WILL WASHINGTON RE­LIN­QUISH THE MID­DLE EAST TO MOSCOW?

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, which is still com­plet­ing its first year, has so far not pro­duced any re­sult other than con­sol­i­dat­ing Moscow in the Mid­dle East

Daily Sabah (Turkey) - - Front Page - BURHANETTiN DU­RAN

THE TRUMP ad­min­is­tra­tion, which is about to com­plete its first year, has so far not pro­duced any re­sult other than con­sol­i­dat­ing Moscow’s in­flu­ence in the re­gion

Iknow that the an­swer to the ques­tion in the ti­tle is no. None­the­less, Moscow has en­tered a new phase in terms of fill­ing the large gaps Washington left in the re­gion. Be­gin­ning with Rus­sia’s di­rect in­ter­ven­tion in the Syr­ian cri­sis in 2015, this process has evolved into Moscow’s strat­e­gy­driven rap­proche­ments with regional forces.

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin was in Ankara last week for talks to cre­ate de-es­ca­la­tion zones in Idlib. Aside from that, it was al­ready an­nounced that Rus­sia would sup­ply Turkey with S-400 air de­fense mis­sile sys­tems. Known for his close co­op­er­a­tion with Iran in Syria, Putin hosted Saudi King Sal­man last Thursday, which marked the first of­fi­cial visit of a Saudi monarch to Rus­sia. It has been ar­gued that this four-day visit opened new hori­zons in Rus­sianSaudi re­la­tions. Saudi Crown Prince Mo­ham­mad bin Sal­man’s pre­vi­ous vis­its re­stored re­la­tions that were strained since the Soviet in­va­sion of Afghanistan. Un­doubt­edly, the Putin-Sal­man meet­ing did not solely fo­cus on global oil prices and in­vest­ments. Riyadh as­serts that the re­la­tions be­tween Rus­sia and Saudi Ara­bia have reached a his­toric mo­ment. The pur­chase of S-400 sys­tems and the regional se­cu­rity is­sues in­clud­ing the sit­u­a­tion in Ye­men have also been in the scope of the co­op­er­a­tion. It is not hard to pre­dict that the U.S. will be dis­turbed by this visit and Saudi Ara­bia pur­chas­ing the S-400s fol­low­ing Turkey. But the main is­sue is not the close al­lies of the U.S. pur­chas­ing S-400 from Rus­sia. This is only one of many in­di­ca­tors of a new process that is grad­u­ally get­ting more ap­par­ent. Moscow not only hosts the lead­ers of Egypt, Jor­dan, Is­rael, Turkey and Saudi Ara­bia, but also es­tab­lishes co­op­er­a­tion with Iran, Turkey and Saudi Ara­bia in terms of de­fense and mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions de­spite all these coun­tries com­pet­ing with each other. This means more than fill­ing the gaps left by the U.S. In this sense, it can be con­tended that Moscow is ad­vanc­ing to­ward es­tab­lish­ing a new bal­ance of power.

Still, Moscow’s cur­rent po­si­tion in the re­gion can­not be ar­gued to form a new or­der or a cen­ter­line, and the coun­try does not have such a mo­ti­va­tion. To put it oth­er­wise, Rus­sia does not have to pur­sue a grand and con­sis­tent strat­egy in the Mid­dle East, as it can main­tain sub­ject-spe­cific and tac­ti­cal re­la­tions with the ri­val forces in the re­gion.

For Rus­sia, max­i­miz­ing its own eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal in­ter­ests is suf­fi­cient for the time be­ing. Putin cre­ated this new pic­ture with the lim­ited mil­i­tary force he em­ployed in Syria and the sales of mis­sile sys­tems. Ul­ti­mately, he man­aged to take part in the power bal­ances in the re­gion as an ef­fec­tive ac­tor. The ad­min­is­tra­tion cri­sis suf­fered by the U.S. also has a ma­jor role in Moscow’s ris­ing in­flu­ence in the Mid­dle East to an ex­tent. For­mer U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s Rus­sia pol­icy was based on im­pos­ing sanc­tions, keep­ing oil prices low and a sort of loose diplo­matic iso­la­tion. This pol­icy had failed even dur­ing Obama’s terms. Obama, who could not stop the an­nex­a­tion of Crimea, could not un­der­mine Rus­sia through oil prices, caus­ing Rus­sia to be­come the most crit­i­cal agent in Syria.

The nu­clear agree­ment with Iran did noth­ing but upset the Gulf coun­tries. Still grap­pling with do­mes­tic is­sues, cur­rent U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is far from build­ing a new Mid­dle East pol­icy. With his dis­course of re­strict­ing Iran and can­celling the nu­clear agree­ment, Trump broad­ened Rus­sia’s ma­neu­ver­abil­ity even more. Not hav­ing met the sup­port they ex­pected to see from Trump in the con­text of the Qatar cri­sis, the Gulf coun­tries leaned to­ward act­ing with Putin in or­der to set a bal­ance and avert los­ing Moscow to Tehran. Iran is known to be among the for­eign pol­icy pri­or­i­ties for the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. And I do not agree with the view sug­gest­ing that the U.S. is less in­ter­ested in the re­gion’s pol­i­tics since it has ended its de­pen­dence on Mid­dle East­ern oil by fo­cus­ing on gas and oil re­sources from shale. Al­though Washington’s long-term fo­cus seems to be the Pa­cific re­gion, it will not pos­si­bly re­treat from the Mid­dle East in the short run. So, a su­per­power that has troops and mil­i­tary bases in many Mid­dle East­ern coun­tries from Afghanistan to Syria has been in a de­cline that is not com­pat­i­ble with its strong pres­ence in the re­gion. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, which is about to com­plete its first year, has not so far pro­duced any re­sult other than con­sol­i­dat­ing Moscow in the re­gion.

A bill­board shows Pres­i­dents Trump and Putin, Danilov­grad, Mon­tene­gro, Nov. 16, 2016.

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