Geopolitics were evolving before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but the crisis has catalysed its turning tides. Although the Middle East wears its impact lightly so far, the influence of this distant war on regional geopolitics promises to grow.
Until recently, regional relations between the US and Russia remained cooperative. Expectations that this state of affairs would endure, however, now look doubtful. Ukraine has thrown into relief the degree to which US-Russia cooperation shapes the affairs of troubled spots in the Middle East. An indefinite spell of conflict between Russia and the US (with the wider West) imperils stability in the region if the collaborative spirit which has flavoured this dynamic yields to confrontation.
This is most visible in Syria where political outcomes are wholly contingent on cooperation between America and Russia, now troubled by the latter’s blunt aggression in Ukraine. Slim hopes in the UN-led process seeking a nationwide ceasefire in an attempt to stabilise the conflict and advance a sustainable political solution, have all but faded amid the surge of US-Russia acrimony.
Russia has cautiously manoeuvred around NATO forces in Syria since its invasion and prior. But Russia’s tolerance of US counter-terrorist operations or distribution of humanitarian aid could now change. As of yet, however, there is no sign nor indeed obvious reason why Russian forces might heighten tension with US troops on the ground.
This concern also extends to Libya. The bite of sanctions and political isolation on the world stage could incite a vindictiveness in Moscow, leading it to assume a more uncompromising posture addressing political divisions in Libya. Despite strained resources in Ukraine, Russia appears to be sitting firm in Eastern Libya with Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army, hoping to seize a generous stake in the country’s future.
Ukraine has also defined other geopolitical tensions. In late May, Turkey announced an approaching military operation to carve out a 30-kilometre safe zone along its border with Syria; Ankara had previously refrained from doing this while a cease fire mediated by Russia prevailed. An emboldened Erdogan might seek to leverage Russia’s opposition to Sweden and Finland joining NATO, which needs Turkey’s approval, to alter Russia’s prior opposition made in concert with Washington.
Military tension between Israel and Iran has also risen. Filling up Russia’s depleted military bases and assuming greater control over contested areas in the country, Tehran is enjoying more power and licence in Syria with Moscow’s eyes and energies averted.
Predictably, Israeli operations have multiplied to counter this unwelcome development; strikes on Syrian airports have intensified to disturb Tehran’s increasing use of aerial supply lines to arm its allies.
Ukraine’s conflict also affects the Iranian Nuclear Deal, whose negotiations continue to be doggedly thrashed out by the Biden administration (a ripple of hope dashed by yet another obstacle is now bi-monthly ritual in Washington). In March, it appeared that the growing weight of Western sanctions had prompted Moscow to stall negotiations. But a week later, Russia appeared to signal that sanctions would not, in fact, impinge on them.
However, the degree to which these already fragile negotiations can proceed without being undercut by soaring US-Russian tension is questionable.
Broader diplomatic effort to curb regional missile proliferation similarly faces dim prospects between the pooling of Russian and American attention in Ukraine, and enthusiasm for deterrence across the Gulf as a means of defence.
Russia’s estrangement on the world stage has strengthened its relations with China, inviting more teamwork between the two powers in the Middle East. Given its interest in regional stability, Beijing has likely nurtured a quiet respect for Moscow’s unyielding efforts to reimpose stability on Syria and make battle with democratic forces.
There is little indication at present that China and Russia proactively coordinate their approaches in the region. China’s position in the Middle East remains tethered to commerce and has traditionally deferred to US interests.
However, its regional relations with Washington are now taut in matters of arms and technology. The sharpening of anti-Westernism in Beijing’s foreign policy and mounting frustration in Moscow could inspire greater China-Russia regional cooperation at the expense of US interests.
Indeed, recent developments in the Shanghai Co-Operation Organisation, namely Iran being granted membership, suggests that Beijing is now summoning an anti-Western world order; the fact that Beijing resisted Tehran’s membership only a few years ago to avoid irritating Washington speaks to the realignment of global dynamics.
As Ukraine is sunk further into a ceaseless state of conflict and its strain chokes world affairs, the consequences will fall heavier on Middle Eastern geopolitics.
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