Is America No Longer the Middle East's Greatest Power?
Russia’s intervention in Syria has won Putin a measure of grudging respect from regional leaders.
But it is also a function of America’s recent ambivalence. The United States stepping back has helped fan outside interest in playing in the Middle East sandbox—not to provide the public goods of order and security, but to safeguard national interests, create promising new ties and disadvantage competitors. The external actors have also been encouraged by partners to engage more fully. Regional states, aiming to exert leverage over Washington and to diversify their relationships, increasingly look not only to Washington but also to Moscow, Beijing and others for partnership, assistance and even military intervention. Those states may be more willing to act, in Russia’s case, or simply content to pursue mercantilist policies without promoting liberal values, as in China’s. The overall result, however, is that today it is impossible to address many key issues—relations with Iran, stabilizing Libya, resolving the Syrian Civil War and others—without taking firmly into account the role of major external actors. In short, great-power competition has returned to the Middle East.
RUSSIA’S RETURN to the Middle East has been dramatic. In bombing its way to renewed relevance, Moscow announced its determination to use the Middle East as a stage on which to play a global role. By applying limited military force to change the balance of power in Syria, Moscow has exercised outsized influence on the diplomacy aimed at ending the war, especially in light of Western reluctance to intervene. Russian aircraft, arms and military personnel are stationed in the country, and Moscow retains installations at Tartus and Hmeimim, giving it the ability to sway military and diplomatic events and, most importantly, to ensure that all major diplomatic initiatives on Syria run through Moscow.
Moscow’s Syria intervention has spurred a deeper alignment within the region’s Iran-led “axis of resistance,” of which the Assad regime remains a key part. Russian bombers briefly flew sorties out of Iran’s Hamadan air base, marking the first time since the 1979 revolution that Tehran has permitted foreign military forces to operate from its bases. Russia’s air defenses in Syria and its tacit collaboration with Hezbollah have also sparked serious concern in Israel, which relies on air strikes to deter the Lebanese Shia militant group and counter its arms buildup. Russia and Israel have thus far managed to deconflict their operations thanks to their longstanding and friendly relations as well as visits to Moscow by Prime Minister Netanyahu. The reality, however, is that Lebanon, southern Syria and even parts of Israel now sit under a Russian air-defense bubble, and Israeli deterrence now depends in part on Moscow’s goodwill.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, Russian influence has been scant but is growing. The region is a major purchaser of Russian weapons. Lukoil has invested in Iraq, and Russian companies are seeking new contracts in Iran. Diplomatically, Moscow was a key participant in the negotiations that led to the Iranian nuclear agreement, and has sought to position itself as a postsanctions partner for Iran. Russia has cultivated a warm relationship with Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as Washington has kept him at arm’s length, leading the Egyptian president to suggest that Russia host peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, a role generally reserved for the United States.
Russia and Turkey have made amends following a period of heightened tension over Syria and the Turkish downing of a Russian fighter aircraft that entered Turkish airspace. In the wake of the rapprochement, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim went so far as to suggest that Russia could fly sorties out of Incirlik Air Base, where U.S. forces—and nuclear weapons—are stationed.
Russia’s intervention in Syria—unpopular with Arab states opposed to Assad and his Iranian friends—has won Vladimir Putin a measure of grudging respect from regional leaders due to its boldness and, at least initial, effectiveness. Former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who together with the Iran-backed Houthi movement controls large swathes of the country, offered “all facilities,” including airports and ports, to Russia so that Moscow could help the Houthis’ governing council “fight terrorism.”
For Moscow, a greater role in the Middle East offers potential dividends beyond enhanced global status and a seat at regional tables. Russia seeks to demonstrate its commitment to partners like Bashar al-Assad, drawing a not-so-subtle distinction between its doubling down on the Syrian president and the U.S. withdrawal of support for Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. The Kremlin’s intervention in Syria also demonstrated not just its determination but its capacity to thwart what Moscow sees as the United States’ tendency to encourage “color revolutions,” and to contest American primacy in a region where Soviet influence was once widespread. Finally, by making itself indispensable in Syria and in negotiations with Iran, Moscow helped avoid comprehensive diplomatic and economic isolation as a result of its invasions of Georgia and Ukraine.
