American forces have started withdrawing their equipment from Syria as part of President Trump’s order last month to pull out from Northwest Syria. President Trump announced that they are withdrawing because, in his view, the Islamic State has been defeated. But even the United States closet allies like the United Kingdom didn’t share this view.
Tobias Ellwood, a minister in the British Ministry of Defence, said in a tweet that he “strongly” disagrees with Trump’s comment that ISIS had been defeated. But it’s not only about Syria. It seems that the United States wants to lessen its engagement in the region. Concurrently with the decision to pull out from the Syrian battlefield, President Trump also announced that the U.S. will also drastically reduce the number of American soldiers in Afghanistan and in Iraq. For many, the withdrawal represents that the United States ceding its traditional dominance in the Middle East. This kind of abrupt American pull out gives strength to the idea, which is increasingly pervasive in the Middle East, that the United States’ support for its allies is not what it once was.
America is reducing its commitments in the region at a very crucial time when two of its fiercest adversaries, Iran and Russia, are leaving no stone unturned in order to increase their influence in the greater Middle East. On the one hand, Russia considered to some extent a global adversary to the U.S., is trying to get the United States allies in the region on its side. On the other hand, Iran which is a large regional concern for the U.S. is successfully strengthening and creating its own proxy forces against the U.S. and its allies.
How Russia is trying to court U.S. allies.
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman chose Moscow over Washington for his first and so far only official overseas visit and the first visit ever by a Saudi monarch to Russia. The emir of Qatar unexpectedly flew to Moscow to meet with Putin on the eve of his visit to Washington last March. The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, a close U.S. ally, declined an invitation to Washington last spring, diplomats say. However, he traveled to Moscow in May 2018, his seventh trip in five years, signing a “strategic partnership” agreement with Vladimir Putin. Most recently, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi in October made his fourth visit to Russia compared with one to Washington and also signed a strategic partnership agreement with Putin marking a significant shift of a U.S. ally toward Russia. All these high-level meetings convey one clear cut message that Russia is being acknowledged by U.S. allies as an important power in the region. If this is not checked by the U.S., Russia will gradually become the major global power in the region and will restore its Soviet-era role as a player in the Middle East.
Iran, on the other hand, is aggressively fielding its proxies directly against the United States and its allies. There is almost no crisis in today’s Middle East that can be analyzed without attention being paid to Iran’s role. In the past, Iran backed and sponsored militias which directly challenged American forces in Iraq. Now Iran is using this strategy on U.S. allies in the region. Most notably against Israel. Iran has strengthened its proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, against the Jewish state by equipping them with sophisticated rocket and missile capabilities. In addition to this, Iran is preparing a third front against Israel in Syria which can be used by the Iranian elite Quds force in case of any future conflict with Israel. The same strategy to some extent is used by Iran by supporting Houthis in Yemen against the Saudis and Emiratis, both allies of the U.S. Even in Bahrain where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based, Iran supports Al-Ashtar Brigades against U.S. allies Al-Khalifa’s. Tehran is spreading its tentacles in the region by expanding the list of its loyal proxies.
U.S. national interests in the greater Middle East may be diminishing due to affordable and abundant domestic energy sources. Yet a calm and stable Middle East remains critical for the security and geopolitical interests of the United States. Hence, this is the time when the United States needs to define its interests and involvement in the region with greater precision. U.S. leadership has to understand that it is facing constantly major challenges in the region from its foes and to contain them, requires high-level attention and the commitment of significant military, economic, and diplomatic resources, rather than a gradual exit from the region.
(Author is a columnist for Middle-East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geo-political news agency ViewsAround can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)