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The new Great Game of alliances in the Middle East

Traditional adversaries in the Middle East come together in a bid to reorder the region’s balance of power.

November 20, 2019 - Cyrille Bret - Articles and Commentary

Russian military aircraft at Khmeimim Air Base, near Latakia, Syria. Photo: Russian Ministry of Defence (cc) wikimedia.org

Provisionally cemented by the fight against ISIS, alliance networks in the Middle East are now reconfiguring themselves quickly. The Turkish offensive in Syria launched on October 8th has accelerated this new Great Game of leagues and agreements: former enemies are uniting (the Kurds and Syrian government forces, Israel and Saudi Arabia) and historical allies are clashing (Turkey and the United States).

In this competition for influence, the United States is losing ground while Russia is gaining momentum. The last Putin-Erdogan summit in Sochi highlighted the central role played by Russia in the regional balance of power. The Russian president is claiming the role of moderator between his Syrian ally Assad and his Turkish friend Erdogan.

The Trump presidency is losing its credibility in the region, even among its historical allies like Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The winners are still to be named, but the losers are already known: the United States and their European allies.

United States regional alliances in tatters

The network of historical alliances with the United States is deteriorating significantly.

With Saudi Arabia, the disagreement has been growing since the Obama administration. The gap widened during the Mohammad Bin Salman era with the blockade of Qatar and the war in Yemen.

With Turkey, tension is at its height, even though the country has been a historical pillar of NATO since 1952. The Erdogan presidency prefers a lone rider strategy based upon neo-Ottoman nostalgia and Sunni Islam. Solidarity with the Atlantic Alliance is only a façade to the point that voices are rising to demand Turkey’s exclusion from NATO. Ankara has even defied Washington by acquiring Russian S-400 anti-aircraft batteries, despite the Trump administration’s threats. Throughout the region, the United States presidency has weakened the word of the United States by abandoning the Kurds once again. As for the Europeans, they are still exposed to “refugee blackmail” by Turkey. Their traditional allies, always welcoming to European funds, seek further support when strategic issues become hot.

The days of the precarious sacred anti-IS union around the United States are over: they have given way to a Middle East where western alliances are criticised or even ousted. As for transatlantic solidarity in the region, it is being undermined by the United States President’s criticism of the European Union and by the Erdogan regime in Turkey.

Historic alliances in reconstruction

By intervening in Syria in September 2015, Russia revived an alliance sealed in the 1970s between the USSR and Hafez al-Assad. Its objectives were clear: to preserve an ally and a very old client; to regain aerial and naval bases in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea (particularly in Tartus); to counter the United States presence in Iraq, Israel, Jordan and Turkey; and to demonstrate its operational capabilities away from its borders. This unequal alliance with the Assad regime has restored Russia’s credit in the region by emphasising its loyalty to its allies, a stark contrast to the United States.

Russia has rebuilt a much larger network of allies. With Iran active in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, Russia has secured a solid bond in order to preserve the nuclear deal of July 2015, to counter American influence in Iraq, and to combat he Sunni Islamism of Mesopotamia in the Caucasus. The Iran-Russia alliance is not immune to rivalries in the Caspian, but the Rouhani presidency has largely based its diplomacy upon co-operation with Moscow.

The so-called “Moscow-Damascus-Tehran axis” is not to be overestimated. It has its gaps and its tensions. But it has become so attractive in the region that it has created a negotiating format on the crisis in Syria. It has even attracted Sunni Turkey, which is a rival to Damascus and Tehran. This rapprochement is precarious, as shown by the Syrian army’s opposition to the Turkish offensive in recent days. But these powers are trying to make their divergent interests coexist, year after year, under the auspices of Russia. Without the Westerners. Or should I say against them?

Unlikely alliances in the making

The Brownian movement of regional alliances is so powerful that it even leads to rapprochements that would have seemed unnatural and even unthinkable.

Among these paradoxical alliances is the discreet rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia. In the Syrian furnace, these traditional rivals have been carrying discreet but regular cooperation to counter Iran’s regional strategy. Engaged in a cold (and hot) war in Yemen while wary of Washington and less supported by the United Arab Emirates, the Saudi kingdom seeks Israeli support to curb Iranian activism in the area. This is well suited to an isolated State of Israel whose relations with Turkey are uncertain.

Saudi Arabia has been linked to the Americans since World War II and the famous Quincy Pact established between Roosevelt and the founder of the Saudi Kingdom. Yet the Kingdom has launched a series of initiatives towards Russia, including official cross-visits between S-400 exporters to Saudi Arabia. Traditional Saudi networks in Washington and Abu Dhabi are no longer enough. Saudi Arabia is now seeking Russian support for its foreign policy.

The Middle East is undergoing a major and quick strategic reshaping. On the one hand, the historical alliances of the United States are unravelling. On the other hand, the old regional empires (Russia, Turkey and Iran) seek to oust them by (re)building networks of precarious solidarity. As for Russia, it is making a massive return to the region and extending its alliance networks to local enemies. The question now is whether Russia will be able to hold opposing allies like Syria and Turkey, and Iran and Saudi Arabia into the same network. In this contemporary Great Game, Westerners are already the obvious losers.

Cyrille Bret, PhD: current Associate Professor at the Higher Institute for Political Studies (Paris, France) and Director for Development of the Naval Group. Alumnus of Sorbonne University, the National Defence Academy of France, Moscow State University, and the National School of Government of France. He has worked in various positions, both in the public and the private sector. He is the creator of the site EurAsia Prospective, which contributes to the European geopolitical debates.

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