It's a new day in the Middle East and in Washington. While the contours of President Joe Biden's Mideast policies are still being formulated, his administration took two important actions in as many days that highlight not only his goals for the region but also his red lines.
On Friday, the administration implemented a law passed by Congress which former President Trump had ignored requiring the declassification of an intelligence report on the brutal killing and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The four-page, highly redacted report whose key conclusions were leaked two years ago asserts that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation that led to Khashoggi's murder. This was the first official U.S. statement blaming Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler for Khashoggi's brutal killing.
On Thursday night in Syria, airstrikes that Biden ordered struck a group of buildings and members of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia on the Syrian side of a border with Iraq, killing at least one of the group's fighters and according to news outlets in the region, as many as 17. The U.S. strike was in response to Iranian-backed militia rocket attacks on the Erbil airport in northern Iraq on February 15 in which a Filipino U.S. contractor was killed and six others were wounded.
The twin actions show that President Biden is determined to pursue a different policy from that of his predecessor, Mr. Trump, who cultivated strong ties with the Saudi Crown Prince, ignored his arrest and torture of critics, rivals, and political foes, and preferred to punish Iranian provocations in Iraq rather than Syria.
They are also an indication that Biden is modifying and modulating several of his starkest campaign pledges about the Middle East as he strives to balance the pursuit of American values and its national security interests in the volatile region.
Threading that needle is no easy task, as previous administrations have learned, often at a huge cost. But in a press briefing, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said that his administration was seeking to "recalibrate" rather than "rupture" relations with a key U.S. ally who happens to be among the world's largest oil producers and an ardent foe of Iran.
The release of the report was one of several steps the new administration has taken to punish those responsible for Khashoggi's killing and signal that it will no longer tolerate the kingdom's gross human rights violations.
In addition to the declassification of the report, the State Department issued what it called the "Khashoggi ban," or visa restrictions on people "acting on behalf of a foreign government" who are involved in "serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities." On Friday, it added to that list 76 Saudis accused of "threatening dissidents overseas."
Friday's actions followed a Biden decision to stop the sale of offensive weapons used in the war against Yemen's Houthi rebels and review all arms purchases by the kingdom, the world's largest purchaser of American military equipment.
While several human rights groups expressed disappointment that Crown Prince Mohammed was not sanctioned by the administration, Saudi Arabia's reaction to the administration's actions suggests that the report, the new sanctions, and the crown prince's explicit exclusion from a telephone call the previous day between King Salman, his father, and Biden were when combined a profound humiliation for the man accustomed to lavish American praise who is likely to rule the reactionary kingdom when his 85-year-old father dies.
In a statement, the Saudi Foreign Ministry rejected the U.S. intelligence community's conclusions as "false" and an "unacceptable assessment pertaining to the Kingdom's leadership." The Saudi government also asserted that the U.S. intelligence finding contained "inaccurate information and conclusions," though it did not specify which parts of the flimsy report were wrong.
The report itself seemed largely circumstantial and contained little new intelligence information about the brutal murder of a Virginia resident and Washington Post columnist.
It said that its conclusion that Crown Prince Mohammed had ordered the strike was based on his "absolute control of the Kingdom's security and intelligence organizations" and the fact that the "climate of fear" created by the prince made it unlikely that the Saudi hit team would have acted without his consent.
Undisclosed was any of the evidence that longer versions of the intelligence finding were reported to have contained – such as the fact that the two planes which ferried members of the Saudi hit team to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, where Khashoggi was murdered, were owned by the Crown Prince.
While the Saudi statement rejected the U.S. finding, it also affirmed and lauded the existence of a "robust" and "thriving" partnership between Riyadh and Washington.
Such an assertion is precisely what Blinken must have been hoping for in deciding to fulfill Biden's campaign pledge to release the report while avoiding any sanction of the crown prince personally. It also reflects the administration's hope that the repressive, but the reformist young prince will continue trying to ingratiate himself and the kingdom to the Biden administration by releasing critics and rivals from jail and lessening official repression.
For instance, Riyadh recently released from jail Loujain al-Hathloul, the kingdom's most prominent feminist activist whose crime was helping to lead the campaign for a woman's right to drive and advocating other women's rights. The kingdom also recently announced that it was lifting a boycott of neighboring Qatar which Washington has also opposed.
While Biden's strike against the Iranian backed militias was more in keeping with the Trump administration's actions against those who kill or injure American soldiers or contractors in the region, the strike on Syrian territory was a clear warning to Teheran that the administration's desire to revive the Iranian nuclear deal from which Trump withdrew in 2018 does not mean that Washington will ignore Iran's provocations, particularly attacks on American troops.
While Trump resisted widening American involvement in ongoing Middle East conflicts, he did not hesitate to use force against such American foes as Iran's top general Qasem Soleimani, the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, who was killed in a U.S. strike in January, 2020. But while the Trump administration complicated America's relations with Iraq by killing the Iranian operative at Baghdad International Airport, Biden seems determined to strike Iranian-backed militias even in Syria, which also hosts Russian and other forces whose injury might spark a broader confrontation.
While left-wing Democrats, libertarians, and conservative Republicans criticized the strikes in Syria, Biden would not back down. Asked Friday what message he intended to send to Iran, he said: "you can't act with impunity. Be careful."