Viewpoint by Manish Rai
NEW DELHI (IDN) – American forces have started withdrawing their equipment from Syria as part of President Donald Trump’s order in December to pull out from Northwest Syria. President Trump announced that they are withdrawing because, in his view, the Islamic State has been defeated.
Though, 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 is ceding its traditional dominance in the Middle East. This kind of abrupt American pull out strengthens the view, increasingly pervasive in the Middle East, that the U.S. 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, a large regional concern for the U.S., is successfully strengthening and creating its own proxy forces against the U.S. and its allies.
As far as Russia is concerned, 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 in October 2017.
The Emir of Qatar unexpectedly flew to Moscow to meet with Putin on the eve of his visit to Washington in March 2018. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, a close U.S. ally, declined an invitation to Washington last spring, diplomats say. However, he travelled to Moscow in May 2018, his seventh trip in five years there, signing a “strategic partnership” agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Most recently, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi made his fourth visit to Russia in October 2018, 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.
The National published in Abu Dhabi commented: “With Mr Obama gone and Donald Trump now in the White House, the two nations are close again, but with a key difference – Egypt is just as close to Russia and their bond is likely to grow stronger.
“Unlike the U.S., Russia is not offering Egypt the nearly $2 billion in annual military and economic aid that Washington has been handing out since the 1970s. Moscow’s embassy is nowhere near as large as that of the Americans, with hundreds of diplomats and administrators stationed in a high-rise that sits on vast grounds with surrounding streets closed off to traffic and sealed by concrete blast barriers — something that has long been viewed by many Egyptians as a distasteful symbol of U.S. influence.
“More importantly, Egypt sees in Russia a reliable and consistent ally that is indifferent or unwilling to follow the West’s example and criticise its human rights record, seen by Cairo as unwarranted meddling in its domestic affairs.
“Cairo and Moscow’s closeness is best seen in President El Sisi’s four visits to Russia since taking office in 2014.”
All these high-level visits from the greater Middle East to Moscow convey one unambiguous message, namely that U.S. allies are acknowledging Russia as an important power in the region. If the U.S. takes all this sitting back, 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 U.S. forces in Iraq. Now Iran is using this strategy on U.S. allies in the region, most notably against Israel. Iran has strengthened Hezbollah and Hamas against the Jewish state by equipping them with sophisticated rocket and missile capabilities.
Furthermore, Iran is preparing a third front against Israel in Syria which can be used by the Iranian elite Quds force – a unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards directed to carry out unconventional warfare and intelligence activities and responsible for extraterritorial operations – 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. ally, the ruling Al Khalifa family. 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. [IDN-InDepthNews – 20 January 2019]
Photo: Commenting the latest, fourth meeting between President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in October 2018, Abu Dhabi newspaper commented: “Egypt sees in Russia a reliable and consistent ally…” Source: Egypt Today.
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