How Gaza shifted Biden's strategy in the Middle East

Regional turmoil necessitates a significant US military presence in the region for the foreseeable future

After the 7 October attack by Hamas on Israel, Biden now recognises the need to contain Iran and prevent it from causing more unrest in the region.
Rob Carter
After the 7 October attack by Hamas on Israel, Biden now recognises the need to contain Iran and prevent it from causing more unrest in the region.

How Gaza shifted Biden's strategy in the Middle East

For a president who has spent most of his time in the White House trying to disengage from the Middle East, Joe Biden must find it immensely frustrating that re-asserting America’s influence in the region—both military and diplomatic—has become one of his key priorities.

Since taking office in 2021, Biden’s attitude towards maintaining Washington’s traditional hegemony in the region has been lukewarm, to say the least.

Apart from his efforts to revive the controversial nuclear deal with Iran—an agreement that former US President Barack Obama had spearheaded—his interest in maintaining alliances with long-standing allies in the Middle East had been decidedly half-hearted.

The Biden administration’s attitude was best summed up by its indifference towards the Abraham Accords negotiated during former US President Donald Trump’s time in the White House, which resulted in the normalisation of relations between several Arab states and Israel.

For his first few years in office, such was the contempt Biden and his close associates felt for Trump that they could barely bring themselves to mention the ground-breaking agreement, which is widely regarded as one of the more positive outcomes to emerge in the region in recent years.

Biden’s disregard for the accords, moreover, is deeply ironic given the amount of time and effort the White House now finds itself investing in reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the wake of the 7 October attacks.

Another factor that contributed to Biden’s disinterest in Middle Eastern affairs was his problematic relationship with Israel’s long-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Biden, 81, and Netanyahu, 74, have known each other for more than four decades; the former served in the Senate, and the latter worked at the Israeli embassy in Washington.

Relations between the two men have generally been cordial, even if they have rarely agreed on matters of substance. Their relationship is best summed up by a photograph Biden once signed for Netanyahu, which read: “Bibi, I love you, but I don’t agree with a damn thing you say.”

Their relationship came into the spotlight after Biden achieved his lifelong ambition of becoming president, and the new president made it clear that reviving the Iran nuclear deal would be his main priority.

This angered Netanyahu and his supporters, who view Tehran as an existential threat to the Jewish state.

Biden and Netanyahu meet in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023.

Read more: Why unconditional US support for Israel must stop

The fractious relationship between the two men has taken even more significance in the wake of the 7 October attacks, with the Israeli premier accused of consistently seeking to undermine the Biden administration’s efforts to implement a lasting ceasefire in Gaza.

In February, as the deadly conflict between Israel entered its fifth month, Biden’s frustration with Netanyahu’s conduct resulted in him launching a foul-mouthed tirade against the Israeli premier after he was accused of leaking sensitive details of Washington’s ceasefire initiative to the media.

Additionally, Biden was caught on a hot mic saying that he and the Israeli leader will need to have a “come to Jesus meeting.”

He was speaking with Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., on the floor of the House chamber following Thursday night’s State of the Union address.

In the exchange, Bennet congratulates Biden on his speech and urges the president to keep pressing Netanyahu on growing humanitarian concerns in Gaza

Scaled-back US regional presence

But Biden’s determination to scale down American involvement in the region was so strong that even after Hamas had launched its deadly attack against Israel on 7 October, his administration was actively seeking to negotiate the withdrawal of US forces from Syria and Iraq.

In January, US officials held the first round of talks with the Iraqi government to discuss the future of US and other allied troops based in the country.

The discussions focused on the estimated 2,500 US troops based in Iraq who were originally part of the coalition formed in 2014 to fight Islamic State (IS). The force has continued to operate in Iraq despite the fact that the so-called caliphate that IS established in the Syrian city of Raqqa has been destroyed.

Its continued presence is designed to make sure there is no resurgence in IS's terrorist activities in the region, as well as to keep a watchful eye on the numerous terror groups Iran sponsors in the region.

There were even suggestions that the Biden administration was thinking of withdrawing the 900-strong US force based in Syria, where they are involved in monitoring Iran's terrorist activities in the country, as well as guarding thousands of battle-hardened IS fighters captured after the fall of Raqqa.

Even after the 7 October attack, Biden was actively seeking to negotiate the withdrawal of US forces from Syria and Iraq.

