MIDDLE EAST ISSUES: AS U.S. REGIONAL INFLUENCE WANES, RUSSIA, IRAN, & CHINA EXPLOIT THE VACUUM

 

 

Consequences of American Retreat from the Middle East: Prof. Efraim Inbar, BESA, Feb. 24, 2016— The US, under President Barack Obama, has signaled its intent to reduce its presence in the Middle East.

The Absence of U.S. Leadership Makes the World More Dangerous than Ever: Joseph I. Lieberman, Washington Post, Feb. 24, 2016— For more than 50 years, national security leaders have gathered annually at the Munich Security Conference, a conclave established during the depths of the Cold War as a meeting place for the Western allies standing against the communist threat.

Shifting Eastern Mediterranean Alliances: Emmanuel Karagiannis, Middle East Quarterly, Spring, 2016 — The Eastern Mediterranean is changing fast with its estimated 122 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of natural gas reserves (the equivalent of 21 billion barrels of oil) already having an impact on regional patterns of amity and enmity.

China's New Grand Strategy for the Middle East: Gal Luft, Foreign Policy, Feb. 5, 2016— At the start of 2016, prospects weren't good for what would later become one of Chinese President Xi Jinping's most consequential international tours.

 

On Topic Links

 

While Obama Fiddles…: Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post, Feb. 25,2015

Earthquakes of the Middle East: Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, JCPA, Feb. 24, 2016

The Impact of the Arab Spring on the Political Future of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East: Jordan as a Case Study: Abdelmahdi Alsoudi, Rubin Center, Feb. 23, 2016

ISIS: The Latest Phase of the Jihad: Raymond Ibrahim, Strategika, Feb. 1, 2016

 

CONSEQUENCES OF AMERICAN RETREAT FROM THE MIDDLE EAST

Prof. Efraim Inbar

BESA, Feb. 24, 2016

 

The US, under President Barack Obama, has signaled its intent to reduce its presence in the Middle East. The US fought two unsuccessful wars in the region – a frustrating lesson about the limits of its power. At the same time, US dependency upon Middle Eastern energy has been reduced thanks to domestic progress in fracking technology. Moreover, Washington has decided to “pivot” to China, an emerging global challenger, and also to cut defense expenditures, leaving fewer military assets available for projecting power in the Middle East. (For a while during President Obama's tenure, the US had no aircraft carriers in the eastern Mediterranean or in the Gulf at all, an unprecedented situation.) In addition, the American campaign against ISIS has been extremely limited, and has met with little success. Unfortunately, this disengagement signals both fatigue and weakness.

 

Washington also has desisted from confronting Iran, and has gone to great lengths to accommodate it. President Obama's contention is that by completing a nuclear deal with Iran, he resolved one of the outstanding security issues in the region before leaving office. However the deal legitimizes a large nuclear infrastructure in Iran, and ignores the cardinal national security interests of at least two US allies: Israel and Saudi Arabia. The subsequent removal of international economic sanctions – with no reciprocal requirement for any change in Iranian regional policy – positions Iran to reap great financial benefits at no cost. President Obama's Iran policy has occasioned a dramatic change in the regional balance of power, yet Washington appears largely unperturbed.

 

Whereas US policy on Iran has been guided primarily by wishful thinking, the apprehensions of regional actors with regard to Iran's hegemonic ambitions have multiplied in response to the nuclear deal. While Washington claims to be confident that Iran will play "a responsible regional role," leaders in Ankara, Cairo, Jerusalem and Riyadh see Iran as almost entirely unaltered from its pre-deal state in any meaningful political sense, with the potential to produce nuclear bombs in a short time.

 

The gravest consequence of the US policy of disengagement from the region is the increased probability of nuclear proliferation. Powers contending for regional leadership, such as Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia will not stand idly by in the nuclear arena, particularly as the US is no longer seen as a reliable security provider. US attempts to convince regional powers to rely on an American nuclear umbrella in an attempt to prevent nuclear proliferation are likely to fail. The emergence of a multi-polar nuclear Middle East, which is a plausible consequence of the American nuclear accommodation with Iran, will be a strategic nightmare for everyone.

