Middle East connections

By John Ubaldi
Contributor, In Homeland Security

For decades, the United States was the preeminent power broker in the Middle East. But in the past few years, that role has changed.

On August 2, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov met with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Jaberi Ansari and his Iraqi counterpart, Nizar Khairallah. This three-nation meeting in Moscow was convened to discuss the future of Syria and how to effectively deal with threats from Islamic extremist organizations.

Russia now has a foothold in the Middle East. That is the result of President Obama’s failure to enforce his famous “red line,” which threatened military action if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad moved or used chemical weapons.

Al-Assad called Obama’s bluff and the U.S. failed to follow through on its threat. That signaled a U.S. lack of resolve to the region’s leaders.

In 2013, then-Secretary of State John Kerry made an off-handed suggestion. Kerry said the Syrian regime could avoid a military strike if al-Assad surrendered all of his chemical weapons. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov then seized on Kerry’s remark and proposed that all Syrian chemical weapons be placed under international control.

Russia Becomes a Middle East Power Broker

Moscow immediately entered the fray in Syria and became a major power broker in the Middle East. That change indicated to our allies and adversaries that the U.S. was a declining power in the region, while Russia was an ascending power.   

Other inactions by the Obama administration and the President’s philosophy of “leading from behind” allowed Moscow to gain further influence in the region.

“Defensive or not, Russia’s return to the Middle East has proved a stunning, sudden success — and a setback to American power and prestige,” journalists Owen Matthews, Jack Moore and Damien Sharkoc wrote in the February 9, 2017, issue of Newsweek.

They go on to say: “Up until recently, the U.S. had no real diplomatic or military rival in the Middle East. Now, as Trump begins his presidency with promises of wiping out ISIS, there are Russian planes in the air and troops on the ground in Syria; battleships off the coast of Libya; and Moscow’s friends occupy — or are in line to occupy — presidential palaces from Tripoli to Damascus. Any time Trump makes a move in the Middle East, he’ll have to ask himself: What will Putin think of this? No other recent American president had that problem.”

Lebanese Prime Minister Is Dismayed by US Inaction

When Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri visited the United States in July, he criticized America’s Middle East strategy, according to a July 31 Politico article by Susan B. Glasser. Hariri said, “The unfortunate consequence of not acting…has been Russia’s restoration as a regional heavyweight, the resurrection of Bashar Assad’s bloody regime in Syria and the failure to produce an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.”

Iran on the Rise across the Middle East

The United States not only now has to deal with Russia in the Middle East, but Iran as well. Russia and Iran have partnered for different reasons, but with the singular focus of replacing the U.S. as the dominate power broker in the region.

The Iran nuclear deal further emboldened Iran and complicated regional stability. Obama was fixated on obtaining a nuclear agreement, while ignoring Tehran’s continued influence throughout the Middle East.

The nuclear agreement signed by President Obama in 2015 gave Iran billions of dollars and removed some crippling economic sanctions. These sanctions were the impetus for Tehran to come to the negotiating table in the first place.

With billions in additional revenue and with sanctions lifted, Iran was able to stabilize al-Assad’s leadership. Iran also was able to provide much-needed economic revenue to Hezbollah, Tehran’s proxy terrorist organization in the Lebanese government.

Iran Deepens Its Influence inside Iraq

During the past few years, Tehran has solidified its reach inside Iraq. Iran has filled the Iraqi power vacuum left by the United States’ premature withdrawal in 2011.

In the Politico interview, Hariri called Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech inspirational, but lacking substance. Many Arab leaders opposed President George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, he said. “

[T]hey were also strongly against the 2011 American pullout of Iraq during Obama’s presidency, a withdrawal that many in the region believe left a dangerous power vacuum eventually filled by the rise of the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria.”

Now, as the Trump administration begins to contemplate life after the Islamic State, the U.S. has to contend with an Iran that is fully involved at all levels of the Iraqi government. Tehran can now send economic, military, political and logistical support through a corridor that extends from Tehran to Bagdad, through Damascus, and even to the Lebanese capital of Beirut.

Middle East Unsure about US Strategy toward Iran

Many people in the region believe the U.S. is too fixated on Iran’s nuclear capability. The Sunni nations share Washington’s deep concern, having been against this deal from the beginning. The Sunnis have wanted the United States to show more strength in circumventing Iran’s regional ambitions.

Right now, the Sunni majority nations are looking for clarity from Washington. President Trump’s visit to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in May and his subsequent meeting with over 50 Sunni Arab and Muslim leaders was a step in the right direction for many in attendance. So far, they appear to prefer Trump to Obama. They remember his tough stance toward Iran when he served as Commander of the U.S. Central Command.

Whatever direction and strategy the United States takes in future with regard to the Middle East, Washington must take Russia and Iran into consideration. Trump needs to realize that Moscow and Tehran’s ultimate goal is to remove the U.S. from the region or at least neutralize its ability to act as a power broker there ever again.