Assessing China and Russia’s Moves in the Middle East

Ali Wyne, Colin P. Clarke
Thursday, September 17, 2020, 8:14 AM

The United States will need to learn how to work with and around the influence of other powerful states.

U.S. Marines participate in a live-fire demonstration at al-Tanf Garrison in Syria on Sept. 7, 2018, several months after it was attacked by Russian proxies. Photo credit: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Carlos Lopez via DVIDS

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Recent news that China and Iran are close to finalizing an economic and security partnership, initially proposed by Beijing in January 2016, has renewed anxieties among some U.S. observers that Washington is gradually ceding the Middle East to its principal strategic competitor. Commenters raised similar concerns after the January 2020 assassination of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Targeting Soleimani undermined relations not only with Iran, but also with Iraq, since the drone strike that killed him took place at Baghdad International Airport and also killed an Iraqi Shiite militia commander.

While the United States is concerned primarily about a resurgent China’s inroads in the Middle East, it is also nervous about the gambits of a revanchist Russia, which is perhaps now the most influential external actor in both Syria and Libya. The White House’s 2017 national security strategy and the Pentagon’s 2018 national defense strategy are concerned principally about the revival of great-power competition with Beijing and Moscow. While many discussions center on the Asia-Pacific and the Baltic regions, the Middle East is starting to figure more prominently. This June, the commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., described the region as a “Wild West” arena of competition in which China is principally using its economic heft to establish a long-term strategic “beachhead,” and Russia is using limited but “pretty high-intensity” deployments of military assets “to throw sand in [America’s] gears” and “appear to be a player on the global stage when it comes to Middle Eastern issues.”

Some erosion of U.S. influence in the Middle East was likely inevitable. America’s relative preeminence in world affairs is considerably lower than it was when the Soviet Union dissolved. China and Russia, meanwhile, are far more capable of translating long-standing grievances against the post-Cold War order into meaningful opposition—principally in their respective near abroads, but also further afield, including in the Middle East. U.S. policymakers and the public alike, meanwhile, are increasingly calling for a recalibration of their country’s role in the region, owing not only to deep disappointment with nearly two decades of military morass in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also to a growing sentiment that the United States should circumscribe and demilitarize its efforts in the Middle East. While that judgment is not unanimous, it is gaining more high-profile advocates: An essay by Johns Hopkins University’s Mara Karlin and the Brookings Institution’s Tamara Cofman Wittes in the January/February 2019 issue of Foreign Affairs, an article by the Council on Foreign Relations’s Martin Indyk this January in the Wall Street Journal, and a paper by the Center for a New American Security’s Ilan Goldenberg and Kaleigh Thomas this July are three notable examples. Finally, one might argue that the Middle East does not figure as prominently in U.S. national interests as it did a decade or two earlier. The unconventional energy revolution underway in the United States makes it less dependent on imports of crude oil and natural gas from the region, and U.S. counterterrorism operations have significantly reduced the threat that the global jihadist movement poses to the homeland.

To the extent that Washington rebalances its strategic bandwidth and extant resources toward the Asia-Pacific, Beijing and Moscow will necessarily have more freedom of maneuver to make inroads in the Middle East—should they choose to pursue that path. China is the top trading partner for Iran and 10 Arab League countries, and it became the region’s largest source of foreign direct investment in 2016. Its navy, meanwhile, established its first overseas military base in 2017, in Djibouti. Russia, as noted earlier, has positioned itself as a major arbiter of the civil wars in Syria and Libya, and has flirted with selling sophisticated weapons systems, including the S-400 air defense system, to Turkey, a member country of NATO. Beijing and Moscow are also increasing arms sales to other countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia.

Both countries will likely continue to avail themselves of opportunities to increase their influence across the Middle East, especially if U.S. missteps enable them to do so with incremental, low-effort initiatives that have a perceived positive return on investment. America’s ongoing “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, for example, will almost surely compel Tehran to cultivate deeper ties with Beijing.

It is unclear, though, that either China or Russia is agitating to become a regional security heavyweight. They have seen how much the United States has squandered financially and strategically over the past two decades, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq, and they would like to avoid similar pitfalls. They would do well to heed a quip that is often attributed to German statesman Otto von Bismarck: “Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”

Even if either country were somehow to establish itself as the preeminent regional power, it is unclear that it would succeed, unlike the United States, in shielding itself from the multilayered chaos gripping the Middle East. Writing in the New Yorker, Robin Wright recently distilled the confluence of crises that have befallen the region:

The twin crises of sickness and sliding oil prices [have] coincided with rumbling instability: three ongoing civil wars—lasting for five years in Yemen, six years in Libya, and nine years in Syria—plus months of deadly protests in Iraq; the implosion of Lebanon’s monetary system; the third Israeli election in a year; the presence of millions of refugees and displaced people in rudimentary camps in Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon; and the resurgence of suicide attacks and assassinations by ISIS.

