Would a Biden victory make a difference in the Middle East?

Turkey is a country that would be quite unhappy with a Biden victory. But the Palestinians would be most relieved.
Monday 02/11/2020
A 2014 file picture shows then US Vice-President Joe Biden (R) talking with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at Beylerbeyi Palace in Istanbul. (AP)
A 2014 file picture shows then US Vice-President Joe Biden (R) talking with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at Beylerbeyi Palace in Istanbul. (AP)

London - Much of the Arab public does not seem impressed by the two US presidential candidates.

“When asked which (American) candidate would be better for the Arab World if elected president, most believe that neither candidate (49 percent) would fulfill such a description,” revealed a recent survey carried out by British pollster YouGov and commissioned by Saudi daily Arab News.

They still seem to prefer Democratic contender Joe Biden — not because of the candidate’s huge notoriety in the Arab world but because of the  negatives of US President Donald Trump, whom they know much more.

Out of 3,097 people polled across 18 Middle East and North African countries, around 39% favoured Biden while only 12% would choose Trump.

Then US Vice-President Joe Biden steps off a C-17 military transport plane upon his arrival in Baghdad, Iraq, April 28, 2016. (AP)
Then US Vice-President Joe Biden steps off a C-17 military transport plane upon his arrival in Baghdad, Iraq, April 28, 2016. (AP)

According to YouGov’s chief Stephan Shakespeare, the choice is “partly because they don’t know much about Biden — only half say they have heard of him, while nearly everyone has heard of Trump.”

Most of the Arab public may not know much about Biden, but they seem to share an unfavourable impression of the administration of former US President Barack Obama in which he served as vice-president. Should Biden win, some 58% of Arabs said he “must distance himself from the Obama administration policies.”

Many still remember Obama as the president who supported the Arab spring upheaval, which unleashed violence in many parts of the Arab world, and was complacent with Iran.

Trump won some support in the poll for scrapping the Obama-era nuclear agreement with Tehran and imposing strict sanctions against the Iranian regime even though only 17% of Arabs felt his stance would make the region safer.

The poll suggested Trump’s 2017 decision to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem proved overwhelmingly unpopular, with 89% of Arabs opposing it.

The poll listed youth empowerment, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the global coronavirus pandemic among the top three concerns Arabs would like the next US president to focus on.

— Obama’s shadow —

If he wins, Biden will chart his own course but will not steer very far away from Obama’s main orientations.

In the March-April issue of Foreign Affairs, Biden reiterated his support for withdrawing the US from Middle East wars, including the war in Yemen, and for standing by Israel, positions that ironically do not set him apart from Trump. “We need to sustain our ironclad commitment to Israel’s security,” Biden said.

But he sounded strategically more accommodating to Tehran. Although he criticised Iran’s behaviour, he set out to defend the 2015 nuclear deal.

“I’m under no illusions about the Iranian regime, which has engaged in destabilizing behavior across the Middle East, brutally cracked down on protesters at home, and unjustly detained Americans. But there is a smart way to counter the threat that Iran poses to our interests and a self-defeating way—and Trump has chosen the latter,” he said.

He seemed to borrow a page from Obama’s playbook when it came to promoting democracy abroad. “The United States will prioritize results by galvanising significant new country commitments in three areas: fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights in their own nations and abroad,” he said.  Washington, he added, will host a global Summit for Democracy during his first year in office.

Tunisian authorities would hope to see Biden’s pro-democracy agenda translate into more economic support for their country as it goes through a precarious democratic transition. But politically speaking, any conspicuous US role would be controversial in the North African country as many Tunisians would view Washington’s policies under Biden as favouring Islamist influence in Tunisia and Libya.

— Sigh of relief —

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas may breathe a sigh of relief if Biden wins, as it would give the Palestinian Authority a margin of manoeuvre and the ability to renegotiate from a position of strength rather than its current isolation. Although Abbas does not object to negotiating with Israel, especially in light of advanced security coordination between the two sides, he wants to be at the forefront and appear to own the initiative, a favour Trump did not grant him.

