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How far will Biden diverge from Trump?

 by Neville Teller

             The question exercising countless minds worldwide is how much of President Donald Trump’s policies will the forthcoming Biden administration uphold?  At first glance, the two men could not be further apart politically.  Closer scrutiny of the issues reveals a rather different picture.

As far as the Middle East is concerned, there is general agreement that US president-elect Joe Biden will certainly endorse the Abraham Accords. On the other hand, most Washington watchers do not expect him to maintain his predecessor’s aggressive stance toward Iran. After all, as vice-president, Biden was key in selling to Congress the Iran nuclear deal, still regarded by Barack Obama as the crowning achievement of his presidency.  Many believe that Biden will seek to negotiate a US re-entry into the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), the multi-national agreement that sealed the terms of the deal, and from which Trump withdrew in May 2018.  If he does so, there is no consensus on what he might require, or what Iran might demand, as the price of his re-engagement.   

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            Trump’s policy of disengaging US armed forces from the conflicts of the Middle East is a broad strategy likely to commend itself to his successor.  The long-standing US military presence in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, and its involvement in Libya and Yemen, has often exacerbated conflict as much as contain it.  The announced Trump troop withdrawals will doubtless be popular domestically, but whether they will have a positive or a negative effect in the countries concerned is less certain. Biden may find himself having to reassess Trump’s decisions in some cases.

In one particular instance, Biden may diverge completely from Trump’s withdrawal strategy. Back in August 2014, with Obama as US president and Joe Biden his vice-president, the US formed a coalition of fourteen countries to oppose Islamic State (IS) military victories across Syria and Iraq.  Ever since, up in north-eastern Syria US troops had been supporting the valiant Kurdish Peshmerga forces who had led the attack against IS on behalf of the coalition.  The Kurds were embedded in the Syrian Democratic Forces (the SDF). which also contained militias from around the world.

On October 6, 2019, the Trump administration ordered US forces to withdraw from the region.  On October 9 the Turkish army, together with the Syrian National Army (the SNA), launched an attack on the SDF.  Erdogan had designated it a terrorist organization because of its ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Turkish party agitating for Kurdish independence.  He maintained that the operation was intended to expel them from the region. Amnesty International said it had evidence of war crimes and human rights violations committed by Turkish and Turkey-backed Syrian forces.

Trump’s sudden pullout of US forces in Syria was criticized by many, including former US military personnel, as a “serious betrayal of the Kurds”.   Biden may well reconsider that particular issue. At the time both Democrats and Republicans in Congress opposed it.  And Biden is on record as saying “Turkey is the real problem,” and that he would tell “Erdogan that he will pay a heavy price.”

Unlike his soon-to-be predecessor in office, Biden is no admirer of strong ruthless leaders. Erdogan’s recent posturings on the world stage are not calculated to impress him.  The most provocative, perhaps, was Erdogan’s decision in 2017 to purchase the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system, which is designed specifically to counter fighter aircraft like the US’s state-of-the-art multi-purpose F-35.  In fact, and bizarrely, Erdogan was already attempting to acquire the F-35 itself.  In short Turkey, a member of NATO was proposing to let Russia in by the back door. As a result, the US ejected Turkey from the F-35 program.

Erdogan’s duplicity had proved a step too far even for Trump, and Biden is not likely to oppose his latest action on this issue.  On December 14, 2020. Washington imposed sanctions against Turkey’s military acquisitions agency for having acquired the Russian S-400 system.  The sanctions were also intended to hold Turkey to account for potentially allowing Russia to infiltrate Western defense technology.

Turkey’s refusal to back away from its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system left “us with no choice, ultimately,” said Christopher Ford, the assistant secretary of state for international security.

Biden is equally unlikely to favor Erdogan’s recent military interventions in Libya or in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, both pretty obviously regarded by him as opportunities to extend Turkish influence in the Middle East.  In both cases, in terms chillingly reminiscent of Adolf Hitler justifying his military incursions in the 1930s, Erdogan said his rationale was to protect people of Turco-Ottoman descent.  Then in mid-August 2020 he sent an oil and gas exploration vessel, escorted by warships, into what has always been regarded as Greek territorial waters, accusing Greece of trying to grab an unfair share of untapped resources. None of this is calculated to endear him to Biden or his new administration.

            Biden is a reasonable man.  Unlike Trump himself, he will not reject his predecessor’s legacy lock, stock, and barrel.  As far as the Middle East is concerned, Biden will probably find himself endorsing a fair proportion of what he finds on his desk on January 20, 2021. 

Neville Teller is read Modern History at Oxford University. He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years and has published five books on the subject, and blogs at a Mid East Journal. His latest book is “Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020”. 

He was made an MBE – The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire – in 2006 “for services to broadcasting and to drama.”

Photo: Joe Biden by Victoria Borodinova and Donald Trump by gregroose/ Pixabay





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