Following the United States’ botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, US President Joe Biden declared on September 21 that Washington will no longer “fight the wars of the past,” signaling an end to what is often dubbed America’s “forever wars” in the Middle East and beyond.
Biden initially inspired hopes that he could repair the damage left in the wake of his predecessor Donald Trump. On the one hand, he has made modest efforts to fulfill such expectations, from making tepid steps towards reviving the nuclear deal with Iran, to mildly penalizing Washington’s autocratic allies.
However, the Biden administration’s desire to maintain America’s military and commercial influence in the Middle East have undermined such apparent goodwill.
Maintaining a Dying Superpower
After Biden hosted Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi in the White House on July 26, Washington pledged to withdraw its troops and end America’s combat mission from Iraq by December 31, 2021.
Yet in November, a Pentagon report stated the US mission in Iraq merely intends to transition Washington and Baghdad’s security relationship to one based on “training, advising, and intelligence gathering.” Washington will also maintain its 2,500 troops in the country, based on Pentagon reports that Islamic State (IS) poses a renewed threat in Iraq and Syria.
US troops deployed in Iraq and Syria are “going nowhere,” highlighting the apparent need to combat the IS threat.
On October 13, hinting at the US’ motives for remaining in the region, Pentagon Spokesperson Commander Jessica McNulty also stressed that US troops deployed in Iraq and Syria are “going nowhere,” highlighting the apparent need to combat the IS threat, while claiming it is at the request of the Iraqi government and Peshmerga, the Kurdish branch of the Iraqi Armed Forces.
Despite all the fanfare, Washington has no intention of abandoning its superpower status in the Middle East. Its role in Iraq clearly dismantles this façade of a withdrawal.
Morgan L. Kaplan, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace astutely noted that the US withdrawal from Iraq is mostly in name only. Kaplan added that the US has been operating a training and advisory role in Iraq anyway, so its role there will not substantially change in 2022. He also observed that the 2001 and 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), the domestic legal authorization for the US’ military presence in Iraq, remains in place.
Additionally, the US has 900 troops in northeast Syria, with the stated aim of supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), largely as a partner to continue operations against IS. Moreover, CNN reported on December 3 that US troops were delivering humanitarian aid to local communities in partnership with the SDF, as a means of countering IS. Although US officials have insisted Washington’s initiative is not “mission creep,” it indicated that Washington will continue working to uphold its influence in Syria.
Like Iraq, Biden has no qualms about maintaining a presence in Syria, indicating that his administration is at the helm of a declining superpower, desperately clutching at the straws of its remaining influence. Testament to this is the US conceding defeat over replacing Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus, while its regional allies like the United Arab Emirates and Jordan have now begun courting Assad, in defiance of the US’ Caesar Act, which entails sanctions on those doing business in that country.
Even Iraqi officials and parliamentarians are ostensibly losing patience with Washington’s presence, given its destructive legacy in Iraq since it intervened to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Although counterterrorism concerns still partly justify US presence in Iraq and Syria, fears of China’s expansion in the wider region also fuel Washington’s reluctance to leave both countries. After all, Beijing has already looked to capitalize on Afghanistan’s economic benefits, following US withdrawal in August and the Taliban’s subsequent takeover.
Although counterterrorism concerns still justify US presence in Iraq and Syria, fears of China’s expansion in the region also fuel Washington’s reluctance to leave both countries.
China has also eyed-up Iraq, having offered to economically revitalize its post-war efforts. Both countries signed a significant oil contract in January 2021. Although Baghdad later scrapped the agreement, reportedly to take advantage of rising oil prices, Chinese companies have struck further deals with Iraq following an apparent exodus of Western oil giants.
[China Closing Void Left by US in the Middle East]
China and Iraq have engaged in various economic talks since 2019, and speculation has arisen that Beijing could eventually be the candidate to engage in Syria’s post-war reconstruction.
For years, per Beijing’s so-called Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China has sought to expand its economic footprint across the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Yet this has stoked fears that China could eventually wean other countries away from Washington’s sphere of influence, as has gradually occurred within Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.
Amid this apparent power struggle, Biden’s failure to live up to his pledges on pressuring Saudi Arabia is certainly one of the greater disappointments.
In February 2021, Biden pledged to end “relevant” arms sales to Saudi Arabia, following domestic pressure to end US support for the kingdom’s intervention in Yemen. However, as Saudi airstrikes currently pound the Houthi-besieged Marib governorate, and Riyadh still imposes a suffocating land, air, and sea blockade on the impoverished country, Biden’s pledges have evidently made little change on the ground.
Understandably, China’s creeping economic influence in the GCC region makes Washington hesitant to relinquish arms sales to Riyadh, as Beijing may deepen its military ties with Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states in such an event.
The White House confirmed that a “small number” of US troops remain in Yemen to fight Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and IS.
Moreover, the White House confirmed in June that a “small number” of US troops remain in Yemen to fight Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and IS. The White House’s statement also confirmed that the US is still providing “military advice and limited information” to Saudi Arabia for “defensive and training” purposes.
Even though such moves could prolong Yemen’s instability, Washington will continue supporting Saudi Arabia and combatting AQAP to ensure it can maintain influence over Bab Al Mandeb, a strategic chokepoint that connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. According to some estimates, seven percent of global trade and 30 percent of the world’s oil passes through Bab Al Mandeb.
The US has also conducted airstrikes on the Al-Qaeda affiliate Al Shabab in Somalia, following a six-month hiatus since Biden took office in January 2021. Although Washington has sought to provide security in Somalia, China has also expanded its economic and military presence in the Horn of Africa, with Somalia acting as a strategic location to secure Beijing’s own clout in the Red Sea.
Overall, the US wants to maintain influence in the Middle East for its geostrategic and economic interests, even at the cost of stability in the wider region. And China’s expansion certainly raises the stakes for Washington in its quest to remain a regional superpower. Under the Biden administration, such interventions may continue to take place, as the US President does not plan to relinquish America’s role as the “world’s policeman” anytime soon.