Iraq’s Vice President Nouri al-Maliki recently stated that the Trump administration does not have a clear policy vision, let alone policy plan for the Middle East. Events on the ground bear this out, but the fact is that America’s isolation from the future progress of the Middle East actually began under Barack Obama and to an extent George W. Bush. This trajectory is now largely irreversible.
With America losing its grip on the Middle East, other powers have moved in, particularly Russia, China and Iran.
Here’s why and how.
1. Chinese economic might
With the world fixated on the military events in Syria and Iraq, China has been quietly but un-ambiguously working with the Syrian government to fix the terms on which Chinese companies will invest in Syria’s economy and help to rebuild Syria’s largely destroyed infrastructure when the conflict ends.
Earlier this month, the Syrian embassy in Beijing held an expo where 1,000 Chinese companies came to discuss what they could offer in terms of investment and redevelopment in post-war Syria.
At the event, Imad Mustafa, the Syrian Ambassador to China confirmed that China will be given priority in the rebuilding of post-conflict Syria. He stated,
“China, Russia, and Iran have provided substantial support to Syria during the military conflict. Therefore, it is these three countries that will play a major role in the reconstruction of Syria”.
It has now been confirmed that China is set to invest $2 billion into rebuilding Syria and this could only be the beginning.
Both Syria and Iran are on the map of China’s New Silk Road (the One Belt–One Road). As such, transit roots from East Asia to the Middle East will positively impact not only Syria and Iraq but also Iran and Turkey.
This comes at a time when the government in Baghdad remains committed to good relations with both Tehran and Damascus. In this sense, America’s illegal regime change in Iraq dating back to 2003 has backfired spectacularly. Iraq which was an enemy of Iran and had more or less frozen relations with Syria is now open to both countries which will make China’s life easier while potentially shutting America out.
Far from seeing One Belt–One Road as an opportunity, the United States has opposed it politically, the US continues to provoke China in the South China Sea and over the Korean Peninsula and furthermore, the US is currently engaged in many conflicts which happen to be along the planned Road.
By failing to cooperate with China on its flagship commerce and infrastructure project, the US is not only on the losing side of history but has been increasingly shut out of economic opportunities in regions where America once had considerable economic influence which it is gradually losing.
2. Russian geo-political, military and energy might
The last five years alone have seen Russia gain new Middle Eastern and Eurasian allies and strengthen traditional alliances while not alienating a single power in one of the world’s most fraught regions.
Russian involvement in the Syrian war has strengthened an old alliance with Damascus. Just yesterday, Russia’s Federation Council approved a deal between Moscow and Damascus which will allow for the presence of Russian bases in Syria for the next 49 years with an option to extend the agreement by another 25. In this sense Russia and Syria’s alliance will last well into the final decades of the 21st century.
Syria also stated that Russia will be given priority along with China in Iran, in areas of post-war redevelopment, particularly in the energy sector where Russia is a global leader while importantly retaining independence from OPEC.
At the same time, Russia is building a partnership with Iraq. Baghdad just purchased a substantial amount of T-90 tanks from Russia and Iraq’s Russophillic Vice President is currently in Moscow where he is set to deepen cooperation between the two countries.
Russia’s relations with Iran remain at an all time high, with Iran looking to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in the near future. Russia along with China founded the SCO in 2001. India and Pakistan both jointed this year.
Egypt under President el-Sisi continues to expand on historically good relations with Russia which date back to the Nasser era. Egypt and Russia have pledged to cooperate against terrorist threats and just today Russia confirmed the creation of a new de-escalation zone in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta. The agreement was signed in Cairo which demonstrates Egypt’s increasingly important role in cooperating with Russian led peace initiatives.
In respect of Egypt’s neighbour Libya, the faction of Libya’s failed state which is the only one that could reasonably form a legitimate government, the secular Tobruk based Libyan House of Representatives, has good relations with both Egypt and Russia. This could become increasingly important as the armed forces of the House of Representatives, the Libyan National Army continues to make gains against jihadists.
In the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia’s attempt to isolate Qatar has backfired spectacularly. Russia is now seen by the Qataris themselves as well as those in the wider region as a legitimate broker of peace. Russia has called for a peaceful and amicable solution to the crisis which has been praised by Doha. At the same time, Russia continues to improve relations with Saudi Arabia.
All of this has happened while Russia remains one of the few powers in the world to have good relations with both Israel and Palestine.
All of this puts Russia in a unique position as a super-power with either close relations or at minimum good working relations with all the major players in the wider Middle East.
3. Turkey’s realignment and Iran’s re-emergence
Ever since joining NATO in 1952, Turkey has been a close US ally in the Middle East and Eurasia. However, Turkey’s relationship with Washington continues to plunge to new depths.
Under Donald Trump, America’s backing of the Kurds, Turkey’s number one regional enemy, has caused to Ankara distance itself from both NATO and the pro-NATO bloc, the European Union. Turkey’s participation in the Astana Peace Process along with Russia and Iran is symptomatic of Turkey’s increasingly good relationship with Russia and moreover, of Turkish President Erdogan’s good personal relationship with President Putin.
Two related events have also brought Turkey closer to Iran. Russia was able to draw two historical adversaries into the Astana Peace Process while Turkey’s strongly pro-Qatari position in the Gulf has put Tehran and Ankara on the same page.
President Erdogan’s interventions into the internal affairs of Arab countries has made Turkey’s relations with the Arab states of Syria, Iraq and Egypt deeply strained. To compensate for this Turkey is looking increasingly outside of both Europe and the Levant for allies and is drawing nearer to Russia, Iran and Qatar.
This has the effect of putting the two large non-Arab powers of the Middle East firmly in a camp which has totally different geo-strategic priorities vis-a-vis the United States President Erdogan’s enthusiastic participation in the One Belt–One Road forum in Beijing is a further sign that Ankara is increasingly looking east after a 20th century where both culturally and geo-strategically, it had tended to look west.
All of this leads to America’s increased geo-political and consequently economic isolation in the Middle East. Iran’s increased prestige in Syria and Iraq looks set to define the next generation of Levantine and Mesopotamian relations with Tehran while Iran’s pragmatic relationship with Qatar could hold the key to continued Iranian economic growth.
Turkey’s pivot away from both the Arab world and the west is being largely compensated for with good relations with historic regional rivals turned potential partners, Russia and Iran.
Russia is in a unique position as a respected power broker and security partner throughout virtually all of the Middle East, while China’s One Belt–One Road which runs through much of the region is an economic super-giant in the making. America by contrast has not offered any original thinking in respect of the economic future of the Middle East, this is why many Middle East governments are increasingly seeing America as yesterday’s lost opportunity rather than tomorrow’s hope.