Opinion

The abrupt end of Joe Biden's Honeymoon

Atalayar_Joe Biden

Pope Francis' visit to the birthplace of the birthplace of Abraham - father of the father of Judaism, Christianity and Mohammedanism - in Iraq, on the 30th anniversary of the interrupted 30 years of an insufferable combination of military interventionism and savage sectarian violence, has an undeniable symbolic weight. Since the original meaning of 'symbolic' is to bring together, to congregate, in the sense of harmonising elements that, although diverse, are related to each other, nowhere else in the world will the pontiff's courageous gesture towards a land scourged for decades by those who seek to disunite and encircle that which is united and in concord, the original definition, precisely, of the 'diabolical', be better read. 

Beyond the theological interpretations, which Sunnis and Shiites alike will no doubt draw from the visit of the universal representative of Catholicism, the visit coincides with the mandate of a Catholic in the White House, a president who did not shy away from quoting elements of Pope Francis' encyclical 'Fratelli Tutti' during the election campaign, and whose honeymoon with his supporters may be coming to a premature end, having ordered bombing raids on the Syrian-Iraqi border just days before the Pope's visit to the town of Tell el-Muqayyar, not too far from the site of the US attack on the pro-Iranian Kata'ib Hezbollah and Kata'ib Sayyid al Shuhada militias. 

Even if we cannot properly speak of an escalation of war (Wayne Marotto, American colonel and spokesman for the international coalition that has been active in Syria since 2014, officially announced the death of Abu Yasir as a result of an American attack in Kirkuk, Iraq, on 27 January 2021, with Biden already in office), the erosive role that the White House has chosen to play in the military action of 25 February, without Congressional authorisation, forces us to inquire into its ultimate motivation, in light of the timing.  

While it is true that Iraq has become increasingly unstable over the past month, after suffering multiple and severe terrorist attacks -mainly committed by DAESH- that have forced the postponement of general elections from June to October, it is not credible that Biden and Harris decided to wear themselves out politically to avenge the death of a mercenary in a rocket attack on a US base in Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, on 15 February, presumably at the hands of Shiite militias -who also fight DAESH. Especially when the coldness of the figures shows that the 25 February bombing is anecdotal, compared to the 25,000 carried out as part of 'Operation Inherent Resolve' since June 2014, and taking into account that in that time 70,000 civilians, 25,000 Iraqi soldiers, 11,000 Syrian Democratic Forces soldiers, and 2,000 Kurdish Pashmerga have lost their lives. For its part, the Iraqi government has been quick to emphasise that it has not participated, either by omission or commission, in the latest US airstrike on the Syrian border, so we cannot find its justification in supporting the Iraqi government.  

However, if we make the imaginary exercise of moving the subject away, so that the visible area of the frame increases in our viewfinder, a still photo appears with several simultaneous events that can help us to give some strategic coherence to the action of 25 February and glimpse what the branches are obscuring, which in my opinion is nothing more than the definition of the US geostrategic framework for the next decade.

For a start, Tehran and Washington have begun the preliminary phase of a minimal rapprochement that would make it possible to open negotiations on a new version of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which Iran desperately needs if the resumption of foreign trade is to slow its descent into the economic abyss. In this first phase there is a lot of mutual probing, to assess the limits of the negotiations. Iran is determined to exact a price for the economic damage inflicted by Trump's unilateral withdrawal from the 2015 Vienna agreement and the ensuing economic sanctions, especially after the assassination of two of its most prominent figures and its inability to manage the social crisis resulting from the pandemic. Biden, for his part, made a testimonial gesture by removing the Shia insurgency in Yemen from the list of terrorist organisations, on which it had been included by Trump. Biden, far from being reciprocated in kind, saw the militias associated with Tehran initiate a series of harassment activities, which in the White House's view have gone too far, forcing Biden to bang his head on the table, but without getting up from it. 

In parallel, the White House has released the intelligence report on Khashoggi's murder, which the Trump administration had withheld. Behind Biden's decision lies a desire to reduce US dependence on Riyadh to a minimum, and the immediate calls in the US to cut off arms supplies to Saudi Arabia, suggesting that the game has changed for the Saudis, and that Washington has concluded that the immense political and material cost of propping up the only pillar left standing since Nixon enacted the 'twin pillars' policy in the 1970s to contain the USSR is of little use in containing China. The surgical removal of pro-Iranian militias on the 25th underscores Washington's message to Riyadh that Saudi Arabia is in Yemen at its peril.

Another element in this - as yet blurred - new geostrategic vision emanates from Biden's reluctance to sign up to the secretive letter by which all US presidents since Nixon have pledged not to publicly admit the open secret of the existence of Israel's nuclear defence programme. In the absence of such an official acknowledgement, Israel has been exempted from submitting to nuclear arms control treaties, which certainly does not make it easy to negotiate with Tehran to limit its aspirations to join the club of atomic powers. One of the strategic priorities in Washington is to redress the increasingly out-of-control nuclear proliferation that has occurred since Dr Abdul Qadir Khan, father of the Pakistani atomic bomb, opened a global supermarket for the sale of nuclear technology to the highest bidder. 

This is only achievable if all nuclear actors are subject to the same constraints and controls, and achieving this without Russia having a shared responsibility is unthinkable. Joe Biden's entourage is well aware that Moscow will put a price on materialising a five-year extension of the New START nuclear arms control pact, to whose negotiation it has already made a verbal commitment. In this context, it makes sense that the White House has now resurrected the Crimea dispute, given that the Obama administration, under which Biden was vice president, completely ignored the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in which the US pledged as a signatory to secure Ukraine's post-Soviet borders in exchange for denuclearisation. It is not credible that Biden's rhetoric on Ukraine will be matched by any action to return to the ex-ante situation. But while the Pentagon lacks the means and will to return Crimea's sovereignty to Ukraine, it is in a position to condition Russia's ambitions in the Mediterranean. Russia notoriously has a naval base in Tartous, Syria; a Mediterranean extension of Russia's Sevastopol naval base on the Crimean peninsula, whose ships must necessarily sail through two successive straits, the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles - both under the sovereignty of a NATO country - to transit the Mediterranean Sea. Both a change in relations between Ankara and Washington, by instrumentalising the Kurds, and a weakening of the Assad regime in Damascus, are contrary to Russian interests, but they are cards that Biden holds and is willing to play, as the 25 February bombing demonstrated. All in all, let us hope that the Pope's visit will bring with it a few days of truce, allowing all parties to the conflict to find the strength to be sensible.