Many observers of the US foreign policies have always doubted the desire of the Biden administration to engage directly and effectively in the Middle East, or what is called in the US State Department as the "Near East," which extends from Afghanistan in the east to the Maghreb in the west.
Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Joey Hood denied it, saying their commitment was "longstanding and deep."
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Hood affirmed the US position on many issues in the region, which is based primarily on the interests of his country, and the support of partners and allies in promoting reforms, fighting corruption, and supporting human rights, which is the great framework of this administration in its dealings with countries in the region.
On the Syrian issue, Hood stressed the continuation of the Caesar Act and the deployment of US forces alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces in the fight against ISIS, while warning countries against normalizing relations with the Assad regime. As for Lebanon, the US official called on the Lebanese politicians to set aside political differences and respond to the people’s needs. On Iraq, he stressed its important role in the region, supporting the integrity of the upcoming elections, and stopping arms in the hands of militias.
Finally, on Libya, he said that the choice of Libyan National Army (LNA) commander Khalifa Haftar to be elected for the country’s president is up to the Libyans people to decide. He noted that Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi is being pursued by international sanctions and called on all foreign forces and mercenaries to leave the country.
Here is the text of the interview:
You have visited the Middle East region multiple times; tell us what is the Biden administration’s policy towards the region?
President Biden is reinvigorating American diplomacy by rebuilding alliances with our partners to advance US interests around the world.
It is in all our interest to advance policies that end conflict, fight corruption, promote human rights, and create jobs while preserving our climate for future generations. The United States is collaborating with our friends in the Middle East to address all of these challenges.
People say that Middle East is no longer important to the United States. Do you agree or not? Why?
The world over, we are committed to finding diplomatic solutions to regional conflicts, rebuilding alliances and relationships with our closest partners, prioritizing human rights and democratic values, and taking steps to address the challenge of climate change. All of these issues are foundational to our relationships in the Middle East and North Africa.
Our commitment to the region is longstanding and deep. Our security commitments are clear and powerful. We have free trade agreements with Morocco, Jordan, Israel, Bahrain, and Oman, making people in those countries and in the United States more prosperous. We have billions of dollars in trade and investment with other countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. We see this strong relationship represented by more than 70,000 students from the region - and nearly 1.5 million total over the years - studying at American universities and institutions, training to be doctors, tech startup founders, and scientists who bring prosperity, innovation, and help to the lives of people in the region.
We also can’t forget the benefits unlocked by the normalization agreements between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco, nor Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan before them. While these agreements do not mean the problems in the region are a thing of the past, they do open important avenues for cooperation. I want to underline that the United States continues to believe Israelis and Palestinians alike deserve equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity, and dignity.
Syria has been at war for 10 years, and no solution is going to happen soon. How did you see it on your recent trip? How many times have you visited Syria?
The Syrian people have experienced unimaginable suffering at the hands of the Bashar Assad regime. Because of his brutal rule and corruption, we have witnessed a humanitarian disaster.
We believe that stability in Syria can only be achieved through a political process that addresses the underlying factors that produced the conflict and crises we see today. If there is to be a sustainable end to the conflict in Syria, the Assad regime must change its behavior.
This process must represent the will of all Syrians. We are committed to working with allies, partners, and the UN to ensure that a durable political solution remains within reach.
This is one of the reasons Secretary of State Antony Blinken co-hosted the June 28 Syria Ministerial with Italian Foreign Minister De Maio on the margins of the Defeat-ISIS Coalition Ministerial, and why we continue to provide support for Syrians to effectively engage in the UN-facilitated political process and other diplomatic efforts in support of UNSCR 2254.
I visited northeast Syria in May to affirm these points and other elements of our Syria policy with the Defeat ISIS Coalition’s local partners. We remain committed to our presence in the northeast in the campaign to defeat ISIS, including via stabilization assistance for liberated areas.
Some people in Congress have expressed their opinions about Syria and asked the Biden administration to lift the Caesar sanctions against the Assad regime because of the great consequences on the economic situation. How does the State Department deal with this kind of thought in Congress?
The Administration believes the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, as well as other US sanctions authorities, are important tools to promote accountability for the Assad regime, including for its atrocities, some of which amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. We will continue to exercise these tools.
These authorities have significant carve-outs for humanitarian aid. Our Syria-related sanctions do not target humanitarian-related trade, assistance, or activities. Sanctions seek to limit the ability of Assad and others in the Syrian government to profit from the conflict and post-conflict reconstruction, including by forcibly taking the property of Syrians. We will continue to use a variety of tools aimed at providing some measure of accountability for human rights abuses and violations against Syrians, and will coordinate with our allies to push for meaningful progress on our shared political objectives.