THE EXPANSION of China’s role in the Middle East has been less noted than Russia’s, yet over time may prove more comprehensive. In February 2011, Chinese military officials made an announcement that represented a historic first for their country. The frigate Xuzhou, previously deployed to the Gulf of Aden for antipiracy operations, was redirected to the shores of Libya to support the evacuation of thirty-five thousand Chinese nationals fleeing the war there. This represented not only China’s first major expeditionary naval operation in modern times, but also saw its first use of long-range military transport aircraft for humanitarian purposes.
It was the sort of thing the United States has done many times over, but for China it hinted at newfound power, and even had a tincture of drama—three thousand Chinese workers reportedly proved their identity at a checkpoint by singing their national anthem in unison. Chinese ships helped evacuate non-Chinese nationals from Libya, and its navy later reprised the operation in Yemen. The episode undoubtedly demonstrated to Chinese leaders the utility of forward-deployed naval assets, which have long been employed by the United States and other global powers. It may also have helped influence their subsequent decision to establish China’s first overseas naval base in Djibouti, an installation that may ultimately house up to ten thousand military personnel.
In a pattern long followed by emerging powers, Chinese troops and sailors arrive in the Middle East behind a flow of capital, traders and workers. Trade between China and the Middle East has risen by more than 600 percent in the past decade to $230 billion in 2014. Beijing’s thirst for energy has made it more dependent on Middle Eastern supplies; currently, more than half of Chinese oil imports come from the Gulf. Chinese investment in the Middle East totaled more than $10 billion between 2006 and 2013, and on his January trip to the region, Xi Jinping pledged an additional $55 billion in investment and loans. In addition, Beijing’s “One Belt One Road” initiative aims to build infrastructure for land and maritime routes from China through Central Asia and the Middle East and on to Europe.
China’s expanding economic interests and security activism have prompted a broader look at the region as a strategic opportunity for Beijing. And Iran may prove central to those plans. In 2010, Chinese fighter jets refueling in Iran became the first foreign warplanes to do so since 1979. Chinese naval vessels have paid port calls in Iran. President Xi Jinping became the first world leader to visit Iran after the nuclear deal, and used the opportunity to announce a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with Tehran. Their defense officials have vowed to expand cooperation.
Tehran and Beijing share a desire to see the emergence of a regional and global order less dominated by the United States, and closer ties allow them to collaborate with each other and third countries (including Russia) toward this end. Iran was a founding member of the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and is an observer of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Iran is also the only country on the Gulf littoral not allied with the United States, and the only one that presents a straightforward land route to China—both key to reducing the vulnerability of Chinese energy supplies during a military contingency. For China, Iran is not merely a Middle Eastern partner, but the western terminus of a string of burgeoning relationships that includes the proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as well as China’s increasing security role in Afghanistan.
Chinese interests stretch beyond Iran, however. Throughout the region, it has performed a delicate balancing act and sought to cultivate good relations with everyone—Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others—simultaneously. Even as China has proclaimed “noninterference” in an effort to stay out of the region’s conflicts, in recent years it has become far more proactive. Beijing has not only appointed a special envoy for the Syria crisis, but clearly taken sides: it joined with Russia to veto numerous U.S.-sponsored UN Security Council resolutions on Syria, sent defense officials to Damascus and has even reportedly provided limited military assistance to the Assad regime.
Beijing has ramped up its activity in other areas as well. It released an “Arab policy paper” in January 2016 that articulated a vision for Sino-Arab relations, including political cooperation, investments and social-development projects. Chinese diplomats became increasingly involved in the P5+1 talks as they progressed, and went from vocally supporting the Palestinian cause during the Arafat era to cultivating close relations with Israel and adopting a relatively conventional approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today. In December 2015, China passed legislation permitting its military forces to conduct counterterrorism operations overseas; while it did not specifically designate the Middle East, the law could pave the way for future interventions focused on jihadist groups linked to terrorism in China.