Tectonic Shifts in The Middle East, Or Are They Really?

Russia’s military operation in Syria—and America’s restraint there—has catalyzed discussion and debate about possible strategic realignments in the Middle East, generating excitement in Moscow about Russia’s “great power” role and parallel concern in Washington and some allied capitals about future U.S. influence.

Most of the resulting conversation seems to ignore some important realities that suggest grand changes might be somewhat slower in arriving than some may hope (or fear).

Those who see tectonic shifts in the Middle East typically point to several factors. First among these is America’s perceived disengagement, which analysts often attribute to some combination of President Barack Obama’s skepticism toward the use of force and toward the U.S. ability to solve complex international problems, an American public increasingly tired of wars in the region, and U.S. unconventional energy capabilities that seem to reduce America’s dependence on Middle East imports. Advocates of this view argue that this disengagement motivates some U.S. allies to act on their own (like Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen) and pushes others to explore deeper relations with Moscow (like Turkey and perhaps Iraq and Egypt).

A second factor is, of course, Russia’s increasingly assertive policy, which American critics of the Obama administration attribute directly to the president’s passivity; according to this view, Mr. Obama’s reluctance to use force (especially in Syria) created a security vacuum that facilitated Moscow’s intervention. Russia has also exploited this opportunity through active diplomacy across the Middle East, including with some traditional U.S. allies like Turkey, Egypt and Israel. From this perspective, Russia’s military support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government demonstrates Moscow’s greater resolve and strong commitment to its partners.

The Iran nuclear deal is a third factor. Even setting aside other considerations, lifting international sanctions, facilitating Iran’s economic recovery and allowing this powerful country to play something closer to a “normal” (if troubling for many Americans and some others) role in regional politics alters security, political and economic dynamics in the Middle East. When combined with a sense that the United States is less willing to involve itself there, and a sense that Russia is more willing to do so, this enhances anxieties among Iran’s rivals, especially those aligned with Washington. Russia’s cooperation with Tehran removes Moscow as a potential partner for anyone seeking to balance Iran and stimulates efforts at “self-help” among those who don’t believe that America is doing enough.

The fourth factor is that the Middle East is in considerable political turmoil anyway. Growing pressure from societies dissatisfied with social, economic and political conditions in their countries has already toppled several governments and could overturn others. War, poverty and instability has encouraged massive migration to Europe. At the same time, a political settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute looks increasingly remote. These internal regional developments can force outside powers to confront a range of difficult choices they would prefer not to make. 

For longer-term thinkers, Asia and particularly China are a fifth and final factor. Though Beijing has maintained a relatively low profile in Middle East politics as political instability has increased and—perhaps more importantly—as energy prices have declined and competition for resources has eased, China’s focus on its version of maritime security in the South China Sea cannot be wholly cut off from the other end of China’s critical energy supply chain in the Persian Gulf. For those expecting big changes in the Middle East, China looks like an important player too.

While the Middle East may well be undergoing one or more major realignments, assessing their consequences is largely a matter of perspective. The five factors described above are each real and do make a difference. At the same time, none is either one-dimensional or permanent.

For example, America’s current role in the greater Middle East is perhaps modest in comparison with former President George W. Bush’s sweeping agenda for the region, but is less unusual when set against the standard of previous U.S. administrations. The United States has generally avoided deep involvement in civil wars like Syria’s; Ronald Reagan rather swiftly removed American Marines from Lebanon much as Bill Clinton pulled U.S. forces from Somalia. At the same time, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have implied that if elected, they will be more active (albeit in different ways) than Mr. Obama. Indeed, some now critical of the Obama administration were less than enthusiastic about George W. Bush’s intervention in Iraq.

Conversely, Moscow’s role in Syria may prove to be much greater before and during talks on a political settlement than afterward. During combat, Russia may look like an attractive partner to many in Syria and elsewhere in the region—its military operations have been generally successful and appear on track to achieving the Kremlin’s political objectives. And this has certainly enhanced Russia’s role. After a settlement, however, both Damascus and outside observers will have different criteria for evaluating who is a “great power” and who isn’t. Rather than asking what forces Russia has and how willing President Putin may be to use them, Syrian and regional leaders will ask how much influence Moscow has in formulating World Bank and International Monetary Fund assistance packages to rebuild Syria. And they will look to what financial assistance Russia provides directly. Still-forming institutions like the BRICS New Development Bank seem unlikely to allow Russia to play a part comparable to Washington and Brussels (or some wealthy regional governments) in shaping Syria’s reconstruction.

Moreover, even with Russia as a partner, Iran will face real limits in reshaping the Middle East. Its allies in the region are weak and its assertive efforts to establish itself as a major regional power regularly provoke backlash and counter-coalitions, as noted earlier. Meanwhile, rebuilding Iran’s economy—a key goal of the nuclear deal—will be considerably more difficult if Tehran alienates prospective partners (in the region and in Europe) through its foreign policy conduct or foments instability that discourages investment across the Middle East.

Notwithstanding its growing reliance on Middle East energy, China so far does not seem too interested in assuming a leading role in the Middle East’s turbulent security and political affairs. Whether this will change in the future is an open question—though conducting an intervention like Russia’s in Syria at a much greater distance appears to require military capabilities that Beijing does not yet possess. While Beijing may be able to build anti-access/area denial systems to raise substantially the costs of U.S. military operations near its shores, sustaining its own operations in the Middle East would be far more expensive.

Unsurprisingly, events within the Middle East itself are perhaps the most volatile and least predictable factor shaping political alignments in the region and between regional countries and outside powers. That said, the outcomes of popular uprisings in Syria and in Libya seem unlikely to inspire others to action—both countries remain locked in conflict. Even in Egypt, where many fewer deaths occurred before, during and after the 2011 revolution and 2013 coup, the outcomes for ordinary citizens seem mixed. Still, the fact that a coup attempt should take place in Turkey, long considered more stable than many other countries in the region, demonstrates just how uncertain politics has become.

The key question for the United States, Russia, European governments, China and other countries external to the Middle East but with important interests there is whether those interests are best advanced through competition or, alternatively, through even limited cooperation to try to promote stability and development in the Middle East. So far, this has been a contentious question in Washington and elsewhere, in part because even overlapping interests are not identical and in part due to long-term suspicion of one another’s motives and objectives. Unfortunately, regional governments are well aware of this and have strong incentives to use these differences to pursue their own aims, which may likewise overlap without being identical to those of their patrons. 

The good news for anyone interested in establishing some form of regional security system is that however quickly events may appear to be moving, the underlying processes and dynamics seem to be changing at a slower pace. This means that there is still time to try to build a security system for the Middle East, however difficult it might be.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.