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Russia could fill American void in Middle East relations

February 3, 2014 at 10:42 am

Washington’s relationship with some of its main allies in the Middle East is going through a critical time; nearly all have enough motives to reassess the nature of their links. Judging by the confident behaviour in some Arab capitals it seems that many of them are looking to escape from America’s grip.

One of the more obvious examples of strained relations with the US is that with Saudi Arabia, which is down to two issues: Syria and Iran. The government in Riyadh can no longer hide its concerns after Washington’s take on Syria’s chemical weapons and Iran’s nuclear programme. Every time the US Secretary of State goes to Geneva to meet with the Russians or Iranians, warning sirens go off in the Saudi capital and officials discuss the country’s options in the immediate future; they include diversifying alliances, weapons, maps and the oil trade.

The crisis in Egypt preceded the crisis in Saudi Arabia for officials in Cairo were greatly concerned about America’s seemingly pro-Morsi (and pro-Muslim Brotherhood) attitude, which denounced the coup. Although America’s position on the events in Egypt has been changing gradually, this has not prevented the coup government from revaluating and diversifying its alliances. This sudden change in the political current has led Egypt to align itself with Russia; this would not have been possible were it not for the tension in the Egypt-US relationship. It is also evident that there have been talks between Egypt and Saudi Arabia and that an agreement has been made in which Saudi Arabia will bankroll Egyptian arms purchases.

There are also signs of a worsening relationship between Turkey and the United States thanks to the Obama administration ignoring Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s call for military intervention against the Assad regime. Due to tension arising from a lack of consensus regarding the proposed Geneva II conference as well as Washington’s discomfort with Turkish support for Jihadist groups and lack of firm control over its borders, Ankara is also reorienting itself by creating new alliances in the region. In fact, Turkey is set to be the first NATO member to buy weapons from China. It is also working tirelessly to restore its relationships with Tehran and Baghdad in its attempt to re-establish its strategic regional position.

As for Iraq, America lost five thousand soldiers and hundreds of billions of dollars in freeing the country from Saddam Hussein’s grip and trying to make it the “gateway to the new Middle East”. Yet, despite all of America’s efforts, Iraq is now being held tightly in Iran’s grip, whose zone of influence is beyond America’s reach. Many analysts are calling this the “axis of resistance and opposition”. Iraq will now be used to achieve Iran’s strategic interests in the region without the latter having to pay a single dollar or shed a single drop of Iranian blood. This is the new Iraq and it is most likely that it will soon begin talking about creating new alliances and finding new sources for weapons. In fact, Prime Minister Al-Maliki himself led talks on the prospect of buying arms from Russia.

Even Washington’s relationship with Tel Aviv seems to be shaky at the moment, especially considering America’s anti-settlement position. In its newest campaign, Israel’s Hebrew-language media has been making derogatory references to US Secretary of State John Kerry, calling him an “ignorant and stupid minister”. There also seems to be a widening gap between the two allies because of the peace process on one hand and the Iranian nuclear file on the other. It is not yet clear how Israel will act in the light of these changes. According to the Israelis, America is giving Iran strategic advances free of charge, which has not only angered them but also some of America’s other allies.

With the exception of Israel, at least for now, America’s largest and most strategic alliances are very strained. This leaves a void that many of the region’s leaders seek to fill by diversifying their alliances as well as finding alternative arms sources. This gives Russia and, to a lesser extent, China the perfect opportunity to become a key player in the Middle East after more than forty years of absence and the stagnation of the Brezhnev era, the passing of the Perestroika period and Boris Yeltsin’s rule.