Strategic perspectives 2021-1 : Towards a new American posture?

The first 6 months of 2021 were marked by the installation of a new US administration. A change at the head of the most powerful country in the world is an event in itself if you are interested in one of the most conflictual areas on the earth, the Mediterranean and the Middle East, but Joe Biden’s arrival presents us with a particular issue: he has come along in a period of strategic rupture that marks the end of a western era in which the United States played the major role. Several factors explain this change: the development of China of course, but also the loss of prestige that has affected both the United States and their European allies due to the appalling management of the unipolar moment that followed the end of the Cold War: brutal under George W Bush, weak under Barack Obama, erratic under Donald Trump. This is why the new US president is under the microscope in an attempt to anticipate his policies and their consequences: Continued marginalisation of the west? Confrontation with China or one of the many regional revisionist powers? A reversal of the existing trend?

The zone covering the Mediterranean and the Middle East has been the main theatre of this change even if China’s role in it is currently a secondary one, essentially centred on economics and hydrocarbons. The wars in Iraq, in Syria, in Libya, in Yemen or in Nagorno-Karabagh serve to mark this growing destabilisation, linked to the reconfiguration of the balance of power. Russia has profited from American disengagement to regain its lost influence in the Middle East, the Red Sea and Africa on the strength of both its reliability and its cynicism. Turkey, borne along by a reinvigorated nationalism and the wave of political Islam stretching across the Muslim community, is trying to play off US-Russian antagonisms to consolidate its glacis (Syria, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Northern Cyprus), to extend its influence (Libya, Sudan and Somalia) and to strengthen the levers through which it can apply pressure on Europe (migration, gas and diaspora). Taking advantage of this relative power vacuum many states in the region have emancipated themselves from the United States in order vigorously to defend their own interests. Such is the case with Egypt in Libya, Israel in the Red Sea which is becoming a zone of direct confrontation with Iran, Qatar and its support for the Muslim Brotherhood’s networks in the region but also with the United Arab Emirates in Egypt, in Libya and in Greece as it seeks to oppose the Qatar-Turkey axis. This rebalance of power is fostering a ‘Middle Easternisation’ of the Mediterranean. The growing interference of Iran which is increasing support for its networks in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and in the Gaza Strip in order to counter Israel and secure its access to the Mediterranean, is an example of this. Israel’s involvement in Morocco, as well as in the Emirates and from Qatar to the Maghreb in the eastern Mediterranean provides other examples.

Joe Biden’s arrival was therefore eagerly awaited. His experience and his time spent in the area when he was vice-president to Barak Obama allowed people to hope for the best. His age, his gaffes and the priority given to China led them to fear the worst. It has to be said that the new American president has made a fairly successful appearance on the world stage, appearing to promote a global vision that relies on a subtle mixture of firmness and flexibility.

One of the priorities announced by his administration was to restart discussions on the Iranian nuclear situation. This was a difficult task in the period leading up to the elections in Iran, because the clerics wanted to leverage things to consolidate their power as they pressed ahead with their own agenda in a way that was not conducive to compromise, particularly before the vote on 18 June 2021. Discussions started in April and were geared towards a long-term global approach. The Iranian clergy had one of their own elected, Ebrahim Raïssi, allowing him to remain at the controls in such a way as to keep at a distance both the secular technocrats and those pasdarans who had become a little too greedy or ambitious. One thing appears certain: the clergy and the ultraconservatives now control all the levers of power in Iran. The Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, can now sleep peacefully and calmly contemplate his succession. This is without doubt bad news for a population that is vastly in favour of an opening up of society and of reforms. It is not necessarily bad news for the region because historically it is often the most conservative and the most secure states that are able to reach agreements with their rivals or their adversaries, since their hands are free and they know they will not be accused of selling out the interests of their country. In fact, the new Iranian president has announced his desire to reach an agreement with the United States on the nuclear question (why not in autumn 2021 once the new Iranian government is securely installed in power?), to strengthen economic relations with China and Europe and to negotiate bilateral agreements with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. As a matter of fact, the latter have congratulated Raïssi on his election, a gesture that would have been unthinkable a year ago while the Abraham Accords were still being negotiated between Trump and Netanyahu.

