Do all roads now lead to Moscow?
The American era in the Middle East is over. Some termed this era “Pax Americana” but that is not appropriate since “pax” means “peace” and the past six decades in the region have been anything but peaceful.
Rather, the American era in the Middle East, which followed Britain’s withdrawal from the region, designates a period in which Washington was the dominant outside player in a tumultuous environment.
The Soviet Union had its Middle Eastern allies and clients during the Cold War but the resource-rich Gulf region was an American redoubt and Israel, the most militarily advanced country and only nuclear-armed power in the region, was a virtual 51st US state. Moscow lost its largest and most powerful regional ally when Egypt’s Anwar Sadat changed sides in 1972.
The United States suffered a major blow in 1979 when the shah of Iran was ousted by anti-Western mullahs but the revolutionaries in Tehran were equally hostile to the Soviets. Even Moscow’s most steadfast ally, Syria’s Hafez Assad, looked to the United States to mediate with Israel. And virtually every Middle Eastern country craved Western investment and consumer goods.
My, how things have changed. In the past few weeks a parade of Middle Eastern leaders has visited Moscow to confer with Russian President Vladimir Putin. US President Donald Trump confirmed at his own tete-a-tete with Putin in Helsinki what has been plainly clear for some time: Russia is calling the shots in Syria.
Putin has established good working relationships with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council states, Israel, Egypt, Iran and Turkey.
Israel dislikes the Iranian presence in Syria. To whom does it complain? Putin.
The Palestinians dislike the direction the so-called peace process is taking. With whom do they confer? Putin.
Egypt wants to diversify its source of arms. From whom does it buy? Putin.
Iran wants partners that will ignore US sanctions and offer Tehran an economic lifeline. With whom does it do business? Putin.
Where all roads once led across the Atlantic to Washington, they have veered northward across Eurasia to Moscow.
This redirection has been long in the making and is not solely the result of the election of Trump in 2016, although his actions are facilitating it. The United States has historically gone through cycles of isolationism and engagement and is in a robust isolationist period.
Such periods often come on the heels of foreign calamities — such as the Vietnam War and the US involvement in Iraq’s civil war, which was triggered by the US-led invasion in 2003. Americans like short wars and long victory parades, such as the lightning-fast 1991 Gulf War.
The current isolationist period coincided with the election of a president who is perhaps the most ill-prepared person to hold the office and a polarisation in US political dialogue that has rendered intelligent debate a quaint remnant of the past. However, it must not be forgotten that it was former President Barack Obama who advocated a pivot away from the Middle East and watched as Russia established itself in Syria.
While all roads may seem to lead to Moscow, delving deeper reveals a more complex picture. The United States maintains close ties with Gulf Cooperation Council countries and Israel. Its ties with Egypt are frayed but strong at the military-to-military level. The United States continues to dominate the Middle East arms bazaar and the regional presence of US firms and financial institutions far outweighs that of Moscow.
Consider the projection of military force: Russia has air and naval bases in Syria. The United States is in Kuwait, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Djibouti, Qatar and Turkey. US Special Operations Forces, such as the US Navy SEALs, operate in 133 countries worldwide, including many in the MENA region.
Putin has been cleverly and adroitly playing a mediocre hand. Russia has the 11th largest GDP in the world — ranking behind India, Brazil, Italy and Canada and the US state of Texas, were it an independent country. It accounts for less than 2% of the world’s output, compared to more than 23% for the United States.
Putin is riding the wave of US isolationism. Like the martial artist that he is, Putin is exploiting every situation and weakening his foes with the leverage he has (such as using cyberwar to discombobulate Western democracies). In the process, he is helping the Russian people lick the collective ego wound suffered by the fall of the Soviet Union.
However, Russia’s direct influence in the Middle East is limited. Combined with US isolationism, this means that region’s countries have unprecedented independence in pursuing their goals, forging alliances and seeking outside support from a range of states with which they have mutual interests.
Neither Putin nor Trump will be in office forever. The United States may at some point choose to re-engage. In the meantime, however, Middle Eastern countries have an opportunity to develop their own “pax.”
Mark Habeeb is East-West editor of The Arab Weekly and adjunct professor of Global Politics and Security at Georgetown University in Washington.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.