Will Washington Relinquish the Middle East to Moscow?

The Trump administration, which is still completing its first year, has so far not produced any result other than consolidating Moscow in the Middle East.

I know that the answer to the question in the title is no. Nonetheless, Moscow has entered a new phase in terms of filling the large gaps Washington left in the region. Beginning with Russia’s direct intervention in the Syrian crisis in 2015, this process has evolved into Moscow’s strategy-driven rapprochements with regional forces.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Ankara last week for talks to create de-escalation zones in Idlib. Aside from that, it was already announced that Russia would supply Turkey with S-400 air defense missile systems. Known for his close cooperation with Iran in Syria, Putin hosted Saudi King Salman last Thursday, which marked the first official visit of a Saudi monarch to Russia. It has been argued that this four-day visit opened new horizons in Russian-Saudi relations. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s previous visits restored relations that were strained since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Undoubtedly, the Putin-Salman meeting did not solely focus on global oil prices and investments. Riyadh asserts that the relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia have reached a historic moment. The purchase of S-400 systems and the regional security issues including the situation in Yemen have also been in the scope of the cooperation.

It is not hard to predict that the U.S. will be disturbed by this visit and Saudi Arabia purchasing the S-400s following Turkey. But the main issue is not the close allies of the U.S. purchasing S-400 from Russia. This is only one of many indicators of a new process that is gradually getting more apparent. Moscow not only hosts the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, but also establishes cooperation with Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia in terms of defense and military operations despite all these countries competing with each other. This means more than filling the gaps left by the U.S. In this sense, it can be contended that Moscow is advancing toward establishing a new balance of power.

Still, Moscow’s current position in the region cannot be argued to form a new order or a centerline, and the country does not have such a motivation. To put it otherwise, Russia does not have to pursue a grand and consistent strategy in the Middle East, as it can maintain subject-specific and tactical relations with the rival forces in the region.

For Russia, maximizing its own economic and political interests is sufficient for the time being. Putin created this new picture with the limited military force he employed in Syria and the sales of missile systems. Ultimately, he managed to take part in the power balances in the region as an effective actor. The administration crisis suffered by the U.S. also has a major role in Moscow’s rising influence in the Middle East to an extent. Former U.S. President Barack Obama’s Russia policy was based on imposing sanctions, keeping oil prices low and a sort of loose diplomatic isolation. This policy had failed even during Obama’s terms. Obama, who could not stop the annexation of Crimea, could not undermine Russia through oil prices, causing Russia to become the most critical agent in Syria.

The nuclear agreement with Iran did nothing but upset the Gulf countries. Still grappling with domestic issues, current U.S. President Donald Trump is far from building a new Middle East policy. With his discourse of restricting Iran and cancelling the nuclear agreement, Trump broadened Russia’s maneuverability even more. Not having met the support they expected to see from Trump in the context of the Qatar crisis, the Gulf countries leaned toward acting with Putin in order to set a balance and avert losing Moscow to Tehran. Iran is known to be among the foreign policy priorities for the Trump administration. And I do not agree with the view suggesting that the U.S. is less interested in the region’s politics since it has ended its dependence on Middle Eastern oil by focusing on gas and oil resources from shale. Although Washington’s long-term focus seems to be the Pacific region, it will not possibly retreat from the Middle East in the short run. So, a superpower that has troops and military bases in many Middle Eastern countries from Afghanistan to Syria has been in a decline that is not compatible with its strong presence in the region. The Trump administration, which is about to complete its first year, has not so far produced any result other than consolidating Moscow in the region.

[Daily Sabah, October 12, 2017]

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