While Presidents Obama, Trump, and Biden all campaigned on ending Middle Eastern wars, the region has seen a series of escalating conflicts since the early 2000s, which has made withdrawal exceedingly difficult. Below, we break down the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East that Biden will have to address as president.
War in Afghanistan (2001–2021)
While still in the process of evacuating remaining troops and U.S. citizens, Biden has effectively left Afghanistan. However, with the rapid return of the Taliban to power, the country now faces a highly uncertain future. Among the challenges Afghanistan faces are the potential for terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda resurging under Taliban cover, civil unrest as Afghanis protest Taliban rule, potential retributory violence toward people the Taliban perceive as enemies, and potential human rights violations toward ethno-religious minorities and women. The Taliban have some clear incentives not to collaborate with international terrorist groups—doing so would risk losing control of Afghanistan again or any access to international aid—and have actively fought against ISIS since 2015. More imminent is the risk that gains made in rights for women and minorities will be reversed and that Afghanistan will fall into an economic crisis as major sources of international aid, such as the IMF, have now been cut off. To date, Biden has been firm in his withdrawal decision, making it clear that under his administration, the U.S. intends to remain disengaged from Afghanistan’s domestic affairs.
Iraq War (2003–2011, 2014–Present)
The Islamic State no longer holds meaningful physical territory in Iraq, but splinter groups continue to operate throughout the country. In April 2018, the U.S. military disbanded the command overseeing U.S. ground forces fighting in Iraq, but the multinational joint task force led by the U.S. to combat ISIS is still present. There are currently roughly 2,500 troops remaining in Iraq to maintain stabilization efforts and train the Iraqi military. Questions remain for the Biden administration over the extent of U.S. troop withdrawal and whether the Iraqi government will be able to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State without a U.S. military presence.
Syrian Civil War (2011–Present)
President Obama’s handling of the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011 is widely considered one of his biggest foreign policy failures. Obama did not intervene directly and instead led limited airstrikes against Islamic State militants. Trump largely continued Obama’s policy in Syria and ultimately removed troops from Northern Syria in October 2019. As president, Biden has maintained the remaining 900 U.S. troops stationed in Syria and has launched limited airstrikes targeting Iran-backed militias near the Iraq-Syria border. Now, his administration faces the question of how long to stay in Syria and must clarify the scope of U.S. objectives. It must decide whether the U.S. should intervene directly against the Assad government, defend Kurdish troops from Turkish aggression, and limit foreign influence from Iran and Russia.
Yemen Civil War (2014–Present)
The conflict between Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition backing president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi has resulted in one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Under the Trump administration, the U.S. supported Saudi Arabia’s offensive in Yemen while conducting separate air raids targeted at al-Qaeda militants. Biden has ended U.S. support for the war in Yemen but will continue U.S. strikes on al-Qaeda operatives. He stated that the U.S. would “continue to help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people,” leaving the degree to which the U.S. will aid Saudi Arabia throughout his presidency unclear.
Libya Intervention (2011–Present)
Since Qaddafi’s death in 2011, Libya has experienced a state of constant unrest as the Russian-backed Libyan National Army (LNA) and the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) fight for control. A fragile interim government led by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah has held since February 2021, but it remains in conflict with rebel factions in the east, led by Khalifa Hifter. The Islamic State made inroads into Libya in 2015, and the U.S. intervened primarily through airstrikes targeting Islamic State fighters. Due to escalating violence, the U.S. withdrew its remaining troops in April 2019. At present, the Islamic State has been physically pushed out of Libya, despite some volunteer fighters and scattered forces remaining, and the conflict between the LNA and the GNA reached a ceasefire in October 2020. Even with ISIS severely weakened in the country, the potential for a return to violence remains high in the absence of unified control over the country and its vast oil resources. The Biden administration will face the choice of continuing Trump’s policy of disengagement with Libya, opting for limited operations aimed at the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda or significantly increasing diplomatic involvement in hopes of proactively preventing another outbreak of civil war and further destabilization of the region.