 

An emboldened Iran, which traditionally acts through proxies rather than through military conquest, might intensify its campaign to subvert Saudi Arabia, possibly by playing the Shiite card in the Shiite-majority and oil-rich Eastern province. The loss of that province would considerably weaken the Saudi state and might even bring about its disintegration.

 

Iran could use subversion, terrorist attacks and intimidation of the Gulf states to evict the thinning American presence completely from the Gulf. In the absence of American determination and ability to project force, Iranian superior power might ‘Finlandize’ the Gulf countries. We could also see also the ‘Finlandization’ of the Caspian basin, where Iran shares the coast with important energy producers like Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. The Caspian basin and the Persian Gulf form an “energy ellipse” that contains a large part of the world’s energy resources. Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan are very fearful of growing Iranian influence. It is possible that those countries, which adopted a pro-Western foreign policy orientation after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, might decide to return to the Russian orbit, because Russia appears at present to be a more reliable ally than the US.

 

Russia is fully alive to the potential for a reassertion of a Russian role in the region in the wake of an American retreat. To that end, it has taken the major step of intervening militarily in Syria to assure the survival of Assad’s regime. The Syrian littoral is a vital base for enhanced Russian naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean, and this preceded Russian air participation in the Syrian civil war. In addition, Russia wants to protect energy prospects that depend on Assad's survival. It already has signed exploration contracts with the Assad regime with regard to the recent gas discoveries in the Levant basin.

 

Syria has been an ally of Iran since 1979 – the longest alliance in the Middle East. The preservation of the Assad regime is critical to Iranian interests because Damascus is a linchpin to its proxy, the Hezbollah in Lebanon. Russia's efforts on Assad's behalf thus directly serve the interests of the Iranian regime. If successful, those efforts will further Iranian influence in the region…

[To Read the Full Article Click the Following Link—Ed.]

                                                                       

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THE ABSENCE OF U.S. LEADERSHIP MAKES THE WORLD

MORE DANGEROUS THAN EVER

Joseph I. Lieberman                                   

Washington Post, Feb. 24, 2016

 

For more than 50 years, national security leaders have gathered annually at the Munich Security Conference, a conclave established during the depths of the Cold War as a meeting place for the Western allies standing against the communist threat. I have been privileged to attend almost half of these meetings — from the era of hope and excitement that followed the Soviet collapse in the early 1990s through the divisive and difficult wars of the post-9/11 decade — but none has been as troubling as the one held this month.

 

That is because the world has never seemed as dangerous and leaderless as it does now. Only the extremists and bullies act boldly, and therefore they have seized the initiative. It is a moment in history that evokes the haunting words of W.B. Yeats: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The simple fact is that there is more instability in the world today than at any time since the end of World War II. The threats come from emboldened expansionist powers such as Iran, Russia and China, and also terrorist aggressors such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. In short, the enemies of freedom are on the march.

 

At the same time, the United States — which assumed global leadership after World War II to protect our domestic security, prosperity and freedom — has chosen this moment to become more passive in the world. The absence of American leadership has certainly not caused all the instability, but it has encouraged and exacerbated it. For example, while the threat of violent Islamist extremism has existed for several decades, the military and political disengagement of the United States from Iraq after the success of the surge and our failure to intervene to stop the slaughter in Syria have conspired to create a vacuum in the heart of the Middle East. This vacuum has been exploited by the region’s most dangerous anti-American forces: totalitarian Sunni fanatics and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

 

The result is the creation of a terrorist sanctuary of unprecedented scale and Iranian domination over multiple Arab capitals. Russian President Vladimir Putin has also moved to exploit the vacuum, first by seizing Crimea and moving into eastern Ukraine in 2014. The United States reacted to that breach of world order with words of outrage and some sanctions against Moscow, but also by refusing to give Ukrainians the defensive weapons that might impose a heavier military cost on Russia for its adventurism. Rather than deterring Russia from further aggression, our hesitation in Ukraine signaled to the Kremlin that the United States itself could be deterred when Russia acted boldly and decisively.

