The US leadership has to understand that it is facing constantly major challenges in the region from its foes and that containing these foes requires high-level attention and the commitment of significant military, economic and diplomatic resources rather than a gradual exit from the region.
[Manish Rai | Oped Column Magazine]
The US forces have started withdrawing their equipment from Syria following the US President Donald Trump’s order last month to pull-out from Northwest Syria.
Trump announced that the reason behind the withdrawal is, what he believes, the defeat of ISIS. However, the United States’ closet allies, including the United Kingdom, didn’t share this view.
Tobias Ellwood, a minister in the British Ministry of Defence, said in a tweet that he “strongly” disagrees with Trump’s comment that ISIS had been defeated.
It seems that the US wants to lessen its engagement not only in Syria, but also across the region. Concurrently with the decision to pull-out from the Syrian battlefield, President Trump also announced that the US will also drastically reduce the number of the US soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.
For many, the withdrawal represents the US’s relinquishment of its traditional dominance in the Middle East. This kind of abrupt US pull-out gives credence to the idea – which is increasingly pervasive in the Middle East – that the US’s support for its allies is no more like how it once used to be.
The US is reducing its commitments in the region at a very crucial time when two of its fiercest adversaries, Iran and Russia, have been leaving no stone unturned in order to increase their influence in the greater Middle East.
On the one hand, Russia, which is considered a global adversary to the US, is trying to get the US’s allies in the region on its side. On the other hand, Iran, which is a major concern for the US in the region, is successfully becoming stronger and creating its own proxy forces against the US and its allies.
How Russia is trying to court US allies
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman chose Moscow over Washington for his first and so far only official overseas visit. This was the first ever visit by a Saudi monarch to Russia. The emir of Qatar too unexpectedly flew to Moscow to meet Putin on the eve of his visit to Washington last March.
The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, a close US ally, declined an invitation to Washington last spring, diplomats say. However, he traveled to Moscow in May 2018, his seventh trip in five years, signing a “strategic partnership” agreement with Vladimir Putin.
Most recently, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi made his fourth visit in October 2018 to Russia, compared with one to Washington. During the visit, Sisi signed a strategic partnership agreement with Putin, marking a significant shift of a US ally toward Russia.
All these high-level meetings clearly suggests that Russia is being acknowledged by the US allies as an important power in the greater Middle East. If the US does not check this geopolitical development in region, Russia will gradually become the major global power in the Middle East and will restore its Soviet-era role in the region.
Iran, on the other hand, is aggressively fielding its proxies directly against the US and allies. There is almost no crisis in today’s Middle East that can be analyzed without attention being paid to Iran’s role. In the past, Iran-backed and -sponsored militias directly challenged the US forces in Iraq. Now Iran is using this strategy on US allies in the region. Most notably against Israel.
Iran has strengthened its proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, against the Jewish state by equipping them with sophisticated rocket and missile capabilities. In addition to this, Iran is preparing a third front against Israel in Syria — something that can be used by the Iranian elite Quds force in case of any future conflict with Israel.
Iran is using almost the same strategy in Yemen with its support for Houthis against the Saudis and Emiratis, the two major regional allies of the US. Even in Bahrain where the US Fifth Fleet is based, Iran supports Al-Ashtar Brigades against US allies Al-Khalifa’s. Tehran is spreading its tentacles in the region by expanding the list of its loyal proxies.
The US national interest in the greater Middle East may be diminishing due to affordable and abundant domestic energy sources. Yet a calm and stable Middle East remains critical for the security and geopolitical interest of the US.
Hence, this is the time when the US needs to define its interest and involvement in the region with greater precision. The US leadership has to understand that it is facing constantly major challenges in the region from its foes and that containing these foes requires high-level attention and the commitment of significant military, economic and diplomatic resources rather than a gradual exit from the region.
Manish Rai is a columnist for Middle East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geopolitical news agency Viewsaround.