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Biden Officials Give Assurances U.S. Has Strong Mideast Influence

August 10, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
President Joe Biden. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — The Taliban continued retaking control of Afghanistan Tuesday as U.S. forces withdrew, but Biden administration officials told the Senate the American political position in the Middle East remains strong.

However, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon are creating challenges as internal strife is pushing them toward the possibility of more violence, according to State Department and Defense Department officials.

“The U.S. remains the partner of choice throughout the region,” said Mira Resnick, a State Department deputy assistant secretary for regional affairs.

The bigger question confronted by the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on the Middle East is whether the United States can retain the network of allies that give it credibility in the region.

“We cannot act alone,” Resnick said.

She expressed concern that internal political weaknesses among allied countries could open them up to influence from U.S. adversaries, such as Russia and China.

In Egypt, the government is trying to crush dissent that has resulted in about 60,000 people being imprisoned on political charges. Many are held indefinitely under abusive conditions, tortured, denied medical care or disappear completely.

In Syria, the army is trying to retake the town of Daraa from rebels opposed to the leadership of strongman President Bashar al-Assad. The renewed violence appears to represent an end to a 2018 truce between the rebels and the Assad government.

In Lebanon, the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia is exploiting complaints about corruption in government to strengthen its political position. The fundamentalist group is accused of amassing weapons in Beirut that could be used against its internal enemies and Israel.

In all three cases, the United States has asserted its influence in significant part through arms sales. Humanitarian aid that includes food and medical care also has been offered.

Senators and witnesses at the hearing Tuesday said they wished there was a better option for winning political supporters than giving them weapons but added they had few other practical alternatives.

Resnick mentioned Lebanon as an example when she said, ““Without the [Lebanese Armed Forces], Hezbollah fills the void. That’s exactly what we don’t want to see.”

The U.S. government partners with Middle Eastern countries “based on shared threats and shared interests,” said Dana Stroul, a deputy assistant U.S. Secretary for Defense.

It also tries to condition the sales or donations of weapons on a high standard of human rights, sometimes with limited success, the witnesses said.

Despite struggles in getting Middle Eastern partners to comply with U.S. human rights policies, the State and Defense Department witnesses said abandoning the countries would create an opportunity for the Russians and Chinese to expand their control in the region.

Much of the Russian effort is directed at Syria, where it has provided the Assad regime with arms and military support for more than a decade.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., questioned whether it is time for the U.S. government to reassess basic assumptions about its Middle Eastern policies.

One of them is a belief that by conditioning arms sales on a good human rights policy, countries like Egypt would improve their records, said Murphy, who chairs the subcommittee on the Near East, South Asia, Central Asia and Counterterrorism.

“By and large, this has not happened,” Murphy said.

Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., said he was concerned the United States might be losing the assistance of some Middle Eastern nations alienated by policy restrictions that are a condition of receiving arms.

“Now I am concerned that the pendulum might be swinging in the other direction,” he said.

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