The Middle East adjusts to US retreat
Sep 17, 2021 | Amotz Asa-El
“The military mission is over,” said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken after announcing in the same breath: “We will lead with our diplomacy.”
Following the last American aircraft’s departure from Kabul’s Hamid Karzai Airport on August 31, diplomats and scholars agree that the retreat represents much more than one great power’s one retreat from one arena.
The global spread of the American military was unlike that of any empire in history.
With some 800 bases in some 150 countries, including 200,000 troops overseas, as well as 11 aircraft carriers sailing the high seas – equal to the rest of the world’s total carriers – America spends US$770 billion (~A$1.044 trillion) annually on defence, more than the next five military powers combined.
The size and scope of this spending have come into question, not only in terms of affordability, but also in terms of efficiency.
Yes, the end of the Cold War left the US as the world’s sole superpower, a role that underpinned, and initially seemed to serve, democracy’s sudden spread worldwide. However, since then it has emerged that America and its allies face a new global enemy, Islamist terror, whose threat requires a different type of answer than the Soviet military challenge required during the Cold War.
This, in a nutshell, is the meaning of America’s Afghan misadventure, and of what transpired since the September 11 attacks which triggered it.
The American retreat began with Barak Obama’s pullout from Iraq in 2011, which later had to be partially reversed given the rise of the Islamic State, and included Donald Trump’s withdrawal of most American troops from northern Syria in autumn of 2019.
In Trump’s case, the retreat was part of isolationist rhetoric that suggested the potential closure of long-standing American bases in countries like Germany, Korea and Japan. That didn’t happen, but Trump’s “America First” slogan indeed is seemingly being applied in the Middle East.
America’s Arab allies first began suspecting the future of US regional commitment in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring which began in 2010.
US President Barack Obama’s demand in 2011 that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak heed demonstrators’ demands and step down was seen by Arab elites throughout the region as a betrayal. Obama’s failure to make a similar demand of the leaders of non-Arab Iran when they faced similar protests in 2009 raised further questions about America’s long-term reliability as an ally.
In Egypt’s case the result was sharp, and quick. When the Islamist regime that succeeded Mubarak was removed by General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi in 2013, the new President’s first overseas trip was to Moscow. That alone was a slap in the face to Uncle Sam, following 35 years of a close alliance that included US$1.5 billion (A$2.04 billion) in annual aid.
Sisi’s flirtation with Moscow then proceeded from diplomacy to arms. He signed a deal to buy Russian anti-aircraft missile systems, the first time in more than 40 years that the Egyptian military had bought Russian (or Soviet) hardware.
That arms deal has led to further cooperation, including a Russian promise to build a nuclear reactor in Egypt, an Egyptian purchase of Russian fighter jets, and an agreement to let the Russian air force use Egyptian airbases. These Egyptian moves came despite protests at the time from the Trump Administration.
The Egyptian saga thus demonstrates both the regional perception of American departure, and Russia’s quick arrival to attempt to fill the vacuum left behind.
The same dynamic occurred in Syria. Though its military was never an American client, Damascus could not ignore Washington’s clout at a time when US local allies dominated the Middle East after the Soviet Union vanished. Damascus therefore tried to get closer to the US.
Russia, however, was still around, and was merely waiting for the right moment to stage an imperial comeback. That moment came in late 2015.
Having witnessed America’s failure to deliver on its warning to punish Syria if it used chemical weapons against its people, Russia concluded that Syria was now ripe for Moscow’s return.
With incredible speed, Russia built an airbase in western Syria, and immediately filled it with fighter bombers, pilots, and maintenance staff. America did not respond. Russia then used that airbase to intervene in the Syrian civil war and decide the outcome in favour of the Assad regime.
Faced with this combination of American retreat and Russian penetration, the rest of the region’s powers have had to reassess their respective strategic situations.
Turkey was slow to recognise Russia’s growing role, but came to understand it in 2015, after the Turkish air force downed a Russian jet that entered Turkish air space. The Russian response – sanctions which affected Turkish income from tourism and agricultural exports – led President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Moscow where he humbly apologised to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The pair have since been consistently coordinating and harmonising their efforts in the region, leading pundits to believe that Erdogan serves Putin’s grander imperial agenda by weakening his country’s place in the West in general and in NATO in particular.
For Turkey, Russian sympathy proved priceless when Ankara invaded northern Syria with tacit Russian approval at the expense of the local Kurds who had been protected by US troops.
Russia’s resolve to restore the former Soviet Union’s sway across the Middle East became particularly visible at the trilateral meetings Moscow hosted with Turkey and Iran in order to coordinate their activities in Syria, while also exploring a joint redesign of the country following Bashar Assad’s victory in its civil war.
Now the Afghan retreat further accelerates America’s gathering withdrawal.
Dramatic though this transition has been, from an Israeli viewpoint it has so far been manageable, and will likely remain so.
Israel was quick to grasp, and show its respect for, Russia’s new role in the region. In a meeting in the Kremlin in September 2015, then-Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu agreed with President Putin to establish a coordination and deconfliction mechanism between the Russian and Israeli air forces with regard to their respective activities in Syria.
Over the subsequent six years, the two militaries have indeed generally stayed out of each other’s way, even while Israeli aircraft repeatedly targeted Iranian installations, including ones reportedly shielded by the Syrian army.
At the same time, the quest to reduce American military spending abroad is not expected to meaningfully affect Israel. American aid to Israel currently rests on a ten-year deal that runs through 2028. The deal is strongly in America’s interest, as it commits Israel to use almost all the aid to purchase American weaponry, even when there are comparable Israeli weapons systems available.
In terms of its size, the annual US$3.8 billion (~A$5.1 billion) Israel receives from the US is less than 1% of Israel’s GDP. Israel would likely be able to afford a reduction or even disappearance of this aid should the gathering American retreat from the Middle East lead to such a decision in Washington.
Moreover, unlike many other American allies, including Australia, Israel is not home to any American military bases, in line with an Israeli military doctrine, formulated by David Ben-Gurion, which says the Jewish state must never rely on foreign troops to defend itself.
On the diplomatic front, it is notable that even when the US was the world’s sole superpower, its efforts to deliver peace between Israel and its main Arab enemies, the Palestinians and Syria, failed. By the same token, even as its regional retreat was already well under way, Washington successfully brokered peace and normalisation deals between Israel and four Arab states last year.
It follows that, while the American retreat and the Russian resurgence are two Middle Eastern trends that appear to be here to stay, their consequences are unpredictable. That is particularly true with respect to the region’s most explosive actor – Iran.
As Middle Eastern paradoxes go, the Islamic Republic may actually be on the losing side of the “Great Satan’s” departure from Afghanistan, since the Sunni jihadist Taliban and the Shi’ite Ayatollahs, who share a 920 km border, are enemies overall – despite some limited cooperation in recent years.
Iran will therefore have to face the new radical Sunni Islamist government to its east in Kabul by itself – at a time when Iran’s own oppressed Sunni Muslim minority has been particularly restive. It’s almost as if Teheran was now being told by Washington what others in the region think they have been hearing from the US for the better part of a decade – you’re on your own now.
On the other hand, the US retreat from Afghanistan is considered by Islamist terrorists as proof that relentless jihad against the West always eventually emerges victorious and hence is the solution to all problems. Iran’s newly installed and fiercely anti-Western leadership in all likelihood concurs.