The consequences of US disengagement from the Middle East

The consequences of US disengagement from the Middle East
© Human Rights Watch

Three major events have begun to clarify the next phase of the Middle East’s position in world affairs. Washington announced decertification of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement with Iran; the U.S.-backed forces in Syria and Iraq have captured Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) capital of Raqqa; and Moscow signaled that it sees an approaching end to the war in Syria.

These three events, taken together display to us the forthcoming somber outline of Middle Eastern events. Clearly the big winners are not the U.S. but rather Russia and Iran, despite President Trump’s announcement of a new campaign against Iran.

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The problem we confront is very much of our own making and is reflected in the confluence of these three events. The defeat of ISIS merits congratulations to all involved, but it also comes with no political program about preventing an outbreak of a new ISIS or similar organizations even as such groups are already forming.

 

Or, as many have noted, U.S. forces and allies have been fighting without any kind of political vision of what comes next. Inevitably, as Carl von Clausewitz’s theories and history warn us, such tactical success, unmoored to any viable strategic goal, is ephemeral.

Perhaps the new campaign against Iran, which formally is about its nuclear program, will become a truly coordinated policy and strategy as Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonDemocrats launch probe into Trump's firing of State Department watchdog, Pompeo The Memo: Fauci at odds with Trump on virus The Memo: Speculation grows about Fauci's future MORE is now in the Middle East. But it is not likely given the evisceration of the State Department and diplomacy in Trump’s foreign policy and the emphasis on military force used, if the anti-Isis campaign is a guide, for strictly tactical purposes.

Moreover inveighing against Iranian nuclearization does not meet the actual threat now posed by Iran. For example, the most reliable allies we could find against ISIS were the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds but our support for them is now cementing a tripartite anti-Kurd bloc among Iran, Iraq, and Turkey and Iraq has become very much a client of Iran. These are hardly the goals for which we have fought since 2003 and therefore tactical proficiency, in the absence of strategy, has undermined our position.

This is where Moscow comes in. A central pillar of Russian policy here is its partnership with Iran over Syria and against Washington. Whereas we had no strategy or political instrument in Syria; both Tehran and Moscow did and do have such a pillar in Bashar Assad. Thanks to their intervention he has all but won the civil war and Defense Minister Shoigu proclaimed, in Israel, that Moscow is looking to the end of that wear and the political reconstruction of a Syrian state dominated by it and Iran.

However, while Moscow and Tehran desire a Syria that is internally stable, they have no interest in a stable Middle East. Russia supports Iran in Yemen and Syria, runs guns and other weapons through Iran to Hezbollah and supports Hamas’ union with the Palestinian Authority as a potential negotiating element in Israel even though Hamas remains a terrorist organization.

Thus both Moscow and Tehran are state sponsors of terrorism in the Middle East, whose goal is perpetual destabilization and conflict there. So that they can pick up the pieces.

In Moscow’s case, that goal dates back to Soviet times and was expressed by leaders such as Foreign Minister Gromyko, who, in 1971, proclaimed that no problem in world politics could be solved without the Soviet Union. Therefore, conflict is necessary, for that alone leads others to solicit Russian intervention.

Specifically Russia, despite its considerable business with Israel, has now achieved a situation whereby Israel, to push Iran from its borders and deflect Tehran’s goal of an unimpeded landline to the Mediterranean and Lebanon from which it can regularly threaten Israel, must appeal to Moscow. Russia, though unwilling to be used for other governments’ interests, thus achieved an outcome that eluded the USSR.

Moscow now is an arbiter of how far Israel can go to defend itself against Iran or Syria and, for the first time, has leverage over Israel’s security. When one considers that for 70 years the U.S. has consistently fought to extrude Russian influence from the Middle East because it invariably was a force for war and upheaval, the striking surrender of key objectives, e.g. Russia’s new leverage over Israel, reflects a shocking abandonment of past objectives and strategic disengagement from the Middle East.

Moreover, America’s allies (Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Gulf monarchies and Saudi Arabia) are all striking deals with Russia that reflect their awareness of our disengagement and of Moscow’s new-found power. Either they seek to restrain Iran and Russian support for it or they are making energy and investment deals by which billions of dollars flow to Moscow, allowing Russia to circumvent Western sanctions and create energy and financial linkages between these governments and Russia that inevitably are translated into political leverage.

Signs of that leverage are Moscow’s quest for bases beyond Syria in Egypt, Libya and Yemen, Russian arms sales and energy deals, the fact that Russia was able to operate out of an Iranian air base at Hamadan until excessive publicity shut it down, and the lasting network of air and sea bases in Syria. Thus Moscow will try to check NATO in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Levant and seek leverage over Middle Eastern energy flows to Europe while eroding the U.S. alliance network.

These gains accrue to Russia because it has brilliantly combined force with a political strategy while the Obama and Trump administrations have utterly failed to think beyond tactical anti-terrorist remedies. None of these outcomes serves U.S. interests. So, while Tillerson may be trying to begin the restoration of U.S. influence, it will take much more than that for him to succeed.

Meanwhile, the consequences of Middle Eastern instability are clear. It is now not only the hour of Russia but an epoch of new instabilities and conflicts. Though nothing is forever in the Middle East, it is likely that this region will continue for some time to confirm Plato’s insight that “only the dead have seen the end of war.”

Dr. Stephen Blank is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. He is the author of numerous foreign policy-related articles, white papers and monographs, specifically focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia. He is a former MacArthur Fellow at the U.S. Army War College.