 

Putin soon extended this lesson to Syria, where he dispatched his forces last year in order to turn the tide of war in favor of a weakening Bashar al-Assad. Despite predictions of “quagmire,” that is precisely what Russia’s intervention has achieved — while reestablishing Moscow as a force to be reckoned with in yet another vital region. The U.S. response? To ask for Putin’s help in extinguishing fires that he himself has been feeding.

 

This fits a broader pattern. In too many places in recent years, the United States has treated its adversaries as essential partners to be courted, while dismissing or denigrating its historic allies and partners as inconveniences or obstacles to peace. But as frustrated as they are with the United States, our friends also recognize that they are incapable by themselves of managing the crises that confront them without the United States.

 

In Munich this month, the United States ratified its diminished role by reaching an agreement on Syria that elevates the standing of Russia, pressures the Syrian opposition and stands little chance of ending the campaign of indiscriminate violence being waged on behalf of the Assad regime against the long-suffering Syrian people. Almost no one in Munich thought it would work. At the end of the conference, I shared these fears about the state of the world with an Arab diplomat. “I agree,” he replied, “and when we return to Munich next February, it will all be much worse.”

 

The best way to defy that prediction is for the United States to reassert its historic leadership role — not by acting alone, but in concert with our worldwide network of allies and friends, which is yearning for this. In a conversation with the leader of a European ally, some of us asked what the United States could do to be most helpful to him and his country. His answer was direct: “Elect a president who understands the importance of American leadership in the world.” That would be in our national interest and is also wise counsel to American voters as we decide whom to support in this year’s topsy-turvy presidential election.

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             SHIFTING EASTERN MEDITERRANEAN ALLIANCES

    Emmanuel Karagiannis                                               

Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2016

 

The Eastern Mediterranean is changing fast with its estimated 122 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of natural gas reserves (the equivalent of 21 billion barrels of oil) already having an impact on regional patterns of amity and enmity. With Israel and Cyprus well underway to becoming gas exporters, the problematic Israeli-Lebanese and Cypriot-Turkish relationships have been further strained. At the same time, energy cooperation has been the driving force behind the nascent Greek-Cypriot-Israeli partnership, manifested in rapidly growing defense and economic cooperation. Clearly, the development of energy resources and their transportation will have far-reaching geopolitical implications for the Eastern Mediterranean and its nations.

 

Natural gas is the fastest growing source of energy in the world, currently accounting for 22 percent of total global energy consumption. It is both affordable and more environmentally friendly than other commercially feasible options, resulting in an increasing demand even in an era of dropping oil prices. That demand seems likely to be met in large part by the newly discovered gas reserves of the Eastern Mediterranean.

 

Israel, for one, has the potential to become an important regional producer. Its Tamar field was confirmed to have estimated reserves of 9.7 tcf while its Leviathan gas field has the potential of producing up to 16 tcf. Meanwhile, in November 2011, U.S.-based Noble Energy announced a major gas discovery south of Cyprus: The Aphrodite field was estimated to contain 7 tcf. In February 2013, a seismic survey south of Crete indicated that rich hydrocarbon resources may soon be found in Greek waters. Most recently, the Italian company Eni announced the discovery of a huge gas field off the coast of Egypt.

 

For reasons of geographical proximity, these Mediterranean energy resources concern first and foremost the European Union—the world's third largest energy consumer behind China and the United States.[9] While oil is still the dominant fuel, accounting for 33.8 percent of total EU energy consumption, natural gas comes in second at 23.4 percent.[10] The Eastern Mediterranean gas reserves have three distinct advantages for European governments (and companies) and are thus viewed by them as a strategic priority. First, due to their smaller sizes and populations, the needs of Israel and Cyprus are relatively low and most of their gas could be exported. Second, Eastern Mediterranean gas could partly cover Europe's energy needs and thereby decrease its dependence on an increasingly volatile Russia. Finally, since both Israel and Cyprus lack the capital and the offshore drilling technology to develop gas reserves on their own, foreign energy companies have identified them as investment opportunities that could generate significant financial returns.

