Four reasons US pivot from Middle East will be a slow one
A shift toward the Pacific Rim has been on Washington’s agenda for almost four decades. China’s gigantic economic achievements have forced the US to make such a choice. The Middle East is likely to be affected by such a shift.
There are several defense-related issues on the US agenda regarding the Middle East, but four of them seem to be the most important: Turkey, Russia, Syria and Iran.
Ankara-Washington relations are the subject of lively debate in the Turkish media, but this may not be a high priority for the US because the two capitals are not on the same page.
As a result of disagreements between Ankara and Washington on a variety of issues, debates between the two capitals look like a dialogue of the deaf. Turkey fails to understand why the US does not stop providing all sorts of assistance to the Kurdish fighters of the YPG, who have close links with the blacklisted PKK terrorist organization. Washington uses the YPG fighters in Syria to fight Bashar Assad’s forces on the one hand and promote the Kurdish identity on the other. So far, Washington has not given any signals that it might change this policy.
On the Turkish side, various groups are pressuring the government to ban the US from using the NATO-earmarked Incirlik airbase. It is one of NATO’s six airbases in Europe and accommodates an estimated 50 nuclear weapons. It is one of the best-equipped airports, with hardened aircraft shelters and a long runway of 3 km. It is home to about 5,000 US servicemen and women. The airport is used by the US, UK and, occasionally, the Royal Saudi Air Force.
In 1975, the Turkish government closed all US military bases in Turkey as a reaction to Washington’s embargo on Ankara following its military operation in Cyprus. After three years of strained relations, the US had to lift the embargo in 1978 and its bases were reopened.
There are several defense-related issues on Washington’s agenda regarding the region.
Washington’s eroding confidence in Turkey’s reliability has now pushed the Pentagon to look for other alternatives to Incirlik. Al-Azraq air base in Jordan is among the potential candidates.
The Turkish government has so far turned a deaf ear to demands to close the US military bases in Turkey, but we must keep in mind that such an exercise was rehearsed 45 years ago.
As a NATO ally, Ankara rightly complains about the US support extended to the Syrian Kurds, but perhaps it fails to grasp that Washington also has its own priorities that may not always match its own.
Another defense-related issue on Washington’s agenda is its relations with Moscow. Russia is on its way to asserting itself as an important player in the world arena. It is already strongly implanted in Syria. Having to also cope with China on the global stage will make Washington’s task more difficult in its dealings with Russia.
The thaw in NATO-Russia relations lasted less than 30 years and disagreements have now started to surface. Russia recently decided to close its diplomatic representative’s office at the NATO headquarters.
The Black Sea has become another bone of contention between Moscow and Washington. This sea was a stable maritime area during the Cold War era because the Montreux Convention of 1936 established a delicate balance protecting Russia’s security concerns. Under this agreement, the naval ships of non-riparian countries were subjected to a number of restrictions in the Black Sea, including that their total tonnage could not exceed two-thirds of that of the strongest country’s fleet in the sea, i.e., Russia. Furthermore, non-riparian naval ships were not allowed to stay in the Black Sea for longer than 21 days.
Bulgaria and Romania joining NATO in 2004 caused an important paradigm change. It is unclear how this will affect the power balance in the region. The strong support extended by the US to Ukraine is another destabilizing factor for Russia in the Black Sea.
The third important item on Washington’s Middle East agenda is Syria. The US policy in Syria is mainly aimed at weakening the Assad government and containing Russia and Iran’s implantation in the country. The UN-sponsored constitutional process is moving very slowly. The clients of Washington and Moscow are supporting opposing views in this process. The US’ military support for the Kurds and Moscow’s support for Assad are the main factors behind the scenes.
The fourth issue is Iran. The US perceives Tehran as an enemy, but the details of its military strategy toward the country are not clear. The idea of reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal is stagnating. Israel is doing everything it can to persuade Washington to severely punish Iran, but the details of how this will be carried out are yet to be disclosed.
In light of this background, the US military presence and political weight in the Middle East is likely to diminish gradually rather than suddenly.
• Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party.