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Friday, May 22, 2020, 07:44 (GMT+7)
Strategic competition between Russia and the U.S. in the Middle East

In 2015, experts across the globe raised a lot of questions about Russia’s decision on military intervention in Syria. However, in 2019 and especially in the beginning of 2020, the effectiveness of that decision has been proved and Russia’s status in the Middle East has been increasingly raised. That has posed a considerable challenge to the U.S. in the strategic competition in this region.

Russia’s strategy to reverse the situation

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia’s political space was continuously narrowed due to the Eastern expansion policy by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). A series of countries which had ever been within the sphere of Russia’s influence have joined the NATO. However, when the wave of coups named “Arab Spring” backed by the West commenced in 2010, aimed at toppling leaders of a series of countries, including Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi, who had pursued the policy to maintain a close-knit bond with Moscow, and even Syrian President Bashar al-Assad - a traditional ally of Russia in the Middle East, the Grand Kremlin Palace couldn’t remain silence. The decision to deploy troops to defend the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in September 2015 has been a clear signal that Russia would not be “humble” in the competition in the region of strategic importance any more.

At that time, a few people believed that Russia would be able to reverse the situation as after Ukraine’s political upheaval in 2014, Moscow annexed the peninsula of Crimea and it was accused of assisting the opposition force in the Donbass region in establishing an autonomous state. Under that pretext, the U.S. and the European Union (EU) kept seeking ways to politically isolate and impose economic sanctions on Russia in a bid to weaken this country. Some people associated Russia’s military intervention in Syria with the Soviet Union’s deployment of troops to Afghanistan in the late 1970s, while implying that Syria would be a second Afghanistan.

However, with a powerful air force and navy, effective military strategies, and clever diplomatic steps, it was Russia’s assistance that enabled the Army of Syrian Government to gradually prevail over the opposition on the battlefield. In early 2020, Damascus regained control over vast territories and key cities from the opposition, drove the Self-Proclaimed Islamic State (IS) away and came closer to the “final chapter” of the civil war which has lasted for nearly a decade.

Being rated as a weaker country, Russia has come back to the centre of the “big game” in the Middle East. Moscow’s involvement strategy and its fairly balanced and clever approaches in Syria have changed the balance of power and the geostrategic situation in the Middle East, while allowing Russia to become a reliable partner in this region. In other words, Russia is rather successfully reversing the situation in the Middle East and President Vladimir Putin has established good relations with many leaders of key countries in this region. A series of recent diplomatic activities being directed towards Russia have proved this country’s considerable influence upon the Middle East. Typical examples include Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow in September 2019 with the aim of seeking Russia’s coordination in various vital issues, particularly Israel’s relationship with Palestine and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to the leading countries in the region, namely Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in October 2019. In addition to restoring its influence in the Middle East, Russia has consolidated its relations with major powers and cooperated with them in fighting against threats to security and especially combating extremism and terrorism. With its sound policy, Russia has been welcomed by many regional countries.

America’s undermined role

Contrary to Russia’s reversion, the U.S. role in the Middle East over the years has been considerably eroded. Since he took office in early 2017, US President Donald Trump has adopted a lot of controversial strategies that reverse many policies by the U.S. towards this region, compared to previous administrations. However, the aim of those strategies has become increasingly contradictory and complex.

To fulfil his commitments, immediately after taking office, the White House’s head has sought and taken measures for ending the “never-ending wars” in the Middle East so as to withdraw American troops. However, what Washington has done so far is considered as a half-baked policy. A series of latest decisions by US President Donald Trump on Syria’s “geopolitical chessboard” has been described as a “disaster” in the political and strategic terms. For example, US President Donald Trump had ordered the withdrawal of the US troops from Syria twice, but immediately afterwards he hurriedly deployed heavy-armed units to “defend” oil fields in this country. According to political analysts, it was strong criticisms from the U.S. allies and from within the country that forced Washington to maintain military units in Syria. If the Pentagon withdraws all troops from North Syria, most of the targets set by Washington will be destroyed. More seriously, the withdrawal of US troops has inflicted damage on Kurdish allies of the U.S. after Turkey’s military operations. Then it would create a favourable condition for remnants of the IS to restructure and rise up again.  In the past, the IS had been formed due to a security “gap” created by chaos in Syria’s civil war and it is predicted that as a result of the U.S. indecisive policy, this terrorist organisation will be back.

