The US attempt to reduce its security obligations in the wider Middle East, and the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, have contributed to the latter understanding.

by Md. Mudassir Quamara

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has sparked a frenzy of debates and discussions on various issues in international politics and global affairs. There are articulations that this could lead to a third world war if the domino effect creates alliances and blocs ready to face a military confrontation. At this point, it seems far-fetched, as the US and NATO have indicated their readiness to join the war. In addition, there are questions about the international order. There are suggestions that Russia and China, along with other like-minded or witchy countries, will challenge the US-dominated post-Cold War world order.

This assessment is based on China’s economic rise, Russia’s resurgence in international politics and a “perpetual decline” of US and European powers. The US is seeking to reduce its security obligations in the wider Middle East, and the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 has added to the latest understanding. But this begs the question of whether the US is a declining power or whether it is shifting focus to the Indo-Pacific to contain China.

The premise that the US is in “perpetual decline” in the Middle East is false. Even the idea that the US is no longer interested, willing or able to dominate the regional order in the Middle East is questionable. Indeed, the Middle East has seen a resurgence in the past decade of regional and external powers willing to defy and challenge the US-led order. But this does not necessarily have to be because the US is a declining power or is no longer able to maintain its regional dominance.

The US undeniably remains the only actor with a strong, sustainable and pan-Middle Eastern military presence. Whether in the Persian Gulf, where the US has bases or outposts in all six GCC countries, or in the Fertile Crescent, where it has a presence in Iraq, Jordan, Israel and Syria. In addition, Israel, the strongest military in the region, is one of the US’s closest strategic allies in the world. The external powers that have a notable military presence in the region include European countries that are also allies of the US, although their foreign policy objectives may not align with the US. But when it comes to regional conflicts or regional security architecture, they have traditionally supported and depended on the US. The same is true for Europe and the crisis in Ukraine is an expression of this transatlantic interdependence.

Nevertheless, other external and regional actors have a notable military prowess or presence in the Middle East. Russia has become a major player in Syria and Libya through military involvement in the respective conflicts. It has also become proactive in other regional conflicts. Moscow is also a major player in the international energy market and has developed partnerships with producers and exporters in the Gulf. China’s growing involvement in the Middle East has been formalized through the BRI and extensive strategic partnerships with major regional powers. Over the years, it has become the region’s most important economic partner. Beijing has also expanded its maritime presence in the Persian Gulf and western Indian Ocean. Iran and Turkey are two regional powers that have proactively expanded their political and military footprints in the area with varying degrees of success.

Given their strained relations with the US, Russia, China, Turkey and Iran have capitalized on shifts in US foreign policy over the past decade to anchor themselves in Middle Eastern affairs. But this does not indicate a willingness or ability to change the US-led regional order, even in a hypothetical scenario where they all come together and set aside their differences and differences in foreign policy.

This brings us to the question of the response of the regional allies and enemies of the US, especially the GCC countries, Israel, Iran and Turkey, to the crisis in Ukraine and what it tells about the contours of regional and international order. The six GCC countries have not taken a united stance, but have responded based on their foreign policy interests and the current state of relations with the US. This is also a reflection of the inherent differences between the GCC states in the direction of their foreign policies.

Of the GCC countries, Qatar and Kuwait have spoken out strongly against the Russian invasion and expressed support for Ukraine. For Qatar, this is a way to strengthen its partnership with the US and position itself as the only regional player capable of crisis management. The UAE has taken a stance that reflects a continuation of its strategic hedging when it comes to relations with global powers. It therefore abstained in the UN Security Council that voted against the Russian invasion so as not to antagonize Russia, but then sided with the UNGA majority to condemn the invasion. This was a calculated risk to be able to maintain relations with Russia while also pointing out to the US its willingness not to automatically join Russia. The same can be said about Saudi Arabia, which in recent years has developed close partnerships with Russia and China without jeopardizing relations with the US. Nevertheless, Riyadh’s position in Ukraine could also be interpreted as a result of ongoing problems in relations with Washington. Bahrain and Oman have maintained some ambiguity in their response, but are likely to remain close to the Saudi and Emirati positions given their strong relations with them.

Iran, which also opposed US regional “hegemony”, has taken a position that does not fully endorse Russia’s action, while recognizing Russia’s security dilemmas for NATO’s presence nearby. Israel and Turkey are currently engaged in mediation efforts between Russia and Ukraine, but this is more a reflection of their bilateral relations with the two than an indication of shifts in the regional or international order.

The responses of the countries of the Middle East underline that regional countries are becoming increasingly independent in their foreign policy objectives and choices. This reflects the changing nature of international politics, their bilateral relations with the US and the shifting US focus of the region. However, to infer this as a weakening of US alliances in the Middle East or write it off as the dominant regional power is at your peril.

(The author is a Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies & Analysis, New Delhi. The views are the author’s and do not reflect the views of MP-IDSA or the Government of India. He tweets: @MuddassirQuamar† The opinions expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproduction of this content without permission is prohibited).

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