Despised by some, admired by others, the US has been the Middle East’s principal power for decades, providing its allies with guidance and protection.
Now, however, with Russia and Iran thrusting themselves boldly into the region’s affairs, that special role seems to be melting away. As seasoned politicians and diplomats survey the mayhem, they struggle to recall a moment when America counted for so little in the Middle East — and when it was held in such contempt, by friend and foe alike.
“It’s the lowest ebb since World War II for US influence and engagement in the region,” says Ryan Crocker, a career diplomat who served as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Afghanistan and before that as US ambassador to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Pakistan.
From shepherding Israel toward peace with its Arab neighbours to rolling back Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and halting the contagion of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, the US has long been at the core of the Middle East’s security system. Its military might secured critical trade routes and the bulk of the world’s oil supply.
Today, the void created by US withdrawal is being filled by the powers American policy has long sought to contain.
“If you look at the heart of the Middle East, where the US once was, we are now gone — and in our place, we have Iran, Iran’s Shi’ite proxies, Islamic State and the Russians,” adds Crocker, now dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. “What had been a time and place of US ascendancy we have ceded to our adversaries.”
Of course, the US retains a formidable presence across the greater Middle East, with 45,000 troops in the region and deep ties with friendly intelligence services and partners in power from Pakistan to Morocco.
Even after US pullbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, America’s military might in the region dwarfs Russia’s recent deployment to Syria of a few dozen warplanes and a few thousand troops. And as the Obama administration has argued, it isn’t these disengagements but the regional overstretch under president George W. Bush that undermined America’s international standing.
Still, since the Arab Spring upended the Middle East’s established order in 2011, America’s ability to influence the region has been sapped by a growing conviction that a risk-averse Washington, focused on a foreign-policy pivot to Asia, just doesn’t want to exercise its traditional Middle Eastern leadership role any more.
“It’s not American military muscle that’s the main thing — there is a hell of a lot of American military muscle in the Middle East. It’s people’s belief — by our friends and by our opponents — that we will use that muscle to protect our friends, no ifs, ands or buts,” says James Jeffrey, a former US ambassador to Iraq and Turkey. “Nobody is willing to take any risks if the US is not taking any risks and if people are afraid that we’ll turn around and walk away tomorrow.”
This perception seems to be gaining traction in the region, where traditional allies — notably Israel and the Gulf monarchies — feel abandoned after the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran. Many regional leaders and commentators compare Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unflinching support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ruthless regime with Washington’s willingness to let go of its own allies, notably Egypt’s long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak. The phrase “red line” now often elicits knowing smirks, a result of Obama’s U-turn away from striking Syria after the Assad regime’s horrifying sarin gas attack in 2013.
By focusing Moscow’s latest bombing raids on moderate Syrian rebels trained by the CIA, with nary an American effort to protect them, Putin has showcased the hazards of picking the US side in this part of the world.
“Being associated with America today carries great costs and great risks,” says Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Bahrain. “Whoever you are in the region, you have a deep grudge against the United States. If you are in liberal circles, you see Obama placating autocratic leaders even more. And if you are an autocratic leader, you go back to the issue of Mubarak and how unreliable the US is as an ally. There is not one constituency you will find in the region that is supportive of the US at this point; it is quite stunning, really.”
The Obama administration’s pivot away from the Middle East is rooted, of course, in deep fatigue with the enormous military and financial commitments made since 9/11, above all after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: since 2001, at least $US1.6 trillion ($2.2 trillion) has been spent, according to the Congressional Research Service, and 6900 US troops have been killed in the region.
“We couldn’t have gone in more flat-out than we did in Iraq, and not only didn’t it work, it made things even worse. That’s something to keep in mind when talking about Syria,” says Jeremy Shapiro, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a former State Department official.
By scaling down its Middle East commitments, he says, the Obama administration has rightly recognised the limitations of US power in a perennially turbulent region: “The difference is not whether you have peace, it’s whether Americans are involved in the lack of peace.”
Such reluctance to get involved also reflects the overall mood of the American public, argues Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Centre for American Progress, a Washington think tank close to the administration. “It’s not really about ‘exhaustion’ from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars,” he says. “I see it a bit more as pragmatism — many Americans look back on the past 15 years of US engagement in the Middle East, and they see a meagre return on investment when it comes to stability. So there’s a natural scepticism.”
For now, the American public isn’t paying much of a price for the erosion of the country’s standing in the Middle East.
The US hasn’t suffered a major terrorist attack on its homeland since 2001. Oil prices remain low. The millions of refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq are flooding into neighbouring countries and, increasingly, Europe, not into distant America.
And while the region is aflame, with five wars raging between Libya and Afghanistan, US soldiers no longer die daily on its remote battlefields.
But US disengagement still has long-term costs — even if one ignores the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, where more than 250,000 people have died and more than half the population have fled their homes. With the shale revolution, the US may no longer be as dependent on Middle Eastern oil, but its allies and main trading partners still are. Islamic State’s haven in Iraq and Syria may let it plot major terrorist attacks in Europe and the US. And the American pullback is affecting other countries’ calculations about how to deal with China and Russia.
