Throughout his eight-year tenure, President Barack Obama has repeatedly depicted his policy toward the Middle East as one of disengagement. But that has been a mischaracterization. In fact Obama has been more involved in Mideast politics than previous American presidents, only on a different side than his predecessors.
When Obama says that America has no interest in intervening in a millennia-old conflict between the different factions of Islam, his statement hides the fact that – throughout his presidency – he has had his thumb on the scale, often tilting it towards Shia Iran, at the expense of America’s more traditional Sunni allies.
When Iranians took to the streets en masse in 2009 to protest election results, in what came to be known as the Green Revolution, Obama not only stood by and showed no support for Iranian democracy, but secretly sent Tehran messages of American neutrality, perhaps hoping to win favour with Iranian leaders, seeking them as America’s future regional partners.
By the same token, when Syrians took to the streets to demand an end to 40 years of Bashar al-Assad’s autocracy, Obama dragged his feet before expressing half-hearted support to Syrians demanding change. When he did, Obama still could not bring himself to say that Assad should leave. Instead, the U.S. president could only ask Assad to “step out of the way” of reform.
Ironically, Obama was quick to throw America’s lot behind demonstrators when it came to America’s Sunni allies. The White House called on former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down “today, and by today we mean yesterday,” after Mubarak refused to leave power despite popular rallies in the streets of Cairo. Obama was also quick to throw America’s Sunni allies in Lebanon and Iraq under the bus.
The same Obama pattern could be detected in Turkey, where Washington was quick to make friends with Iraqi and Syrian Kurds, even the ones that Ankara classifies as enemies.
With Donald Trump succeeding Obama, American influence in the Middle East will further decline. This is mainly because, after America under Obama broke with its traditional Sunni allies, America under Trump is certainly going to break with its new Shia friends. Without old Sunni allies or new Shia friends, American presence in the Middle East will recede to pre-1956 levels, when Washington took over the imperial helm from London.
With America’s role in the Middle East receding, the region will undergo major shifts. Few can predict what the world’s most volatile region will look like after America, but we do have some clues.
Iran is the first contender to fill the post-American gap, with Russia a close second. The two nations have so far toed a similar policy of “defending Middle Eastern minorities,” that is Shias and Christians, against “terrorists,” a word that means – in Iranian and Russian lingo – the Sunni majority.
Yet such a skewed arrangement is hard to sustain, especially given that Iran and Russia – even though they seem to be in harmony – are themselves jockeying for the leading role in the Middle East. Moscow seems to have been under the false impression that it can put Tehran under its wing. When news broke of Russian bombers taking off from Iranian airbases for bombing runs over Syria, Iran rushed to stop this, which showed that the Russian-Iranian alliance has been tenuous, and not as enduring as some perceive it to be.
Russia might have also seen some Iranian weakness, and fighting incompetence, on the ground. Despite the billions of dollars of Iranian money that Washington unfroze as a reward for Tehran’s ratification of a nuclear accord, Iranian militias in Iraq and Syria have not shown significant prowess. Their advancement against Sunni groups has been slow, arduous, and – at times – reversible.
When Iran deployed its top militia commander, Qassem Soleimani, to Moscow to seek Russian help, the Iranians promised swift results if Russians offered air cover. Yet despite the enormous firepower that both Russia and America brought, in support of Iranian militias, in Syria and Iraq respectively, pro-Iran fighters still face trouble regaining territory.
Another problem for Russia has been Iran’s unwillingness to share. Iran wants to win Syria with Russia, but wants to keep Syria under Tehran’s exclusive control, a plan that has raised Russian eyebrows, and has probably made the Russians withhold air cover in some battles in Syria, according to pro-Iranian media sites.
In return, whenever Russia announced cease-fires, whether jointly with America or with Turkey, the Iranians have been keen to let truces fail, perhaps to signal to Moscow, and the world, that the Iranians were the only bosses on Syrian territory.
Iran’s bumpy partnership with Russia, coupled with America’s distancing itself from its traditional allies, like Turkey, has reshuffled the deck. As Turkey was forced to deploy its forces inside Syria, Ankara found itself face-to-face with Russia in an unhappy alliance with Iran. Because Ankara is looking for friends to replace Washington and Moscow is seeking allies instead of the unreliable Tehran, it was only normal for the Turks and Russians to find themselves “together in the same ditch.”
The rising Turkish-Russian friendship, which seems to be eclipsing both the Turkish-American and Russian-Iranian alliances, is now redefining the Middle East, post-America.
While Trump is expected to emerge as a friend of both Turkey and Russia, and a sworn enemy of Iran, America is not expected to soon regain its past leadership in the Middle East. If anything, America may join the Turkish-Russian partnership as a junior ally. It may take Washington a long time to navigate its own domestic trouble, before it regains its balance and its unique ability to project power globally.
Now that the Obama presidency is drawing to a close, it may be a good time to assess his foreign policy. At first glance, it seems that Obama tried to experiment with replacing America’s traditional allies with Iran. Results, as seen in Syria and Iraq, have been poor, to say the least. If Iran finds itself outmanoeuvred by Turkey and Russia, it might try to reinforce its friendship with America, but only to find its friend in Washington, Obama, gone and replaced by a bitter enemy, Trump.
As Turkey and Russia start redefining a post-American Middle East, both Iran and America might try to get back in. Iran has evidently been trying to undermine the Turkish-Russian peace effort in Syria. For its part, America – under Trump – is still an unknown factor. Time will tell how Trump will proceed, if at all, in the Middle East.