Is the American epoch in the Middle East coming to an end? This question has been raised by many political circles, in both the US itself and in some Arab states. The question seems perfectly reasonable in light of some highly significant developments. These range from the American withdrawal from Iraq and the cuts in the US military presence in the Gulf to the tense relations with major American allies in the region as a result of US handling of the Arab Spring. Also complicating matters is the absence of clear US support for the second revolution in Egypt after people took to streets on June 30 to demand Mursi’s ouster—and that came in contrast to the American applause for the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
The Russians can sense the American feebleness and weakness in the region, and they are trying to fill the vacuum. On this front, the Russian are relying on some regimes’ longing for the old Soviet Union and existence of two poles of power in global politics. The Russians are portraying their support for Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria as a stance of opposition to the US and its domination of the world and the Middle East. The problem with the Russians, however, is that their words are unconvincing. Their former support of tyrants like Saddam, Gaddafi, Assad, and other oppressors in the Arab world and elsewhere do not entitle them to speak of championing and supporting nations today. The Russians are currently trying to show courtesy to the Egyptian government in order to exploit the tension between Egypt and the US administration. The US is attempting the same thing with the Iraqi and Algerian governments, but apparently to no avail. Russia is eager to return to an area of the world that was once entirely under its direct influence and was clearly submitting to its policy. Therefore, losing it influence in this region in favor of the US was a painful blow.
Important parts of the US foreign policy establishment are fully convinced that the Arab world has become a “worrisome” region. They are also aware that the costs of maintaining relations with it are much higher than the benefits, particularly in light of the shrinking reliance on Arab oil and the increase of American tight oil. The US is also exporting tight oil in increasing quantities, which will pose a threat to OPEC in the future and greatly impact its market share, competitiveness and ability to set prices. It is firmly believed that the Asia–Pacific region is the most important for American interests and national security. This is obvious not only in the economic sphere, but also in the political, diplomatic, military and security ones, because of China’s increasing financial revenues and its immense spending on its military capabilities.
China is expanding its arsenal in terms of quality and quantity, expanding its influence in the region, and is demanding a return of long-disputed territories in Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. It is for this reason that the US decided that its largest military base beyond its borders will be in Australia. The Americans are of the view that evacuating from the Middle East will offer only a short-term advantage for the Russians. This is because the Russians and regional oil-producing states will soon clash, as both of them rely on this particular commodity as a major source of income and they both export to the same market. Thus, the advantage the Russians will gain in the short run would be destroyed by the fight over oil later on.
A vacuum is being created in the Middle East. We don’t know what it will look like yet, but it will happen one way or another. But the Russians will not be able to fill the vacuum the way they think: they will be stepping into the region while carrying the baggage of support for tyrants and oppressors, and while being perceived by many as anti-Islam. It is the beginning of a new round of struggles over the Middle East, the impact of which is sure to be enduring.