A statement issued by the office of Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia' Al Sudani after the first round of talks opened in Baghdad confirmed that the talks were aimed at ending the US-led coalition in Iraq, even if the White House later issued a statement denying it was planning to withdraw its forces from Syria.

The idea that Washington was seriously considering withdrawing its forces from Syria certainly caused alarm among Syrian opposition groups who depend heavily on US support to survive.

As Sinam Sherkany Mohamad, a prominent opposition activist with the Syrian Democratic Council, commented on the proposed withdrawal of US troops, "If the US withdrew from Syria, our whole region would be at risk. We currently are guarding over 12,500 hardened IS fighters who would be released back to the battlefields in the Middle East, North Africa and beyond," she said.

"A US withdrawal would also mean that hundreds of thousands of persecuted minorities who were critical in ending the violent ambitions of IS would be subject to retaliation by the al-Assad regime and by a Turkish government that is hostile to religious and ethnic minorities," said Mohamad.

"This would mean the continued persecution of Christians and other religions, total loss of the current equality of women, and the ethnic cleansing of protected minorities."

The debate over whether the US and its allies maintain a military presence in Iraq and Syria has subsequently been complicated by an Iranian-sponsored attack on US forces based in Jordan, in which three serving American service personnel were killed, and another 34 were injured.

US forces responded by launching a wave of strikes against Iranian-backed militias, including a drone strike in Baghdad that killed members of the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia—including a top commander—said to be responsible for carrying out recent attacks against US forces.

The US drone strike prompted a furious response from the Iraqi government, which openly criticised the US for straining relations between the two countries, describing the attack as a "clear-cut assassination" that amounted to a violation of Iraqi sovereignty.

"This path pushes the Iraqi government, more than ever before, to end the mission of this coalition, which has become a factor of instability," read a statement issued by a senior Iraqi official.

Changing calculations

Irrespective of whether US forces remain in Iraq, though, it is clear that, in the wake of the recent heightening of tensions in the region, Washington is having a serious rethink about its future dispositions in the Middle East, especially the deepening stand-off between the US and Iran.

Nash Weerasekera

Read more: America's changing calculations in the Middle East

Apart from providing the military support to Hamas that enabled it to launch its devastating attack against Israel on 7 October, Washington accuses Tehran of supporting several other militant groups in the region.

These groups include the Houthi rebels in Yemen, responsible for targeting shipping in the Red Sea, and Hezbollah in south Lebanon, which continues to threaten Israel's northern border.

With the White House deeply involved in diplomatic efforts to resolve the Gaza crisis, the Biden administration now recognises the need to contain Iran and prevent it from causing more unrest in the region.

This approach will require Washington to maintain a significant military presence in the region for the foreseeable future.

Biden Doctrine

In what some US commentators are calling the new Biden Doctrine for the Middle East, US officials are examining options to address the multifront war that has developed in the region involving Israel, Iran and Gaza.

According to the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, known for his close relations with the Biden administration, the new US approach would have three main elements.

The first major shift in Washington's approach would be to adopt a far more resolute stand on the Iran issue, including robust military retaliation if Iran's proxies continue with their attacks against the US and its allies.

Another important element would be to initiate an unprecedented US diplomatic initiative to promote a Palestinian state, involving some form of US recognition of a demilitarised Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The notion of supporting the creation of an independent Palestinian state while the conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas shows no sign of abating might appear premature.

The idea, for example, that Hamas could emerge as the leader of a new Palestinian entity once the fighting is over would be unpalatable to many because of its involvement in the 7 October attacks.

After the 7 October attack by Hamas on Israel, Biden now recognises the need to contain Iran and prevent it from causing more unrest in the region.

But Washington clearly believes that, in order to pressure the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into accepting the notion of Palestinian statehood, restating Washington's commitment to a two-state solution is essential.

Read more: It's time to force Israel into a meaningful peace

In addition, Friedman claims Washington is giving serious consideration to vastly expanding its security alliance with Saudi Arabia, which might also involve Saudi normalisation of relations with Israel—a diplomatic initiative that was already in play prior to the 7 October attacks.

The implementation of such a strategy would certainly amount to a complete U-turn in the Biden administration's approach, when it appeared the White House had little interest in maintaining ties with key allies in the region.

But a combination of the deteriorating security situation in the region, much of which has been caused by the hostile activities of Iranian-backed militias, together with the emergence of Russia and China to challenge Washington's traditional hegemony in the region, has clearly required the White House to undertake a radical rethink of its policy objectives.

Its conclusions have the potential to redefine Washington's approach to the region for many years to come.

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