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Are US policies changing in the Middle East?

Radwan al-Sayed

Published: Updated:

Iranians believed that they could deal with the US in the Middle East under President Biden as they usually deal with countries in the region. They upped the ante in the nuclear negotiations by insisting on lifting all sanctions, they stoked an ongoing conflict in Iraq, escalated the situation in Yemen to the extreme, and declared their support for Hamas in Palestine, not to mention openly siding with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Americans hesitantly responded by stifling the nuclear negotiations, and also raided Iranian positions and militias on the Iraqi-Syrian border, as well as inside of Syria. The US has constantly proclaimed its categorical opposition to Iran-backed Houthi militia’s actions in Yemen and their behavior Saudi Arabia. So, is there a change in the cards? Are the US’s old-new policies in the region about to change, and is this possible?

Yemeni fighters loyal to the Iran-backed Houthis raise their weapons during a rally in the capital Sanaa, on May 20, 2021. (AFP)
Yemeni fighters loyal to the Iran-backed Houthis raise their weapons during a rally in the capital Sanaa, on May 20, 2021. (AFP)

So far, that does not seem possible. The Americans are committed to rejoining the nuclear agreement and what this entails in terms of raising the most stringent sanctions ever against Iran. Since the days of President Obama, if not further back, the US has been committed to a military exit from the Middle East and its environs. Even under President Trump, they remained very cautious about rushing headlong into a military confrontation, even with Iran-backed militias. Now, here they are leaving Afghanistan while knowing for certain that the country will fall into the hands of the Taliban within months. Furthermore, they are continuing to negotiate with the Iraqi government for the withdrawal of the 2,500 troops in that country. No one knows when the Americans will decide to pull their troops out from Syria and leave the Kurds to their own devices.

This strategic “reluctance” in recent weeks, as was evident at the recent NATO meeting, the Rome conference, and in the measured tone towards Turkey, is not strictly a result of domestic commitments made during the presidential race, nor to the changing disposition of the Democratic left or the greater concern for human rights. Rather, this reluctance is owed to the increasing Chinese and Russian presence across the board, not only in commercial competition and strategic regions, but even in opposing military forces.

It is no secret that the Russians and the Chinese are strongly engaged in the conflicts of the Horn of Africa, siding with Abiy Ahmed and Eritrea against the Tigray region. Russia and China could possibly be taking part in the conflicts over the Nile Valley. When the Ethiopian army recently withdrew from the secessionist federal province as the rebels managed to retake the regional capital and some key cities, the US and European countries considered it a victory, knowing that they were calling for an Eritrean withdrawal and the cessation of carnage and forced displacement. For their part, the Ethiopians considered that the US was provoking a civil war in Tigray, but while the Americans were struggling to win over Sudan following the revolution, the Russians were setting up a naval military base in the country.

The conflict over the Horn of Africa, and over Africa in general, is manifested in the competition for strategic spheres, water resources, and energy and mineral markets, wherein China has made large strides. Russia was also very eager to enter, which is evident from what happened in Central Africa and what is happening now in Mali (following the retreat of the French Barkhane campaign). The same conflict is mirrored in the strategic battleground of the Middle East; China has concluded a 25-year strategic agreement with Iran, whereas Russia has a large military presence in Syria and reached agreements with Iran and Turkey to divide each’s influence in the country. Turkey, on the other hand, finds some respite after former President Trump left the White House with regards to the Russian-Chinese-Western competition it faces. At the same time, the Europeans are rushing to allocate $3 billion to Turkey to cover the costs of refugees. The figure was deemed totally inadequate by Turkey.

Presidents Rouhani of Iran, Erdogan of Turkey and Putin of Russia pose before their meeting in Ankara. (File photo: Reuters)
Presidents Rouhani of Iran, Erdogan of Turkey and Putin of Russia pose before their meeting in Ankara. (File photo: Reuters)

By playing the counterterrorism card, the Rome Conference attempted to convince the numerous military forces in Syria and Iraq of their shared and mutual objectives in the country, but, unfortunately, this tactic did score a win with the different battalions.