There are no plans to lift any current sanctions.
Some Arab countries announced their intention to normalize ties with the Assad regime again. Where does the US stand on that issue? Do you support it? Have you asked your allies not to do so?
The United States has no plans to upgrade our diplomatic relations with the Assad regime and would not consider doing so until we see a significant change of behavior and movement towards a political solution.
We have seen and taken note of these reports of normalization. We have urged and continue to stress to countries in the region to consider carefully the atrocities visited by the Assad regime on the Syrian people over the last decade, as well as the regime’s continuing efforts to deny much of the country access to humanitarian aid and security, when they consider normalizing. Are they doing it to benefit the Syrian people? Are they doing it to benefit their population? We don’t see either.
How many US troops are still in Syria? What is your plan for them?
While I would refer you to the Department of Defense on military operations questions, I would note that ISIS in Syria remains a serious threat. The group benefits from instability, demonstrates intent to cause attacks abroad, and continues to inspire terrorist attacks around the world.
The Biden Administration remains committed to working with our local partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces, to maintain pressure on ISIS remnants in Syria and ensure ISIS’ lasting defeat; this effort includes support for a continued US military presence and enabling stability across the northeast, including through assistance programs aimed at bolstering the resilience of local communities.
The Lebanese people have been suffering from corrupt politicians and facing a lack of security, a failed economy, and more disasters. What is the US policy towards Lebanon?
We call for Lebanon’s leaders to show sufficient flexibility to form a government that is willing and capable of true and fundamental reform so that the Lebanese people can realize their full potential.
They deserve a government that will urgently implement the necessary reforms to rescue the country’s deteriorating economy.
The economy is in crisis because of decades of corruption and mismanagement. Lebanon’s political leaders need to put aside their partisan brinkmanship, change course, and work for the common good and interests of their people.
We and the international community have been clear that concrete actions remain crucial to unlocking longer-term structural support to Lebanon.
We just had the first anniversary of the deadly blast that struck the Beirut port. We haven’t reached a conclusion yet, even though the FBI has supported the Lebanese in their investigation. Why?
I would refer you to the FBI for updates on their role in the investigation. I would stress that the United States stands with the Lebanese people as they recover and rebuild from compounding crises, including the economic crisis, COVID-19 pandemic, and the horrific explosion at the Port of Beirut.
On August 4, the President announced that the United States is providing nearly $100 million in additional humanitarian assistance for Lebanon. That is on top of almost $560 million in humanitarian aid over the last two years. The United States remains the largest single donor of humanitarian assistance in Lebanon and globally.
This humanitarian assistance will benefit vulnerable populations, including Syrian refugees, and the communities hosting them. It provides access to education and healthcare services, food assistance, support for protection services and rehabilitation of water and sanitation infrastructure, among other assistance.
International assistance should support the Lebanese people directly and be transparent so that everyone knows their assistance is reaching the most vulnerable.
How can the administration support the Lebanese to restore peace negotiations with Israel and discuss the border issues?
The maritime boundary is a decision for both Israel and Lebanon to make. The United States stands ready to facilitate negotiations on the maritime boundary between Lebanon and Israel on the previous basis upon which we initiated these discussions.
Some Iraqi people believe that the Biden Administration didn’t get along with the Iraqi government nor has a clear agenda on deterring Iran’s malign activities. How do you respond to that?
The Biden Administration is a partner to the Iraqi government and we value our relationship. President Biden met with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on July 26 to further strengthen our relationship. We held a session of the Strategic Dialogue just prior to the Prime Minister’s visit. Before that, we sent a high-level delegation to Iraq, which included US State Department Counselor Derek Chollet, National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Dana Stroul, and myself.
It’s important to note that our relationship goes beyond just high-level visits and security cooperation. We partner with Iraq on the full range of bilateral issues as exemplified in the Strategic Framework Agreement, everything from encouraging US private sector investment to helping grow and expand the Iraqi economy to assisting in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and working together to find ways to help combat climate change and mitigate the negative effects of a warming planet.
As we have said many times, we see Iraq as a close partner with a strong role to play in the region, and we look forward to continuing to work towards our shared goal of an Iraq that is secure, stable, and prosperous.
What can the Administration do to reduce the tension in Iraq and support the democratic process in the coming election?
We support a stable, prosperous, democratic and unified Iraq, and our Strategic Framework Agreement remains the foundation for our bilateral relationship. We will continue to stand with those who seek a peaceful and prosperous future for Iraq. We support the right of the Iraqi people to express their opinions and protest peacefully without fear of violence or reprisal.