 

As the Middle East implodes, security of energy supply has become an important policy objective for the EU. Indeed, there is a consensus among European governments that new initiatives are needed to address energy challenges. The EU is already directly involved to some extent in Eastern Mediterranean energy affairs because Greece and Cyprus are member states while Turkey is a candidate for membership and has a customs union with the EU. Although the governments of the EU and Israel are often at odds politically, economic relations between Jerusalem and Brussels are close and multifaceted.

 

The development of Israeli and Cypriot gas fields could help strengthen Europe's energy security. Currently, European countries import liquefied natural gas (LNG) from politically unstable countries such as Nigeria and Algeria. But the Eastern Mediterranean could serve as a third gas "corridor" for Europe, alongside Russian gas and the southeast European pipelines for Azeri gas. The Italian Eni company, the British Premier Oil, and the Dutch Oranje-Nassau Energie have clearly shown interest by bidding in the second round of licensing for natural gas exploration in the Cypriot exclusive economic zone (EEZ), a sea zone prescribed by the United Nations over which a state has special rights. The U.S. administration views Eastern Mediterranean gas as an alternative source for its European allies who depend heavily on Russian supplies.

 

Given the prominence of the Middle East for U.S. energy policy, it is hardly surprising that the gas finds in Israel and Cyprus have drawn Washington's attention as well. Although the U.S. is likely to become the largest gas producer in the world as a result of increased use of shale gas, the administration views Eastern Mediterranean gas as an alternative source for its European allies who depend heavily on Russian supplies. Within the private sector, the American company, Noble Energy, has played a leading role in the exploration process; it has a 40 percent stake in the Leviathan fields, a 36 percent stake in Tamar, and a 70 percent stake in Aphrodite.

 

Not surprisingly, these discoveries have attracted Moscow's interest as well due to a potential, adverse impact on its gas exports to European markets. Russian energy companies, which often act as the Kremlin's long-arm, are particularly active in the region. In February 2013, for example, Gazprom signed a 20-year deal with the Israeli Levant LNG Marketing Corporation to purchase liquefied natural gas exclusively from the Tamar field.[13] Then in December 2013, the Russian company SoyuzNefteGas signed an agreement with the Assad regime to explore part of Syria's exclusive economic zone. One month later Putin signed an investment agreement with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to develop gas fields off the Gaza Strip.

[To Read the Full Article Click the Following Link—Ed.]

                                                                                   

Contents

  CHINA'S NEW GRAND STRATEGY FOR THE MIDDLE EAST

           Gal Luft              

                                      Foreign Policy, Feb. 5, 2016

 

At the start of 2016, prospects weren't good for what would later become one of Chinese President Xi Jinping's most consequential international tours. The January execution of leading Shite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, the voice of Saudi Arabia's Shiite minority, and the subsequent severing of diplomatic relations between several Sunni countries and Shiite Iran came at a particularly inconvenient time for Xi. His planned maiden trip to the Middle East was to include stops in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, all majority Sunni countries. Visiting Sunni leaders at a time of great tension with Shiite Iran would have created the impression that China supported one of the two major branches of Islam over the other, undermining Beijing's long held policy of staunch neutrality in the Middle East.

 

But postponing the visit for a second time in less than a year would have had consequences too. China had already called off a similar trip scheduled for spring 2015, after a Saudi-led coalition of Sunni states launched a military campaign in Yemen against the Houthis, an Iran-backed Shiite group. Since becoming president, Xi has visited almost every region of the world — but not the Middle East. The same is true for Premier Li Keqiang. Another delay would have signaled that regional spoilers could easily interfere with China's foreign policy. Instead, Xi decided to use the crisis in the Muslim world as an opportunity to raise the curtain on China's new Middle East strategy, one that finally involves China getting off the sidelines and plunging into the Middle East's stormy waters.

 

It has been a busy few weeks for Beijing's Middle East policy. In the past several weeks, even before the al-Nimr execution, Xi has sought ways for China to inject itself into the Syrian crisis, inviting both Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem and the head of the opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), to high-level meetings in Beijing in an effort to promote peaceful resolution.

