End of the American era in the Middle East

The US pullback from Syria has emboldened Russia and Iran

Gideon Rachman
Comment illo WEB 31/12/2019 issue
© Daniel Pudles

For centuries, the Middle East has been dominated by outside powers.

The collapse of Ottoman rule at the end of the first world war was followed by a century in which western nations — first Britain and France, then the US — were the most powerful external actors. But that era of American dominance is now coming to a close.

The decline of US influence in the Middle East was captured by an impotent tweet from President Donald Trump on Boxing Day: “Russia, Syria, and Iran are killing, or on their way to killing, thousands of innocent civilians in Idlib Province. Don’t do it!” Underlying the president’s hand-wringing about Syria is a rapid decline in the ability and willingness of the US to shape events in the Middle East — leaving a gap that is being filled by other powers, such as Russia, Iran and Turkey.

Of course, if the Americans are directly challenged they can and will respond forcefully — witness the bombing raids that the US staged on an Iranian-backed militia on the Iraq-Syria border this weekend. But the appetite for broader strategic plays in the Middle East seems to have largely disappeared from the White House.

As recently as 2011, the US, Britain and France staged a military intervention in Libya which toppled the Gaddafi regime, while Russia fumed impotently on the sidelines. However, the west’s unwillingness to manage the aftermath in Libya — or to get seriously involved in Syria — left an opening for Moscow. Russia’s unexpected military intervention in Syria in 2015 was treated with scepticism in the west. But Russian forces have waged a brutal campaign that has helped the Assad regime regain control of most of the country — with the assault on Idlib potentially opening the way to a conclusive victory.

Two events in recent months have rapidly accelerated the decline in US power in the Middle East. In September, Iranian missiles struck the oil facilities of Saudi Aramco. Since Saudi Arabia is one of America’s closest allies, it was widely assumed that the US would inevitably stage a military response. In the event, the Trump administration did nothing.

The following month, Mr Trump announced a pullout of American troops from Syria. In a symbolic move, Russian forces moved in swiftly to occupy evacuated US bases, with television reporters sending home incredulous dispatches, surrounded by discarded American kit. The US had abandoned not just its bases, but its Kurdish allies, leaving them to the mercy of a Turkish military offensive.

The American pullback has further emboldened Russia and Iran, while causing US allies to rethink their dependence on Washington. Russia, Iran and China have just staged their first ever joint naval exercises in the Gulf of Oman, a stretch of ocean traditionally dominated by the US fifth fleet and crucial to the global flow of oil.

Russian “mercenaries”, connected to the Kremlin, have also now intervened in Libya to back the rebel forces led by General Khalifa Haftar, potentially increasing Moscow’s influence over both the country’s oil and the flow of refugees to Europe. In Libya, as in Syria, it now appears that Turkish forces will intervene on the opposite side to the Russians. However, this proxy conflict has not prevented a certain closeness emerging between Russia and Turkey.

The Turks are not the only regional power that is looking with increasing interest towards Moscow. In the wake of the Trump administration’s inaction over Aramco and Syria, Mr Putin paid a successful visit to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, prompting Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, de facto ruler of the UAE, to announce improbably: “I think of Russia as my second home.”

Mr Trump and his supporters shrug their shoulders at this declining influence. After the costly debacles of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Americans are understandably wary of further military involvement in the region. In another recent tweet, the US president said that all outsiders, including “Napoleon Bonaparte”, were welcome to help the Kurds, adding, “we are 7,000 miles away”.

European powers, which are much closer to the Middle East, cannot afford to be so casual. But their policy towards the region is even more impotent and inward-looking than that of the US.

When Mr Trump announced his pullout from Syria, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Germany’s defence minister, tentatively suggested that Europeans should think about deploying a peacekeeping force.

The idea gained no traction whatsoever.

Instead, EU nations are watching the Russian-Syrian offensive with a mixture of horror at the humanitarian consequences and dread that a new flow of refugees will soon be heading towards Europe.

Already some 235,000 people have fled from the Idlib area, adding to the millions internally displaced within Syria, and the roughly 4m refugees across the border in Turkey.

The Europeans are also alarmed that Islamist fighters may soon be streaming back into western Europe.

In the long run, even the US may pay a price for frittering away its regional influence in such a casual manner.

As the past century has demonstrated, turmoil in the Middle East and Europe has a way of eventually crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

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