By Chan Kung and Mr. Yu (Tony) Pan*
It is a common perception that any motive of the United States would be conspiracy, and it is even more so in the Middle East. Nothing is further from the truth. Since the presidentship of George H. W. Bush, the U.S. took 30 years to build its order in the Middle East, but this system is now disintegrating. Through tracking research, ANBOUND concludes that the U.S. is losing control over the Middle East.
Although U.S. has a long history of having a hand in the Middle East with its rich resources, in the First Gulf War, the U.S. did not interrupt directly the affairs of Middle East but actively show and practice their influence through the third-party nations. Since 1991, U.S. started to have extensive interventions in the Middle East, and built the its Middle East order. Specifically speaking, through wars, alliances, investments and other economic activities, the U.S. have eliminated the regimes of the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gadhafi, as well as fought with the al-Qaeda and forced them back to the underground. It also weakened the regime of Bashar al-Assad through its alliance system, and blockaded Iran over a long period of time. During the Obama administration, Washington had successfully established such a Middle East order dominated by the United States.
However, if compared to the situation in the Middle East right now, we can easily find a dramatic shift. Through 2016 until 2019, we can evidently see rifts between the U.S. not only with Saudi Arabia their main ally of the region, but also Kuwait, UAE, Lebanon and other Sunni countries even though they are still within the regional framework of the U.S. Russia has been in alliance with Syria and became a force that should not be overlooked in the Middle East. The battleground of Syria has had a clear evolution, due to the military intervention of Russia and the victories of the Assad’s fraction, the Syrian government forces had ensured the lasting of the Assad regime, and it became a firm foundation and a platform of Russia’s influence into Middle East. As the main Shiite country, Iran shown its fiercest capability through supporting series of regional armed forces, including Hezbollah and Ansar Allah forces in Yemen. From Palestine, Iraq, to Syria, Iran’s shadows are visible; the Iranian influences have become an independent system and a regional force. Meanwhile, Turkey contended with Russia through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and eliminated the Kurdish forces, then took a further step to penetrate into the Middle East for the sake of higher status and regional influence, as well as to have a greater say. Finally, the large and small warlords that implement military separatism in the Middle East also have a greater or lesser influence on the regional situation.
The Middle East was no always like this from the start. After the Second Iraq War, the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan showed an obvious dependency on the U.S. Turkey, the only secular Muslim country, is a NATO member, and Israel is almost the “51st state of America”. Following the signing of the Nuclear Agreement, the U.S.-Iraq relationship appeared to growing better in around 2016. Despite the rise of ISIS which disrupted this relation to a certain degree, from the development of the situation, and on the basis that the U.S. not sending the ground troops, the ISIS mastermind Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed. More importantly, the U.S. has gained hundreds of thousands of pro-America armed Kurds in this process. During such time, the Kurds are becoming like another Israel. As a whole, other than the areas controlled by a weakened ISIS, the U.S. has successfully established and led a regional order that, and the Middle East seems to become another Latin-America, another backyard of the U.S.
Yet, the situation in Middle East have had massive changes within the last 3 years. The region is now controlled by 6 forces, namely the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran, Turkey and fractions led by separatist military warlords. Perhaps this fragmentation is unexpected by the U.S., and it was the most surprising geopolitical change in 2019, which has had a huge impact to global politics and economies. This objective reality of Middle East’s fragmentation has enormously affected the rest of the world and changed much of what had been taken for granted.
First, the involvement of the U.S. in Middle East is not for the oil resources in narrow sense. In the past 30 years, the biggest oil export partner of the U.S. is Canada, not any Middle Eastern country. In the total import of around 91 billion barrels, only about 20 billion barrels came from Middle East. The biggest oil partner of the U.S. is Saudi Arabia, total amount of import was around 14 billion barrels. Specifically, the total oil export to U.S. by Iraq and Kuwait was only about 6 billion barrels. On this basis, and considering the huge economic costs invested to maintain the post-war order after the two Iraq Wars, it would be untenable if we still think the Americans sent their troops to Iraq, and in a broader sense, intervening the Middle Eastern affairs, was for the oil resources.