 

Significantly, this meant departure from China's long-held policy of supporting Bashar al-Assad. On Jan. 13, Beijing released its Arab Policy Paper, a vague but seminal document articulating China's interests in the Middle East. After the ransacking of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, Xi dispatched his Deputy Foreign Minister Zhang Ming to both Tehran and Riyadh, urging the sides to exercise calm. Xi also rearranged his travel itinerary, replacing his planned visit to the UAE with an unexpected stop in Tehran, thus becoming the first foreign leader to set foot in Iran since the lifting of the sanctions. For balance, he brought the Saudis a consolation gift: a declaration of support for the sovereignty of Yemen's government, whom the Saudis support in the war against Iran's proxy.

 

Such diplomatic hyper-activity may surprise those accustomed to China's tendency to avoid interventionism. Cynics may say that these are all tactical moves designed to secure prime business opportunities for China on both sides. There may be some truth to this. But it would be a mistake to reduce China's latest action to pure economic opportunism. China is no longer willing to sit on the sidelines and watch the region descend into chaos. China has for several months harbored a suspicion that the United States, entering an election year while drowning in domestic oil and gas supply, is not as interested in the Middle East as it has been for the past half century. (At any rate, Washington's relations with Riyadh and Tehran are too thorny to enable it to be an honest broker.)

 

More importantly, Russia has laid down the flag of Middle East neutrality that it carried for most of the post-Soviet era. Moscow once enjoyed equally good relations with Tehran and Riyadh. But in plunging into the civil war in Syria, Russia — despite the fact that most of its Muslim population is Sunni — entangled itself with the Shiite camp, and can no longer be trusted by the Sunnis. With the United States and Russia no longer able to hold the balance between Iran and Saudi Arabia, China, which has solid relations with both, is increasingly tempted to fill the vacuum.

 

There are several reasons why the Sunni-Shiite divide is of particular concern to China. As home to a large portion of the world's conventional oil reserves, the Persian Gulf region is critically important to the China's resource-intense economy. While the world is currently enjoying extraordinarily low energy prices, this could easily change should the rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites continue to escalate. Shiites may be a minority in the Muslim world as a whole, but in the oil-rich Persian Gulf they comprise a majority. If Iran and Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies become embroiled in a regional war involving physical damage to oil infrastructure, crude prices would go through the ceiling, to the detriment of the global economy. With half of China's crude imports coming from the Persian Gulf, such a crisis would likely hurt China more than any other major economy…                                                                                                                              

[To Read the Full Article Click the Following Link—Ed.]

On Topic

 

While Obama Fiddles…: Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post, Feb. 25,2015—State of the world, Year Eight of Barack Obama: 1. In the South China Sea, on a speck of land of disputed sovereignty far from its borders, China has just installed antiaircraft batteries and stationed fighter jets.

Earthquakes of the Middle East: Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, JCPA, Feb. 24, 2016 —Almost five years after the outburst of the so-called Arab Spring, the Middle East is still experiencing tectonic and dramatic changes that are shaping its landscape into unexpected realities.

The Impact of the Arab Spring on the Political Future of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East: Jordan as a Case Study: Abdelmahdi Alsoudi, Rubin Center, Feb. 23, 2016—Beginning in 2011, the Arab world faced a wave of uprisings leading to the overthrow of four Arab regimes, in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen;  and creating conflict and civil wars in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq–with less impact on Jordan, Morocco, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, and other Arab countries.

ISIS: The Latest Phase of the Jihad: Raymond Ibrahim, Strategika, Feb. 1, 2016—The best way to understand the Islamic State (ISIS) is to see it as the next phase of al-Qaeda. All Sunni Islamic jihadi groups—Boko Haram, ISIS, Taliban, al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda, even Hamas—share the same motivations based on a literal and orthodox reading of Islamic history and doctrine: resurrecting a caliphate (which existed in various forms from 632 to 1924) that implements and spreads the totality of sharia, or Islamic law.