Russia Succeeds the US in the Middle East

Friday, 24 January, 2020 - 12:30

Russia Succeeds the US in the Middle East

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Radwan al-Sayyed
Lebanese writer, academic, politician and professor of Islamic Studies at the Lebanese University

This is neither a new nor a surprising conclusion. Since the beginning of Obama’s first term, there was talk of changing orientations and priorities.


Usually, Republicans are the ones who do not like the US government to expand both internally and externally. Obama, the Democrat, however, is the one who led the wave of changing priorities. This came after a significant affliction that Bush Jr.’s administration caused in the area and the Middle East by invading Afghanistan and then Iraq. If the invasion of Afghanistan had some sort of justification as a result of al-Qaeda, which attacked the US and its interests, being especially the notorious 9/11 attacks, there was no such justification for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.


Consequently, the isolationist Republicans are the ones who usually drag the US into invasions. Up until now, the US has failed to end the war and establish a democratic state in Afghanistan. Their failure in Iraq was evident in 2007, with regard to both the war on terror and the establishment a democratic state. As a result, after 2008, there has been a consensus among Americans to leave Iraq.


Obama delineated new strategic goals, mainly focusing on China and the Far East, considering the absence of a fight there, on several fronts, and on ending the strife with Iran by gradually withdrawing. Consequently: Securing the safety of Israel, reducing the threat against the Gulf, keeping in mind that the US is no longer in need of off-shore oil. How then, would the US end the strife with Iran and guarantee Israel’s safety? The strategy was to end nuclear development in Iran, and the US had lobbied Europe to join it, as the latter was also worried about Iranian ballistic missiles. Through their mode of negotiations, the Iranians succeeded in guaranteeing two things from the US and Europe: taking over Iraq and Lebanon, through the militias that support it. When they failed to take over Syria by themselves, they dragged in the Russians (with explicit American consent). The US, on the other hand, succeeded in the last seven years to negotiate and guarantee the safety of Israel, leaving Iraq, and putting the responsibility on the new Iraqi elite and Iran.


Those following the developments disagree on the extent of the link between the failure of the Democrats’ interventions in the Middle East (such as the Benghazi incident which led to the death of the US consul) and Trump’s success in 2016. Trump, did however, put leaving Syria and Iraq while guaranteeing the safety of Israel on his electoral program. Israel’s safety is indeed guaranteed, as Hezbollah has not made a move against it since 2006. Iranian responses to Trump’s sanctions have always been against maritime traffic and Saudi Arabia, through Houthi militias. Also, they have responded by directly raiding oil facilities and even Mekkah.


The Russians did not directly intervene to an extent that changes the balance of powers until 2015. They had regretted leaving Gaddafi to meet his fate in 2011 - 2012. They had also guaranteed that there would be no big misunderstanding with the US by holding direct talks. There was military coordination between the two as well as meetings between the two presidents. The aim was for the Russians (and Iranians?) to replace the US in Syria after Iran had replaced them in Iraq.


Three problems remained without a solution, the Syrian Kurds, Iraqis, the Turks and their concerns and violent extremists that had risen to power. In 2015, something unexpected happened: ISIS took over North Syria and a third of Iraq. Russia was not prepared to carry the burden and was satisfied with Iran protecting the area that had remained under Assad’s control. The US then returned and led the international campaign against ISIS’s terrorism without implicating Russia or Iran. In fact, a sort of cooperation developed between the two, including with Soleimani!


With the US coming close to withdrawing from the area, the Russians began to think about how they could replace it. They did not only link it to the circumstances in the area (the presence of Iranians, Turks, Israel and Arabs) but with the Crimean Peninsula, Ukraine, East Europe and South America as well! In the area, they considered themselves to be guarantors for Israel’s safety. They allied with Iran and Turkey while developing strategic interests with the latter and may start a campaign with China to protect Iran from the US.


Consequently, the Russians are doing what the US was doing when they replaced the French and British in the fifties. Even with Arabs, they make use of officers who do not want the Iranians and Turks to dominate them. Like the US, they undermine Europeans and consider them to be wealthy like Arabs, and consequently, they urge them to join them. Libya is an example of this. When the Arabs and Europeans failed for more than five years to contain the Libyan problem, Erdogan copied the Iranians when he tried to take over some of the Libyan wealth like Syria. Putin intervened at both the Moscow and Berlin conferences in order to force everyone to operate under his umbrella: the Arabs, Europeans and both Libyan sides. Explicitly, he supports the Government of National Accord but provides Field Marshal Haftar with arms and soldiers just like France used to.


There are two critical differences between Russia and the US. The US always has enough arms, money and programs, with an alleged moral superiority, while Russia only has weapons. Despite China supporting it, it has failed so far to help with finances, markets and construction! The other difference is that all peoples in the area have gotten used to the Americans, not only in terms of arms but also in hospitals, universities, development centers, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.


A final note before coming to my conclusion: Among the four sides that the US, and now Russia, deals with, the Arabs are the most confusing and draining. Libya after Syria is an excellent example of this. For even if the Egyptians, Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians cooperated to contain the problem and there were no European presence or Turkish and Russian greed, the fighting and destruction would not have been alleviated! Therefore, while some Arabs created pragmatic links with Russia or China, they still long for the American era that is about to end. In conclusion, the Trump Administration suddenly decided to escalate the conflict with Iran and to hit the Revolutionary Guard Corps hard, both its heads and militias. Will they nullify their resolutions, and will Iran become a threat to Israel? Will statuses and domination play a role in delaying the American withdrawal for a third and fourth time?! All of that is possible. It seems, however, that this strategic transformation from both great nations has taken place, while regional powers try to step in according to their interests, “And these days we alternate between the people”!


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