The Rome Conference was not successful in convincing the numerous military forces in Syria and Iraq of their shared and mutual objectives by playing the counterterrorism card. Even the embattled Lebanese defense minister sought a role for herself as a partner in this great alliance in the hopes of receiving some support to the impotent Lebanese army. The conference’s strategic experts were also warning of the shift in terrorism towards Libya, Niger, the Sahel, Mali, and Nigeria. But when it comes to the outcome of what the many conferences on Libya have boiled down to, alongside the demand for the withdrawal of armies and militias from the country, the Russians insist that the exit must be carried out in tandem and with great care and deliberation; otherwise, this would upset the military balance in the fragmented Arab country.

In the Middle East, as in Africa, there exists a strategic intertwinement permeated by clashes. No one has forgotten the war on Gaza, which was marked by devastation and left Egypt scrambling to treat the open wounds and calm the seething moods. In the meantime, Ismail Haniyeh, who enjoyed great victories from Qatar to North African countries, has now landed triumphantly in Beirut. Iran has reaped the victory in the public eye without question, which includes the victories of its militias, starting from the ones in Lebanon to the Houthis in Yemen. However, who will assume the duties? Well, neither Russia nor China will take on any duties for themselves, which leaves the US, Israel’s number one ally. The US must protect and reassure Israel, and by doing so, persuade the new Israeli government to restore negotiations with the Palestinians. In fact, the US will even have to entreat Israel to agreeing to the reconstruction of Gaza.

Mahmoud Al-Masri, 14, stands for a portrait in his bedroom that was damaged when an airstrike destroyed the neighboring building prior to a cease-fire that halted an 11-day war between Gaza's Hamas rulers and Israel, Wednesday, May 26, 2021, in Beit Hanoun, Gaza Strip. (AP)
Mahmoud Al-Masri, 14, stands for a portrait in his bedroom that was damaged when an airstrike destroyed the neighboring building prior to a cease-fire that halted an 11-day war between Gaza's Hamas rulers and Israel, Wednesday, May 26, 2021, in Beit Hanoun, Gaza Strip. (AP)

The Americans are still the greatest power in the world economically, strategically, and militarily. However, the American power has not been the only power in the world to be reckoned with for quite a while now. This has taken its toll on its diminishing responsibilities and left it grappling to manage global affairs as was the case during and after the Cold War. The biggest and most enduring lesson the Americans learned during and after the Cold War was not to get bogged down in long-running conflicts. All protracted conflicts embarked upon by the US saw the superpower emerge as the loser. The Americans are accustomed to zealously starting wars only to end them with sorrowful compunction.

So, what are they going to do this time in the Middle East on this particular occasion? Do they withdraw with their tails between their feet as they have done since 2010 in Iraq when they withdrew, then returned, only to withdraw again? The Iranians and the Russians are not concerned with their human casualties, nor do they care about immaterial damages. The Chinese stick with everyone, compete with everyone, and replace everyone with alacrity should they become absent. If the Americans are gradually coming to terms with the defeat in Afghanistan, why do they not concede to the defeat in Iraq and Syria, which is a matter of fact at this point?

The Americans will not continue to confront Iran’s militias for fear of the fall of their ally al-Kadhimi, whether by points or by a final takedown. The US will not continue to lead the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, lest the Israelis push them back, leaving Hamas and its allies—and not the Palestinians—to reap the fruits of victory.

Therefore, despite all the sources and appearances, it is likely, in light of the current situation, that the US will strike, not for the sake of victory or survival, but in order for its forces to withdraw safely. However, what will the US do with Russia and China? Even before that, what will happen to American allies that depend on the US in the region and around the world? What if Iran managed to produce nuclear weapons and continued its actions to bring down other countries? All these questions pertain to the present, not the future.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.