In parallel to this, American pressure on the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has prompted him to enter into negotiations, in April 2021, with the Iranian authorities to calm the growing tensions between the two countries that threatened to prove an obstacle to the nuclear agreement. These bilateral negotiations, that the United States are ostensibly remaining distant from, appear to be bearing fruit, as three days after his election to the Iranian presidency Ebrahim Raïssi gave assurances that there is “no obstacle” to a return to diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, its great regional rival. An agreement between Riyad and Teheran that included Yemen, Iraq and Syria and that enabled progress on the nuclear agreement would without doubt be an indirect success for Biden. There is no doubt either that Iraq will be at the heart of direct negotiations between the Iranians and the Americans. In this respect Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq (5-8 March 2021) and his meeting with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani constituted both a positive signal to eastern Christians and a reminder to the Shiite militias as to who still holds the real balance of power in Iraq.

Relations with Russia are another priority after 25 years of decline stemming from Vladimir Putin’s reaction to the marginalisation of Russia by the Clinton and Bush administrations, a marginalisation that Obama’s failed attempt to reset relations and Trump’s mixture of personal admiration and strong sanctions failed to improve. The issue for Joe Biden is to delineate the limits of Russian aggression while managing the possibility of a future change in alliance with China. The reference to Putin as “a killer”, the maintenance of economic sanctions and the clarification of ‘red lines’ in the cyber and information wars that the Kremlin is waging are also linked to gestures of détente such as the prolongation of the New Start agreement, the Geneva summit, the return of ambassadors and the acceptance of the North Stream II gas pipeline, crucial for Russia and Germany.

Turkey, another troublemaker in the region has not had the same considerations.  By becoming the first president of the United States to recognise the Armenian genocide, Joe Biden has deliberately placed President Erdogan on the defensive. The latter has understood the message and has thrown himself into a charm offensive: he immediately softened his statements regarding the Mediterranean and the Europeans, proposed military support for Ukraine and announced that Turkish troops will remain in Afghanistan. That said, Erdogan knows that the strategic interest of his country for NATO, particularly in regard to Russia, affords him margins of manoeuvre that he will be able to make good use of.

Beyond the farce of the election itself, Bashar al-Assad’s re-election (27 May 2021) testifies to increasing stability in Syria. As long as he retains the unconditional support of Russia and Iran, Bashar al-Assad will be able to regain control of those pockets of Syria still under control of the Kurds or the Turkish army and its Jihadist allies, in particular around Idlib. It is not by chance that the Gulf monarchies that had turned their backs on the Syrian regime are reopening their embassies in Damascus, one after the other.

The US posture vis-à-vis Israel conforms to this duality of flexibility and firmness. As such Biden has not questioned his predecessor’s decisions on the establishment of the American embassy in Jerusalem, he has three times blocked a resolution of the UN Security Council calling for a cease-fire in the confrontations of May 2021 and has given assurances that his administration will quickly resupply the ‘Iron Dome’ anti-missile defence system that allowed Israel to intercept and destroy the majority of the rockets fired by Hamas. On the other hand, he has re-established financial aid for the Palestinian Authority, restarted negotiations with the Iranians on the nuclear agreement and played the role of an ‘honest broker’ in the crisis, marking a break with Donald Trump which could be further increased through pressure from the left of the Democratic party. However that may be, after more than two years of institutional crisis which gave rise to four elections Israel has elected (14 June 2021) a new governmental coalition that brings together the far right and the far left. This improbable alliance includes an Arab Islamist party for the first time. Although he openly supports the settlers’ lobby, the new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is a hugely pragmatic man who will make pledges and give credits to the left and the Arab Israeli population. Fundamentally the big losers are the Orthodox Jewish parties, but above all Benjamin Netanyahu who is going to have to face justice for the cases he is charged with. In many respects his removal from the political scene resembles the assassination of Julius Caesar with Naftali Bennett, for a long time considered to be Netanyahu’s adopted son at the heart of Likud, in the role of Brutus. Everything indicates that the new team will demonstrate openness and pragmatism and will try to calm relations with Washington and Brussels. This coalition will probably only last until Netanyahu is sentenced and permanently expelled from Likud. Afterwards it is very probable that the personalities from the right who form the hard core of the coalition will return to Likud and take over the leadership. In the meantime, what has just happened could constitute a turning point for an Arab Israeli and a Palestinian population caught in a crossfire between Hamas and the Arab parties represented in the Knesset, with the latter finally proving that they are able to obtain more than the doddery leadership of a totally discredited Fatah.