If Trump fails to secure a second term in office, the Palestinian president would have a chance to save face and reverse the economic hardships he imposed on himself and his people by refusing to continue negotiations.

Circles close to Abbas are betting that Biden would work to bring the Palestinian and Israeli sides back to the negotiating table, and that his administration would support a two-state solution on principle.

Palestinian writer Mohamed Masharqa considers that Abbas favours Biden, as he believes his victory would buy him more time and  not force him to start an internal battle within the divided Fatah movement, nor make concessions to his political opponents, especially Hamas.

Syrian President Bashar Assad would be pleased if US elections led to the exit of Trump, who dealt with the Syrian regime based on a single policy that relied heavily on expanding sanctions.

Former US President Barack Obama, with then-Vice-President Joe Biden, second from left,  attends a meeting in New York, September 19, 2016. (AP)
Former US President Barack Obama, with then-Vice-President Joe Biden, second from left,  attends a meeting in New York, September 19, 2016. (AP)

Damascus believes that had it not been for Trump’s hard-line stance, Israel would not have been able to turn Syria into a permanent target range for its missile and air strikes. The Syrian regime remembers that it was the Obama administration that saved it before Russia or Iran intervened, decisively opting to stop training and arming the opposition and halting its advance on the borders of Latakia governorate.

Assad benefited from a close relationship that bound Obama with Iran within a strategy Washington believed could be used to tame the Tehran regime, but which proved unsuccessful. The US withdrawal from the Syrian file allowed Iran to directly intervene militarily to save the Assad regime by dispatching thousands of allied militia members, training and arming them and fighting battles on the ground.

All of the advantages that Obama provided to Iran, whether related to Syria or the nuclear agreement, have been scrapped by Trump, who prioritised curtailing Iranian influence, especially Tehran’s threats to the security of navigation and security of Washington’s Gulf allies. Trump also doubled down on sanctions against Iran and its militias, whether in Lebanon or Iraq, making a potential electoral failure of the current US president a great victory for Iran.

The same applies to Qatar, which presented itself during Obama’s time as a regional proxy for the strategy of democratic proselytising and using Islamists in power.

Doha is betting that Biden will be the gateway to breaking the boycott that has been imposed on it for more than three years by its Gulf neighbours. But the situation has changed. The boycotting countries now have new cards that it is difficult for any American president, regardless of their calculations, to change. They include diversifying partners and ending the US’s monopoly on supplying Saudis with weapons or market goods.

In addition, the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan’s moves to sign peace accords with Israel will give boycotting countries a position of relative strength according to the standards of American political politics. Backpedaling on normalisation would be unthinkable for any of the parties involved but momentum will not be the same without Trump at the helm.

— Turkish worries —

The country that would be most unhappy with a Biden victory is undoubtedly Turkey, whose President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has remained on relatively good terms with current US President Donald Trump but had a rocky relationship with the former vice-president.

Whereas Trump has offered little resistance to Erdogan’s foreign policy goals or human rights record, Biden has been a steadfast critic of the Turkish leader, challenging him on everything from his hostility to the Kurds to his contentious role in the Eastern Mediterranean.

As vice-president, Biden often angered the Turkish government by highlighting its clampdown on free expression and voicing support for Kurdish nationalist movements that Erdogan branded as “terrorist” groups and worked tirelessly to squash.

In 2014, Biden even sparked a diplomatic row between the US and Turkey when he publicly suggested that Ankara had helped facilitate the rise of ISIS in Syria (comments he later apologised for.)

While the presumptive Democratic nominee has since been more cautious, he has nevertheless continued to be a thorn in Erdogan’s side, pushing for more aggressive US action to tame Turkey’s ambitions at home and in the region.

A polemic erupted in August over an interview Biden gave with the New York Times editorial board last year during which he described the Turkish leader as an “autocrat” and said the US should support Turkish “opposition leadership” in their bid to defeat him.

“I’m still of the view that if we were to engage more directly like I was doing with them, that we can support those elements of the Turkish leadership that still exist and get more from them and embolden them to be able to take on and defeat Erdogan,” Biden told the reporters in November 2019. “Not by a coup, not by a coup, but by the electoral process.”