As for the elections, the United States does not support any individual candidate or party. We support the electoral process and hope to see free and fair elections in a secure environment so that the Iraqi people can express their will in a democratic system. As a committed partner, support for Iraqi elections is a top priority for us.
We were pleased that the UN Security Council unanimously approved the mandate renewal of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) on May 27 and included provisions that responded to the Iraqi government’s request for election monitoring. The United States contributed $5.2 million fund UNAMI’s expanded election observation mandate, which has a total budget of $15.8 million.
We hope these measures, which include a robust and visible UN presence with broad geographic coverage, as well as coordinating support to third-party observers, will help to deter fraud, increase turnout, and rebuild Iraqi trust in their democracy.
When do you think US troops will leave Iraq?
The US troops currently in Iraq are part of the Coalition to Defeat ISIS. The role of those troops is limited to advising, assisting, and enabling the Iraqi Security Forces to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS. I would urge your readers to question the motivations of any outlet that describes our presence otherwise.
The progress of our Iraqi partners in the growth of capabilities will allow for the full transition later this year of US and Coalition forces to a mission focused on training, enabling, and advisory tasks.
What concerns you the most in Iraq?
The single biggest obstacle to Iraq’s prosperity is the Iran-aligned armed groups and the people who undermine Iraqi institutions and the rule of law.
Gaddafi’s son has announced his desire to run in the coming election. What is the US position on that? Do you support that or not? How will you respond?
National elections on December 24 are critical to democratic progress and Libyan unity by allowing people throughout the country to have a voice in shaping Libya’s future. We believe the political process must be Libyan-owned, Libyan-led, and free from foreign interference or influence.
The United States does not have a position on prospective candidates. However, we would note that Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi is designated under UN and US sanctions, and remains subject to an outstanding arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity for the commission of murder and persecution of civilians.
The US has always expressed its concerns about the Russian-affiliated forces in Libya but did not shed light on Turkish-affiliated forces. Is that something you discussed with Turkey and other NATO members? I remember that you have highlighted it in your recent teleconference.
We are in discussions with European and regional allies, the interim Libyan government, the UN, and others on how progress can be made towards a sequenced and balanced withdrawal of all foreign forces and fighters. Issues surrounding military de-escalation were highlighted at the Second Berlin Conference, and while still unresolved, useful bilateral discussions were held on how to begin to operationalize the departure of foreign fighters.
Russia’s destabilizing involvement in the Libyan conflict remains of particular concern for the United States.
The October 23, 2020 Libyan ceasefire agreement called for the withdrawal of foreign fighters and mercenaries. This includes the Russian mercenary and MOD-affiliated forces, Turkish forces, and all foreign military forces, mercenaries, proxies, and foreign fighters including those from Syria, Chad, and Sudan, and the end of any foreign military intervention.
All actors involved in the conflict should respect the nationwide ceasefire agreement and immediately suspend all military operations, halt the transfer of foreign military equipment and fighters to Libya, begin removing their personnel, and allow local authorities to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
What is the US vision to support Libyans to end the war and reunite Libya beyond the Berlin and Geneva outcomes?
The US goal is a sovereign, stable, unified, and secure Libya with no foreign interference, and a democratically elected government that supports human rights and development, and that is capable of combating terrorism within its borders.
We are increasing our diplomatic focus on supporting progress in Libya, including through the work of US Special Envoy Richard Norland.
As the Second Berlin Conference and July 15 ministerial-level UN Security Council meeting on Libya made clear, the international community expects national elections to take place on December 24, as agreed to in the roadmap adopted by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF).
Libya’s leaders must make key preparations to ensure successful nationwide elections in December, including determining a constitutional basis and the election law that will govern them. They must make the necessary compromises to meet the Libyan people’s expectation of free and fair elections, an essential step towards a stable, unified, and democratic Libya.
We will continue to promote international efforts to support these objectives and remain engaged with all stakeholders and the Government of National Unity as it prepares for the elections and works to implement the ceasefire agreement.
Will the Biden Administration support Gen. Haftar if he runs for the coming election? Or will you be open to dealing with him?
If Khalifa Haftar chooses to genuinely engage in the political process, Libyans themselves will determine whether there is a role for him to play in the country’s future.
The current Libya government is seeking to return some money that has been frozen in the US and the west since the revolution happened. Any thought on that matter?
The United States supports the UN Security Council’s intention to ensure that assets frozen under UN Security Council resolution 1970 (adopted in 2011) will be made available to and for the benefit of the Libyan people. On July 15, the Security Council reaffirmed its intention to ensure that such assets shall be made available “at a later stage” for the benefit of the Libyan people.