Further south the temporary blocking of the Suez Canal (23-29 March 2021) by the containership Ever Given reminded everybody that the Mediterranean could become a closed sea once again, handicapping shipping and sending cold shivers down the backs of the Egyptian authorities, who are cruelly lacking currency ten years on from the 2011 revolution. A closed Mediterranean would mean a redrawing of its strategic paradigms. This is what lends such importance to R. T. Erdogan’s opening – with much ceremony – of the project to dig a canal linking the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, the construction of which puts into doubt the fate of the 1936 Treaty of Montreux.

To the west of the Mediterranean, in Algeria, the parliamentary elections (12 June 2021) gave victory to traditional parties close to an FLN generally considered moribund, but also saw a strong surge in the Islamist vote for independent candidates. This result, marked by a very poor voter turnout (30 %), can only increase the frustration of the Hirak movement and the separation between the population and the elites. Washington, very concerned not to let Algeria fall into the hands of the Russians and the Chinese, has none the less congratulated the winners.

It is perhaps vis-à-vis the European Union that the position of the new American administration is the least positive. If the principal of multilateralism has been reaffirmed, Biden’s European programme has above all been a hearts and minds operation aimed at convincing his allies to rally round his anti-China policy. This is why it seemed important to us to decode the Mediterranean strategy of European actors who often remain overlooked, such as Greece and Germany.

As for the concept of a European strategic autonomy, the United States has skilfully exchanged an opposition based on principle for the tactic of the Trojan Horse, asking to be included in European projects. There is a high risk that the Europeans will renege on taking responsibility for their own security, to rely once again on the United States. Given the Americans’ priorities, where they would prefer a minimum commitment in the region, the consequences of this could be very negative.

Joe Biden’s first months would seem then to indicate that the United States has no intention of surrendering its world pre-eminence. In an interconnected fashion, combining persuasion and flexibility but also power relations, American diplomacy has set itself up to reduce tensions in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and to keep opposition to a minimum in order to bring the Europeans together with an eye on confrontation with China. The blind spot in this policy lies in the lack of consideration of the one factor that will determine regional stability: Europe’s strategic vacuum, and the requirement to fill that vacuum it creates amongst its rivals for whom envy, resentment and contempt are the unifying motivations.

And so, a new American policy for the Mediterranean and the Middle East is emerging. Consistent with the priority accorded to the Chinese threat, it aims to minimise the need to involve the United States in the region by neutralising as much as possible the abilities of the three instigators – Russia, Iran and Turkey – to cause difficulties, without making too much of European issues. This policy is also built around the acknowledgement that the democratic model is at risk, faced as it is with (re)emerging powers, all of them autocratic. The desire to position America once again as ‘the leader of the free world’ could be interpreted as an exploitative move that aims to enlist the Europeans into a strategy not of their own making. Given the dynamics in place and the current balance of power, we can however consider that this problem is real and that Joe Biden’s convictions are not completely false. The future will enlighten us on this point.

In the meantime, the FMES Institue, the reference French think tank for analysis of the MENA region, is pleased to offer you our most recent articles, divided into two sections: the first for global actors and the second for regional actors.

Thank you for your interest.

Admiral (2s) Pascal AUSSEUR Director General of the FMES Institute

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