Published: January 15, 2020
As the US and Iran recalibrate their positions following two weeks of heightened regional tensions in the wake of the killing of Qassem Soliemani in Baghdad and the measured Iranian strikes against two American bases in Iraq, one player is cashing in his gains. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president of 20 years, is expanding his influence in the Middle East as the US sends erratic messages to its allies and foes. As he defended his decision to take out Soliemani, President Donald Trump reiterated what he had said before: The US does not need Middle East oil. He also said that the US would not leave Iraq unless Baghdad coughed up billions of dollars in compensation.
Indicating that the US was ready to decrease its presence in the region, Trump suggested that NATO takes over more responsibilities. That suggestion, which goes beyond the strategic mandate of NATO, remains unclear.
Such remarks will not reassure America’s allies in the region. Experts blame the White House for failing to present a clear strategic vision for US role in the Middle East. Does the US presence in the region serve a long-term geopolitical goal or it merely seen from a financial point of view?
The slow pivot from the region started during the final years of the Obama administration and the Syrian crisis was a major milestone in the deliberate stepping back by the US. It was Putin’s historic decision to intervene militarily in Syria in 2015 that ushered in a new Russian era in the Middle East. Since then Moscow was able to foster ties with key regional players, many being traditional US allies. These included Egypt, Israel, Turkey and Gulf countries.
From almost facing off in Syria, Putin was able to turn Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan into an ally, as he himself became the sole owner of Syria’s political fortunes, thus sidelining the US, EU and the UN. Trump’s controversial decision last year to withdraw most of his forces from eastern Syria, while keeping some to protect the oil fields, only solidified Moscow’s exclusive grip of that country. This is underlined by the fact the Israel coordinates with Moscow whenever it carries out strikes against Iranian backed militias in Syria.
And Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal had distanced Washington further from its European allies, who, along with Russia and China, continue to defend it. Economic sanctions on Iran had failed to subdue Tehran or force it to renegotiate a new deal, as Trump is demanding. Neither had the US sanctions degraded Iran’s nefarious role in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.
Meanwhile, Putin is slowly filling the void left by the US. On Monday, the two warring factions in Libya; the head of the UN backed Government of National Accord Fayez Al Sarraj and the chief of the so-called Libyan National Army Gen. Khalifa Haftar failed to sign a ceasefire agreement in Moscow ending months of hostilities. Haftar wanted more guarantees and asked for more time. But Russia will continue to apply pressure ahead of a key conference on Libya to be held in Berlin on January 19. Mediation efforts by the UN and European leaders to stop Haftar’s advance, which began last April, towards Tripoli had failed so far.
And just as Moscow was able to sell NATO member, Turkey, the sophisticated S-400 air defence system last year, reports say that Iraq is now negotiating with Russia to acquire the same. While Iraq and the US go through a tense phase in their ties following the killing of Soleimani and Baghdad’s request that American troops leave the country, Moscow is moving in slowly to extend its reach across the region. Egypt has reportedly signed a $2 billion deal to buy a fleet of Russian Su-35s jets despite the threat of US sanctions.
The growing leverage of Russia in the Middle East was underlined this week by the visit of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel to Moscow. Her talks with Putin centered mainly on Iran and how to rescue the nuclear deal, but she also discussed Syria and Libya. It is ironic that the two leaders share similar views on the Middle East in contrast to divergent regional policies between the EU and the United States.
One factor that is likely to distance America’s regional allies further from Washington is the possibility that Trump would unveil his “deal of the century” soon. There is no doubt that his approach to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been catastrophic for the Palestinian and Arab sides. The deal, which may include an American recognition of illegal Israeli settlements paving the way for the annexation of major chunks of the West Bank, will be condemned by the Arabs and the international community. The fallout will have severe negative consequences on America’s influence in the region. It will be another free gift for Putin whose pragmatic approach has become a counterbalance to an unpredictable White House.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman source