US’ lack of Middle East strategy a boon for Putin

US’ lack of Middle East strategy a boon for Putin

Vladimir Putin is expanding his influence in the Middle East. (File/AFP)
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As the US and Iran recalibrate their positions following two weeks of heightened regional tensions in the wake of the killing of Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad and the measured Iranian strikes against two American bases in Iraq, one player is cashing in his gains. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s long-serving president, is expanding his influence in the Middle East as the US sends erratic messages to its allies and foes alike. As he defended his decision to take out Soleimani, President Donald Trump reiterated what he had said before: The US does not need Middle East oil. He also said that the US would not leave Iraq unless Baghdad coughed up billions of dollars in compensation.

Indicating that the US was ready to decrease its presence in the region, Trump suggested that NATO should take on more responsibilities. Whether or not he will follow through on this suggestion, which goes beyond the strategic mandate of NATO, remains unclear.

Such remarks will not reassure America’s allies in the region. Experts blame the White House for failing to present a clear strategic vision for the US’ role in the Middle East. Does the US presence in the region serve a long-term geopolitical goal, or is it merely seen from a financial point of view?

The slow pivot from the region started during the final years of the Obama administration, and the Syrian crisis was a major milestone in the deliberate stepping back by the US. It was Putin’s historic decision to intervene militarily in Syria in 2015 that ushered in a new Russian era in the Middle East. Since then, Moscow has been able to foster ties with key regional players — many being traditional US allies. These include Egypt, Israel, Turkey, and Gulf countries.

From almost facing-off in Syria, Putin was able to turn Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan into an ally as he himself became the sole owner of Syria’s political fortunes, thus sidelining the US, EU and the UN. Trump’s controversial decision last year to withdraw most of his forces from Eastern Syria, while keeping some to protect the oil fields, only solidified Moscow’s exclusive grip of that country. This is underlined by the fact that Israel coordinates with Moscow whenever it carries out strikes against Iranian-backed militias in Syria.

While Iraq and the US go through a tense phase in their ties, Moscow is slowly moving in to extend its reach across the region

Osama Al-Sharif

Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal further distanced Washington from its European allies who, along with Russia and China, continue to defend it. Economic sanctions on Iran have so far failed to subdue Tehran or force it to renegotiate a new deal, as Trump is demanding. Neither have the US sanctions degraded Iran’s nefarious roles in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.

Meanwhile, Putin is slowly filling the void left by the US. On Monday, the two warring factions in Libya — the head of the UN-backed Government of National Accord, Fayez Al-Sarraj, and the chief of the so-called Libyan National Army, Gen. Khalifa Haftar — failed to complete a cease-fire agreement in Moscow to end months of hostilities. Haftar wanted more guarantees and asked for more time. Russia will continue to apply pressure ahead of a key conference on Libya to be held in Berlin on Sunday. All mediation efforts by the UN and European leaders to stop Haftar’s advance toward Tripoli, which began last April, have failed so far.

And, just as Moscow was able to sell NATO member Turkey the sophisticated S-400 air defense system last year, reports say that Iraq is now negotiating with Russia to acquire the same. While Iraq and the US go through a tense phase in their ties following the killing of Soleimani and Baghdad’s request that American troops leave the country, Moscow is slowly moving in to extend its reach across the region. Egypt has reportedly signed a $2 billion deal to buy a fleet of Russian Su-35 jets despite the threat of US sanctions.

The growing leverage of Russia in the Middle East was underlined this week by the visit of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel to Moscow. Her talks with Putin centered mainly on Iran and how to rescue the nuclear deal, but she also discussed Syria and Libya. It is ironic that the two leaders share similar views on the Middle East, in contrast to the divergent regional policies between the EU and the US.

One factor that is likely to further distance America’s regional allies from Washington is the possibility that Trump might soon unveil his “deal of the century.” There is no doubt that his approach to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been catastrophic for the Palestinian and Arab sides. The deal, which may include an American recognition of illegal Israeli settlements, paving the way for the annexation of major chunks of the West Bank, will be condemned by the Arabs and the international community. The fallout will have severe negative consequences for America’s influence in the region. It will be another free gift for Putin, whose pragmatic approach has become a counterbalance to an unpredictable White House.

  • Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010
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