Author: Côme Carpentier de Gourdon – 16/10/2019
The last few years have seen a gradual decline of American power in west Asia balanced by a rapid rise in the influence of Russia and China. The European Union has been sidelined in the region as a result of its ancillary position towards the United States and its failed policies in the Libyan and Syrian conflicts.
The autarkic and isolationistic tendencies of President Donald Trump and his commitment to get out of the military and financial entanglements in the Middle East, in reaction to the disastrous decisions of the Bush and Obama administrations concerning Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have accelerated the American pullback. The move is motivated by a combination of economic, strategic and domestic political factors.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA) or ‘Iran deal’ signed by the USA and five other great powers with the Islamic Republic was the last attempt to maintain American/NATO predominance in the Gulf area and its repudiation by the Trump administration left the USA with no coherent diplomatic policy other than an unquestioned and in-principle commitment to support Israel in all matters, for religious and domestic political reasons regardless of risks, without any tangible reciprocal benefits for the USA and at the cost of other, more pragmatic options.
The growing estrangement between Erdogan’s Turkey and the West raises questions about the viability of NATO and deprives the US of another major ally in the eastern Mediterranean while the fiasco in Syria where the US keeps a rather symbolic but illegal military presence after failing to change the regime has hammered another nail in the coffin of Euro-American hegemony in West Asia and North-Eastern Africa.
The Russian Federation under President Putin has managed to recover the privileged place it held in the days of the Soviet Union in Syria, Iraq, Egypt (until Sadat’s policy reversal), Palestine and Lebanon while gaining inescapable influence in Iran, Turkey and Israel. The ‘de facto’ defeat of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in both Syria and Yemen have put the Arab monarchies on the defensive as the US has shown no appetite for fighting on their behalf in the protracted power struggle with Iran. After performing the ‘tour de force’ of keeping good relations with Iran, Turkey, Syria, the Kurdish enclaves in Syria and Iraq and Israel at once, time has come for Russia to strengthen its relations with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi whose rulers are well aware that they need Moscow’s help to tamper Iran’s asymmetric defensive strategy, which they cannot defeat on their own.
Putin’s state visit to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates was not only a victory lap in the wake of the humiliating and very costly failure of the two states in their attempts to overthrow the Baathist government in Syria, to force Iran to capitulate and to impose their will to Yemen’s Houthis. The uncertain future of energy geopolitics is also a subject of existential concern to the two oil and gas-dependent states. They need, like all other OPEC members, to coordinate their production and drilling policies with Russia, which has become the leader of fossil fuel exporters outside OPEC, in order to hold their own against the United States now the world’s biggest hydrocarbon producer at a great environmental and financial expense.
For his support, Putin expects some substantial gains for his country such as large-scale investments from the Gulf into Russia’s infrastructure and purchases of weaponry that is proving competitive with the American over-priced defence items whose usefulness is questionable in the local context. Saudi Arabia is expected to follow Turkey and India by purchasing the S-400 anti-missile defence system. Furthermore, faced with undisguised hostility in the west after his alleged role in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and with inimical Iran and Turkey, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman badly needs some great powers on his side.
Russia, India and China are the obvious choices but they will require him to mend fences with Tehran with which all those three governments have strategic relations which they will not forsake to please Riyadh. Instead, they are willing to mediate and facilitate a settlement of the dispute between the Saudi monarchy and the Islamic Republic. The UAE has already gotten the message and has moved quietly to come to some understanding with the big neighbour to the north.
In this changing scenario, the USA under the quixotic and temperamental leadership of Donald Trump is becoming less and less attractive as it still likes to prefer threats but is loath to carry them out and yet unable to offer carrots to recalcitrant vassals. The new American mercantilism requires beggaring partners as much as rivals in order to regain theoretical economic supremacy but that inevitably hurts the political prestige that buttressed American power, On the other hand the onerous US military machine is betraying chronic fatigue syndrome and there are widespread doubts about its fighting abilities, given the poor motivation of the forces, rife with internal social and cultural conflicts (such as gay and transgender rights, issues of rape and abuse, questions about the country’s leadership and policies and internal power struggles in the command structure).
The latest rather precipitous ‘ retreat’ of the contingent in north-eastern Syria which abandoned all their equipment may be seen in the context of the weak-kneed response from Washington to the massive drone attack of Saudi oil facilities. America has no stomach for a new war despite the belligerent pronouncements of some armchair warriors on Capitol Hills and in the sundry US think tanks while it’s old sister-in-arms Britain is mired for a long time to come in the Brexit morass. Israel’s political paralysis is also hampering the Jewish state’s ability to get more involved in the wider region, apart from launching some occasional air raids and covert operations against Hezbollah, Syrian and Iranian forces.
What seems to be coming into being in west Asia is a turbulent and fluid but more stable configuration resting on compromises between the major regional powers. Turkey may be happy to let the Damascus government retake control of the Kurdish belt to the south of the border while Iran and Russia will continue to guarantee Syria’s territorial integrity. Russia will work towards a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia following a cessation of hostilities in Yemen and also towards reconciliation between Riyadh and the Syrian Arab Republic and eventually with Qatar as well.
Turkey will seek to restore ties with Saudi Arabia because of its own economic needs. The Saudi Kingdom will have to concentrate on its internal problems, cut down support to foreign Islamic causes and try to go through a painful process of economic and administrative reorganisation if the dynasty wishes to survive. That will require cooperation with China, India and other big investors and customers and distancing itself from states that require aid and are not able to provide any tangible benefits in return such as Pakistan.
The twin umbrellas for the restoration of West Asia’s stability could be the joint security pact proposed and promoted by Iran and Russia and an enlarged economic association that might bring together the nearly defunct Gulf Cooperation Council and the Eurasian Economic Union of which Iran is about to become an associate member.
As the new cordiality between the main Gulf states and Russia shows, Putin’s long-term strategy in west Asia and the Gulf, partly inspired by the late Evgeny Primakov’s vision and partly shaped in reaction to fast-moving events, may have succeeded where America’s habitual tactics of threats and promises and Europe’s inconsistent mixture of moralism and opportunism evidently failed.
(Article reproduced by kind permission of the Author – Source: IDI – Indian Defence Industries – 16/10/2019)
Côme Carpentier de Gourdon, Convener of the Editorial Board of the World Affairs Journal and Research Associate, IISES, Vienna.