By Steven Martin Kensington
The conflict in the Middle East is now approximately 70 years old, if dating its start to the establishing of the Israeli state in 1947. The Arab-Israeli conflict is still an important matter in the Middle East, but the West has in recent years been more concerned with the Syrian civil war, which started in 2011, and the spread of Islamic terrorist groups like Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, etc. The 73000-84000 victims who have hitherto died in the Arab-Israeli conflict since its start cannot simply be ignored, but today we see another conflict in the region which has only lasted six years, but has witnessed 3-and-a-half-fold the amount of deaths, by the most conservative estimates. The conflict has also, as of late, to a bigger degree affected the citizens of the West, through jihad attacks by Islamic extremists, most notably in England and France, but also in the United States. It has for these reasons been an important matter of foreign policy for world leaders to consider, especially the United States, with its history of involvement in the conflict, as well as Russia, whose border is close to the region.
President Donald Trump of the United States met President Vladimir Putin of Russia in January, to discuss this matter, and they agreed to cooperate in Syria. Almost 10 months later, after the recent APEC summit meeting, they talked again, this time agreeing to work together on fighting ISIS until they’ve been defeated. There’s already been much progress on decreasing ISIS-controlled territory between 2015 and 2017, which BBC illustrates here: (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-41953110). This achievement can surely not be credited only to Donald Trump’s last year of governing, as their total amount of territory decreased from 90800 square kilometers in 2015 to 68300 in mid-2016, but he seems dedicated to getting the last blow.
On the Syrian conflict, the strategies of Russian and the U.S. seems to differ a lot more. Jon B. Alterman, Director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., stated his observations about their strategies in an analysis in July, claiming that it seems like Russia sees international relations as a “zero-sum game,” and that “the more benefit that accrues to the United States, the worse it is for Russia, and the more hostility there is to the United States, the better it is for Russia.” He goes on to say that the U.S. position has been to create strong societies through broad economic opportunities, open markets and inclusive politics: “first to foster societies strong enough to reject communism, and more recently to foster societies strong enough to reject terrorism.” He also claims that Russia seem to view the economic focus as exclusionary and the political focus as “dangerous and naïve.” He sums it up in this manner:
“The Russian strategy, as best we can make out, has three components. The first is to challenge Middle Eastern governments’ prevailing pro-Western instincts. This is done in part by undermining the image of the West and Western intentions, and in part by fomenting disorder among pro-Western coalitions (which, it must be admitted, were initially established to contain the Soviet Union).”
He concludes with the theory that the U.S. are “playing for victory,” while Russia is aiming for a tie.
When looking at the individual connections within the conflict, it’s easier to get a more general picture. It is common knowledge at this point that Trump has a positive view of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and a negative view of Iran. Russia also seem pro-Saudi (see: $3bn commitment for Russia to supply the Saudis with its most advanced air defense missile system, the S400 Triumph), but the main difference between their foreign policy tactic in the Middle East seems to be that the United States support Syrian Arab and Kurdish rebels trying to overthrow the Syrian government and its leader Bashar al-Assad, while Russia support Assad through military aid. What’s strange is that Iran seem to be supporting the Syrian government too, as the Russians, but the Russians also support a fierce Iran enemy (see: Iran-Saudi Arabia Proxy Conflict 2011-present). It has been claimed that Russia also works with Iran (see: [Putin] has already forged a working strategic partnership with Iran…), which by stretch indicates them being a “double-agent” in the conflict, but what we know more for certain, is that it is one of the most complex conflicts going on in contemporary politics, and that with a simplified explanation, some information may be doomed to be omitted.
According to a recent poll held by Jerusalem Post, including the opinions of 600 Jewish and Arab men and women (error margin +/-4%), 52% Israeli thinks Vladimir Putin has the bigger influence on the developments in the Middle East, while only 15% thinks Donald Trump has, and 21% saying they have an equal amount of influence. 52% of them also thinks that the nuclear deal with Iran (see: Iran Nuclear Agreement Act) doesn’t change the level of threat posed by Tehran to Israel. Furthermore, 48% of them thinks they can achieve regional cooperation without progress on the peace process with the Palestinians, though most Israeli (59%) agreed that Israeli Arabs should play a greater role in the peace process. Trump has gotten well along with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but it does not seem like the Israeli society is optimistic about Trump’s endeavors ever being of benefit to their nation.
Iranian-American journalist Vali Reza Nasr wrote a critique about Trump’s foreign policy position to the New York Times in July 17, titled “Trump’s Gift to Putin in the Mideast.” He starts of by pointing out that he “helped [KSA] split a Sunni Muslim alliance that was supposed to fight against the Islamic State – so much so that Qatar and Turkey moved closer together and became open to cooperation with Iran and Russia,” adding that Trump “virtually handed the keys to the region to his adversary by agreeing to a cease-fire in Syria that assumed a lasting presence of Russian influence in that conflict – which only consolidated the likelihood of wider regional influence.” He opines that while the Trump administration can often contradict each other, Putin never misses an opportunity to expand Russia’s presence in the region. “The most egregious mistake,” he claims, was scolding and isolating Qatar, dividing its Sunni alliance with Turkey, which both are crucial for U.S. military presence in the region.
He also claims to have the answer of why Russia is interested in the region…:
“Consider how much oil flows from the Persian Gulf and the Arabian deserts to the West; for Russia, that alone makes the region’s countries either its rivals or its partners, oil being the one plausible resource on which to pin Mr. Putin’s hopes of restoring Russia’s status as a global power capable of challenging the United States.”
… and how this happened:
“Mr. Trump’s open support of Saudi Arabia and its allies against Qatar was taken as a warning to Turkey, Iraq and Oman that they too would face ostracism by the Saudis – and America – if the Saudis were to accuse them of supporting extremism or getting too friendly with Iran.”
Nasr criticizes Trump for acting without understanding the “complexity of Middle East politics.” And indeed, it is complex, as stated above, one cannot get a full grip of the situation overnight, but it’s surely of vital importance to contemporary politics, and world leaders’ foreign policy on the Middle East determines, among others, how many more Westerners will be killed by Islamic extremists; how many more Syrian civilians will keep dying in their civil war; how many more Israelites and Palestinians will be killed in their seemingly endless conflict; and how many more refugees and immigrants will keep pouring from the region into the Western world. It’s a matter one must take very seriously, and Mr. Trump should therefore be extra careful with his future tweets, actions, and relation with Russia on this matter, if he wants what is best for their national security and citizens of the world.