agreement if Iran respects the conditions of the 2015 agreement. This is the position of the Democratic Party. Biden also said that he wants to use returning to the agreement to launch a diplomatic effort to strengthen the 2015 agreement and extend it.

We can expect from a Biden administration a new American participation in multilateral diplomacy with Iran and an American effort for a new nuclear agreement in exchange for cancelling some sanctions. It is important to remember that Biden, if he wins in November, cannot cancel all the sanctions against Iran. Cancelling some sanctions requires approval from the Congress.

The New York Times asked Biden if he would use American military force to stop Iran from producing nuclear weapons. Biden prefers a diplomatic agreement to stop the Iranian nuclear program but he emphasized that Iranian nuclear weapons will threaten vital American interests and he stated that he would use the military if necessary to stop Iran from producing them. Biden also said during the campaign he also would use the American military in response to another state using chemical weapons or to stop another state from committing genocide. Biden like other Democratic Party leaders emphasizes diplomacy instead of military force, but some of Biden’s statements in the presidential campaign favor military force more than Obama.