Second, the U.S. is gradually letting go of the Middle Eastern affairs, concurrently with marginalization, they emphasize on speculation and strategy. In the American strategy for Middle East in the past, just as the renowned American International Relation scholar John Mearsheimer pointed out, the core demand was to prevent the emergence of another regional supremacy in the world, which would threaten the U.S. position. Although it is impossible to confirm if this was the goal of the U.S. strategy, objectively the operations of the U.S. in the Middle East in these decades had helped U.S. to gain the entire control over the oil trading channel internationally. This is undoubtedly a huge source of geopolitical strategic wealth. If it threatens the benefits of the U.S., they can cut off the channel of supply of oil from Middle East to the rest of the world, and this is beyond the control of any other country. This is extremely critical to the Asian countries because they are the main customers for Middle Eastern oil.
Third, President Donald Trump has deeply affected the Middle East with his opportunism. From U.S. being the only dominant power to the fragmented six forces, this has to do with comprehensive effects of the unilateral policy and other elements of the Trump administration. The Middle East order, which the United States spent 3 decades to build, is obviously suffering a huge shock. Among them, the situation in Iran is the most delicate. In the absence of obvious violations in Iran, Washington decided to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement, no doubt again antagonizing Iran. More importantly, the U.S. crackdown on Iran has not been supported by its European allies. In addition, Trump’s policies have also allowed other geopolitical forces to rise and start to their own pursue geopolitical interests. Among them, the Turkish government is the most obvious. It is deviating from the traditional American trajectory and has gradually become another independent force in the Middle East.
Fourth, the weakened control of the U.S. over the Middle Eastern regions has caused chaos in Iraq, Afghanistan, and even in Libya, the post-war order is unable to be reestablished. Today, the relationship of the U.S. and the governments of these countries are growing estrange. For example, in the light of the recent incident, the protest outside of the U.S. embassy in Iraq, the security forces of the government of Iraq almost gave tacit consent to the said behavior.
The whole rally was about the issues of Iran, the ideology behind the rally is truly intriguing. The decision of backing out from the Kurds is actually equals to giving up her own influence in Syria and Turkey, and it even destroys the international image of US in the eyes of Middle East countries to a higher degree. Considering that the entire protest was due to issues regarding Iran, this added more to the intrigues. Washington ’s decision to abandon the Kurds is actually equivalent to actively giving up its influence in Syria and Turkey, and this has badly damaged the United States’ international image in the Middle East.
The United States is gradually losing control and dominance over the Middle Eastern affairs, and had traits of marginalizing and speculating in terms of strategy. The fragmentation of geopolitical space in the Middle East to six forces has had a huge impact on global politics and economy. This will cause the Middle East, a world geopolitical turmoil to enter a weak equilibrium. On the one hand, it is very easy for the region to lose balance and fall into conflict; on the other hand, conflicts and disputes will be prolonged, and order restructuring in the Middle East will become out of reach.
Final analysis conclusion:
From the Gulf War to the present, the United States is gradually losing control of the Middle East. This drastic change in the geopolitical situation has caused geopolitical forces to rise one after another, and the impact is more complicated and changeable. This is especially true for Asian countries like China. In the future, the United States will still have certain special opportunities and possibilities to restructure its strategy in the Middle East, but this possibility depends on its domestic politics. It is obviously a major challenge for the world to adapt to an unstable and directionless Middle East.
*Founder of Anbound Think Tank in 1993, Chan Kung is now ANBOUND Chief Researcher. Chan Kung is one of China’s renowned experts in information analysis. Most of Chan Kung‘s outstanding academic research activities are in economic information analysis, particularly in the area of public policy.
*Mr. Yu (Tony) Pan serves as the associate research fellow and the research assistant of Mr. Chen Gong, Founder, Chairman and the Chief Research of ANBOUND. He obtained his master’s degree at George Washington University, the Elliott School of International Affairs. Mr. Pan has published articles in various domestic and international platforms. He currently focuses on Asian Security, geopolitics in Indo-Pacific region and US-Sino relations.