De-prioritization of the Middle East is a hallmark of Biden’s foreign policy; but it isn’t anything new. Both of his immediate predecessors also decreased US engagement in the region, diminishing the US military’s presence there even in the most pressing of situations. Biden’s decision to pull troops out of Afghanistan at risk of furthering a potential Taliban takeover is a powerful illustration of his decisiveness in pursuit of this policy. It shows, once again, that Washington is attaching less and less strategic importance to the region, as it instead attempts to shift its attention to more concerning issues, like China. For sure, many crises in the region, such as the Israel-Palestine conflict, have already challenged Washington’s priorities and will continue to do so. But Biden has shown that he will strive to grant more weight to diplomacy over lasting military and political engagement. The Middle East breathed a collective sigh of relief upon Biden’s election victory, but the US’s approach now urges caution with regard to the stability and longevity of current trends toward relaxation in regional relations.
The consequences of the US power vacuum were agonizing for the Middle East during the Obama and Trump eras. Obama’s avoidance of meaningful engagement in the region from 2011-2012 contributed to the worsening of crises in Syria and Iraq. Trump’s approach was much more chaotic. Let alone leaving a power vacuum, Trump actively fanned the flames of foment as seen in the 2017 Qatar crisis. Leaders of Turkey, Israel, and the Gulf countries hoped to use their personal relations with the US president to snatch quick victories within their own agendas – endeavors which generally backfired.
The US’s low profile in the region, coupled with the “leading from behind” policy, has intensified rivalries between regional players like Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. In order to fill the vacuum expediently, they have directly engaged in regional crises and have found themselves in proxy wars in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. Here, Biden’s election victory provided these war-weary powers with a possibility of relaxation and normalization. Indeed, Turkey commenced talks with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt; the Gulf countries restored diplomatic relations with Qatar; and Saudi Arabia and Iran entered talks – something that would have been unimaginable just one year ago.
There are several reasons for this sea of change in the politics of the region. First, the shift of the US’s presidential administration encouraged regional actors to change their foreign policy attitudes and to recalibrate for the post-Trump era. They needed allies, reduced tensions, and room for diplomatic maneuver. More importantly, regional powers came to realize that their unfettered brawls were exhausting and impossible to win. If regional actors learn how to manage conflicts via diplomacy and regional cooperation, an opportunity may arise to ease tension and establish some level of stability in the Middle East.
Nevertheless, there are also reasons for a more guarded outlook. For instance, many underlying issues of conflict remain unresolved despite diplomatic relaxation. Iran, Turkey, the Gulf, and Egypt all have their own uncompromising visions of regional order centered around their own respective leaderships. Indeed, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry’s conditions for normalization of relations with Turkey highlights the broader conflict at play. Despite its economic constraints and diplomatic isolation, Ankara doesn’t seem ready to abandon its aggressive and expansionist foreign policies vis-à-vis other regional actors. On top of this, there is no expectation of serious change in Iran’s interventionist foreign policy under new conservative leadership, and there is even less of an indication that the Gulf would submit to Turkish or Iranian dominance.
Deep-seated ideological barriers also threaten to harm regional normalization: Turkey, Iran, and Arab countries perceive the region (and the world) through very different political and religious lenses. Yet, even though these countries are able to ignore their ideological differences when conditions require, ideology might add fuel to the fire when geopolitical interests collide.
Failed states such as Syria and the potential of socio-economic upheaval elsewhere in the region also continue to threaten the stability and normalization of the Middle East. As COVID-19 wreaked havoc on regional economies, social uprisings could open the way for new rivalries. To illustrate, combined with soaring food prices, issues of corruption, nepotism, misgovernment, and so on, have sparked widespread social uprisings in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Turkey. In this respect, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to hypothesize that geopolitical, ideological, and socio-economic problems will continue to stand in the way of normalization.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that regional actors have already tried to mend fences in the recent past. Gulf countries and Qatar signed an agreement in 2014 to resolve their disputes. In 2016, Ankara attempted to normalize relations with Moscow, Tel Aviv, Abu Dhabi, and Cairo, after already having repaired its relations with Riyadh the year before. In 2016, “increasing the number of friends, and decreasing the number of enemies” was a popular slogan in Ankara. Still, a great deal of regional diplomatic efforts went down the drain as new geopolitical and ideological challenges arose in subsequent years. Such a reality urges caution when regarding the prospects of regional normalization and stability, especially given that old, unresolved challenges haven’t been competently resolved by local leaders.
It would be misleading to attribute diplomatic failures and upheaval in the Middle East solely to US policies. The US’s withdrawal from the region isn’t the whole story; and in fact, the ever-growing list of regional dilemmas is rendering US engagement incapable of achieving significant and lasting solutions. Still, the remaining power vacuum has the potential to rekindle regional rivalries and proxy wars worse than those seen under the Obama and Trump administrations. Until local actors establish a regional mechanism to manage their conflicts or a regional power comes to dictate its superiority (which seems very unlikely under current circumstances), new crises will continue to erupt and mount new challenges to regional cooperation.
*Hasim Tekines is a former Turkish diplomat and MA Student in Middle Eastern Studies at Leiden University in Netherlands.