The White House disputes the notion that the US is losing ground in the Middle East. Earlier this month, Obama said Russia’s attacks on anti-Assad forces were made “not out of strength but out of weakness” and warned that Moscow would get “stuck in a quagmire”.
“We’re not going to make Syria into a proxy war between the United States and Russia,” Obama said. “This is not some superpower chessboard contest.”
But for the past several decades, the Middle East has indeed been a geopolitical chessboard on which the US carefully strengthened its position, nurturing ties with disparate friends such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Pakistan and Turkey to thwart the ambitions of Moscow and Tehran, Washington’s main regional rivals. On the eve of the Arab Spring in 2011, Russia had almost no weight in the region, and Iran was boxed in by UN Security Council sanctions over its nuclear program.
The costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had hardly brought stability, but neither country faced internal collapse, and the Taliban had been chased into the remote corners of the Afghan countryside. Many people in the Middle East chafed at America’s dominance — but they agreed it was the only game in town.
Dramatic developments in recent weeks — from Russia’s Syrian gambit to startling Taliban advances in Afghanistan — highlight just how much the region has changed since then.
The Syrian deployment, in particular, has given Putin the kind of Middle Eastern power projection that, in some ways, exceeds the influence the Soviet Union enjoyed in the 1970s and 80s.
Already, he has rendered all but impossible plans to create no-fly zones or safe areas outside the writ of the Assad regime — and has moved to position Russia as a viable military alternative that can check US might in the region.
“What Putin wants is to establish a sort of co-dominion with the US to oversee the Middle East — and, so far, he has almost succeeded,” says Camille Grand, director of the Fondation pour la Recherche Strategique, a French think tank.
Russia’s entry has been welcomed by many in the region — particularly in Iraq, a mostly Shi’ite country where the US has invested so much blood and treasure — because of mounting frustration with the US failure to roll back Islamic State.
More than a year after Obama promised to “degrade and ultimate destroy” Islamic State, the Sunni militant group remains firmly in control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. In May, it seized Ramadi, another crucial Iraqi city. Islamic State, also known as ISIS, is spreading across the region, rattling countries from Afghanistan to Libya to Yemen.
“What’s been the result of this American coalition? Just the expansion of ISIS,” says retired Lebanese major general Hisham Jaber, who now runs a Beirut think tank.
Iraqi officials and Kurdish fighters have long complained about the pace of the US bombing campaign against Islamic State and Washington’s unwillingness to provide forward spotters to guide these airstrikes or to embed US advisers with combat units.
These constraints have made the US military, in effect, a junior partner of Iran in the campaign against Islamic State, providing air cover to Iranian-guided Shi’ite militias that go into battle with portraits of the ayatollahs Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei on their tanks.
Iraq has already lost a huge chunk of its territory to Islamic State, and another calamity may be looming farther east in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s recent seizure of the strategic city of Kunduz, which remains a battleground, suggests how close the US-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani has come to strategic defeat. Its chances of survival could dwindle further if the Obama administration goes ahead with plans to pull out the remaining 9800 US troops next year.
“If the Americans decide to withdraw all forces from Afghanistan, what has happened in Kunduz will happen to many other places,” warns Afghan politician Shinkai Karokhail.
Farther afield, US disengagement from Afghanistan has already driven Central Asian states that once tried to pursue relatively independent policies and allowed Western bases onto their soil back into Moscow’s orbit.
“It’s obvious that what’s happening in Afghanistan is pushing our countries closer to Russia. Who knows what America may come up with tomorrow — nobody trusts it any more, not the elites and not the ordinary people,” says Tokon Mamytov, a former deputy prime minister of Kyrgyzstan who now teaches at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University in Bishkek.
Among America’s regional allies, puzzlement over why the US is so eager to abandon the region has given way to alarm and even panic — and, in some cases, attempts at accommodation with Russia.
The bloody, messy intervention in Yemen by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies stemmed, in part, from a fear that the US was no longer watching their backs against Shi’ite Iran. These Sunni Arab states could respond even more rashly in the future to the perceived Iranian threat, further inflaming the sectarian passions that have fuelled the rise of Islamic State and other extremist groups.
The Gulf states “are acting more independently than we have seen in the last 40 years”, says Abdulhaleq Abdulla, a political scientist in the United Arab Emirates.
Even Israel is hedging its bets. Last year it broke ranks with Washington and declined to vote for a US-sponsored UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russian annexation of Crimea. In recent days, Israel didn’t criticise Russian bombardment in Syria.
So how deep — and how permanent — is this deterioration of the US ability to shape events in the Middle East?
“The decline is not irreversible at all,” says retired US Navy admiral James Stavridis, who served in 2009-13 as NATO’s supreme allied commander and is now dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
He argues that a boost in aid, exercises and engagement with the Gulf states and Israel, as well as a larger commitment to fighting Islamic State and helping the moderate Syrian opposition, could undo the recent damage.
But others have concluded that the Middle East’s Pax Americana is truly over.
“Whoever comes after Obama will not have many cards left to play,” says Hokayem. “I don’t see a strategy even for the next president. We’ve gone too far.”