However, although his initial policy was aimed at withdrawing American troops from the long-lasting and meaningless wars in the Middle East to gain the support of voters, US President Donald Trump seemed to “derail” his own goal. Typical example was the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed by Iran and the P5+1(including 5 permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany) in 2015; at the same time, America put Iran under maximum pressure by tightening sanctions against this country. That move by the U.S. led to Tehran’s retaliatory actions and pushed the risk of a military confrontation to the alarming level. Hence, instead of force reduction, the U.S. deployed more 14,000 soldiers to the Persian Gulf, including over 3,000 to Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, seemingly, Iraq has become a battlefield between the U.S. and Iran when the former launched an air strike on the Baghdad international airport and killed Qasem Soleimani, commander of the powerful Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Shortly afterwards, Tehran used missiles to attack 2 military bases of the U.S. in Iraq as a retaliatory action. Although the risk of a military confrontation is temporarily eliminated, the U.S. sanctions will blight the prospect for negotiations between America and Iran as Tehran has quite rigid viewpoints on this issue.

As for the relationship between Israel and Palestine, when taking office, US President Donald Trump ever said that he himself hoped to help the two sides to peacefully coexist, with a two-state solution; however, what has happened in reality is proving the opposite. Donald Trump and his experts in the Middle East policy have been reluctant to adopt the two-state solution. Recently, US President Donald Trump has recognised Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel and moved the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which has been seen as the most controversial action of ever. Besides, the U.S. now believes that Jewish settlements are in accordance with international law, reversing Washington’s decades-long policy on the conflict between Israel and Palestine. This policy could ignite a confrontation between Israel and Palestine and push the Middle East Peace Plan initiated by the U.S. into deadlock, thereby causing greater doubts about Washington’s role in settling international issues.

The unfinished competition for influence

Russia’s strong reversion in the Middle East reveals that Moscow’s policy is being adjusted to enable this country to actively intervene in this important region. Over the years, Russia has maintained good relations with many Shi’ite countries, such as Iran, Iraq and Syria, while taking part in direct negotiations with Saudi Arabia, states of the Persian Gulf and Sunni countries. Even Egypt and Israel now have their own lines of communication with the Grand Kremlin Palace. Russia also chaired the meetings between Palestine’s political parties, Kurdish representatives, and members of Syria’s opposition. It is clear to see that Russia is occupying a more active role in the Middle East issues and that Moscow is gradually demonstrating the strength of a world power. That will help Moscow to increase its influence and defend its benefits in this region. Leaders who had ever been allies of the U.S. in Egypt or Saudi Arabia have come to Moscow for high-level consultations recently while the number of agreements on Russian weapons procurement and energy projects has unceasingly increased, from the Persian Gulf to the Maghreb region (including Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia and Western Sahara).

With the ambition to “make America great again” and the policy of “America first,” Donald Trump’s plan for the Middle East will be aimed at maximising and putting the U.S. interests first. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ever said that Washington’s foreign policy is based on realism, self-control, and respect. More specifically, US President Donald Trump hopes that Washington will become a “role model,” which could be regarded as a diplomatic pattern Washington is building. According to Mike Pompeo, US President Donald Trump is establishing alliances to serve the U.S. fundamental benefits. Therefore, we could understand that Washington is pursuing a foreign policy based on the “cautious” approach in order to defend the U.S. interests, restrict the spread of its military strength abroad, and avoid engaging in the war without clear goal. Since Donald Trump took office, the U.S. policy towards the Middle East has been part of its foreign policy expressed via adjustments in both shaping and implementing plans for each profile.

According to experts around the world, in spite of changes and ambiguities in the U.S. policy for the Middle East, the issue on the U.S. benefits will never be changed. In other words, the U.S. could decrease its military presence in the Middle East, but Washington’s ambition will never be lessened. To do so, America will seek other instruments for maintaining and consolidating its influence in a bid to protect its strategic interests in this region. Alliances with the participation of selected regional countries could be formed to contain the governments which are seen as rivals of America or control petroleum resources.

Generally speaking, the U.S. will find every possible way to defend and increase its strategic interests in the Middle East as the competition for influence between itself and other powers, including Russia becomes more and more intense. That competition will continue turning the Middle East into a “hot spot” of the world in the upcoming time.

LAM PHUONG

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