We can't allow Turkey and Russia to fill America's Middle East vacuum

We can't allow Turkey and Russia to fill America's Middle East vacuum
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President TrumpDonald TrumpRobert Gates says 'extreme polarization' is the greatest threat to US democracy Cassidy says he won't vote for Trump if he runs in 2024 Schiff says holding Bannon in criminal contempt 'a way of getting people's attention' MORE appears determined to withdraw as many troops as he can from the Middle East before he vacates the White House on Jan. 20, 2021. While his plan to reduce American forces in Afghanistan has drawn the most attention — both domestically and internationally, and especially among America’s NATO allies who constitute about half the forces deployed to that country — he also seeks to draw down American forces in Iraq and Somalia. In addition, American aircraft carriers, once a full-time presence in the eastern Mediterranean, now deploy there on an intermittent basis.

Turkey and Russia, two countries seeking to revive their imperial past, have been filling the vacuum that America seems poised to leave behind. Beginning in 2017, when Trump took office, Turkey has established a series of bases throughout the Middle East. That year, it opened a base in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, ostensibly to train Somali forces fighting the al-Shabaab terrorists. In 2019, it ramped up its presence at its base in Qatar; it now deploys 5,000 troops, the equivalent of an American brigade combat team. Turkish sources close to President Erdoğan have reported that Turkey is building a second Gulf base, in Oman

Ankara has established two bases in war-torn Libya, at Misrata Port and Al-Watiya Air Base in that country’s western region. It is planning to build three of what it calls “temporary” bases in northern Iraq, where it again has deployed its special forces — reportedly in coordination with Iran — to attack Kurdish PKK units. And it continues to maintain a force presence in northern Cyprus, 46 years after its troops invaded the island.

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Turkey is far from the only country to expand its presence in the region as that of the United States begins to fade. Russia, whose only foothold in the Middle East previously was its use of the Syrian port of Tartus, now has a 99-year lease on that facility, which it intends to upgrade at a cost of $500 million. In addition, for the first time it also has been able to obtain a 99-year lease on the air base at Khmeimim, which it is expanding, and to create a helicopter base at the Qamishli airport in northern Syria. 

Moreover, earlier this month, Russia signed a 25-year agreement with Sudan to establish a naval logistics center and repair yard in that country. The yard will be able to hold up to four Russian warships, including nuclear-powered cruisers, thereby giving Russia a Red Sea and east African military presence for the first time in decades. Russian analysts are trumpeting the fact that Russia once again has a credible worldwide blue-water navy.

America is not completely abandoning the region by any means. It retains its Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain, and Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar is the largest in the region. It also has an air base at Al Dhafra in Abu Dhabi, seven army bases and an air base in Kuwait, several facilities in Oman and a naval expeditionary base at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. Nevertheless, Trump’s determination to withdraw troops that are in the front line fighting terrorists who can threaten Europe, as well as the United States, once again has rattled America’s NATO allies — who have been among his pet peeves since taking office. 

Washington is fortunate that two major allies, Britain and France, have a presence in the region. In 2018, Britain established a naval support facility in Bahrain and a new permanent Joint Logistics Support Base in Oman. This marked the first time since 1971 that Britain is permanently basing forces “East of Suez.” France, likewise, has a naval air station in Abu Dhabi, which supplements is Indian Ocean presence at Reunion and its base in Heron in Djibouti.

The Biden administration no doubt will seek to put a halt to the pace, and perhaps the magnitude, of the American withdrawal. That will not be enough. The new White House team will have to make it clear that, whatever Trump’s intentions might have been, the United States has no intention of walking away from the Middle East, whose stability is no less an American interest than it is critical for the security and stability of its allies and partners both in that region and outside it.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.