China likely hopes that its partnership with Iran will facilitate the expansion of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) across the Middle East. It is telling, though, that the reception in Tehran has been lukewarm, at best. The New York Times observes that “critics across the political spectrum in Iran have raised concerns that the government is secretly ‘selling off’ the country to China in a moment of economic weakness and international isolation.” Beijing must also contend with the likelihood that the deal—even if, as some observers suggest, it is less sweeping and detailed than many accounts portray—will rankle many other Middle Eastern countries with which it is concurrently trying to strengthen ties. Incidentally, this year’s gathering of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum, a dialogue between the foreign ministers of China and the members of the Arab League that occurs once every two years, was held on July 6, less than a week after the Times’s report detailing the contours of the proposed Sino-Iranian partnership. Two of the countries China is focusing on, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, happen to be its largest and third-largest suppliers of crude oil, respectively. The further Beijing’s economic footprint in the Middle East grows, and the more it relies on oil from the region, the more likely that China will become further enmeshed in regional affairs, notwithstanding its avowed insistence on noninterference in other countries’ domestic politics and a commitment, at least rhetorically, to respecting sovereignty.

Specifically, deep-seated animosities between Iran and its Arab neighbors could undercut the stability of regional oil exports to China, as demonstrated by the September 2019 drone strikes on the Abqaiq processing facility and Khurais production field in Saudi Arabia—which, the Center for Strategic and International Studies’s Frank Verrastro notes, caused “the single largest daily oil supply disruption in history.” While global oil markets recovered quickly, the growing sophistication and proliferation of drone technology suggest that this incident could prove to be more of a harbinger than an aberration. Regional tensions could also cause Beijing to tread carefully as it expands its profile in the Middle East. It would be an impressive diplomatic feat if China were to grow its influence indefinitely, without inadvertently wading—or being pressured by its regional partners to enter—into the Middle East’s complex and contentious diplomacy. Washington’s and Moscow’s respective histories in the region, though, should caution Beijing against believing it will be unscathed by regional competition. The consequences of being drawn into the Middle East’s fractious geopolitics could also undercut its signature geoeconomic undertaking; the greater a proportion of its BRI investments it disburses to the Middle East, the greater the risk that political instability, terrorist attacks, and economic shocks could slow the initiative’s momentum.

Russia, meanwhile, has exhibited tactical agility in the Middle East, but not necessarily strategic foresight. U.S. and European sanctions on Moscow had made its interventions in the region costly well before the coronavirus emerged. Now that the pandemic has driven Russia into recession and upended global oil markets, its opportunistic forays seem even less sustainable. In Syria, the regime of Bashar al-Assad is a shadow of its former self and an international pariah, presiding over an economy in freefall and, surely to Moscow’s irritation, resisting even Russian-backed efforts to facilitate a truce with opposition forces. Moreover, Libya’s internecine conflict has grown increasingly complicated, and Russian efforts to turn the tide in favor of the warlord Khalifa Haftar have been thwarted by Turkey’s support for Haftar’s rivals in the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord. Moscow’s seeming outmaneuvering of Washington may ultimately prove a Pyrrhic victory. As the Middle East Institute’s Charles Lister concluded recently, “Russia’s ‘anti-interventionist interventions’ may be proving as complicated and costly as the American-led ones it has so aggressively opposed in the past.”

Going forward, then, U.S. policymakers should keep in mind five propositions as they assess America’s evolving posture in the Middle East relative to those of China and Russia. First, the three countries’ interactions need not always be zero-sum; they have shared national interests in maintaining the stability of regional oil supplies and countering terrorism. Second, though the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is now foundering, it demonstrates that great powers can in fact cooperate in the service of ambitious diplomatic objectives. Third, not every alleged misstep or operational realignment on Washington’s part automatically redounds to Beijing and/or Moscow’s strategic benefit; China is increasingly likely to find itself in the crosshairs of regional rivalries, and Russia’s military forays are draining its coffers. Fourth, even as the United States trains its sights on the Asia-Pacific, the sheer scope of military assets and diplomatic networks it has cultivated in the Middle East in the postwar era suggests that predictions of its displacement are overwrought. Fifth, and finally, in assessing Beijing’s and Moscow’s respective activities in the Middle East, Washington risks overreacting if it conflates long-term, multifaceted strategic partnerships and temporary, limited tactical alignments. As the United States decides when and how to contest China and Russia—in and beyond the Middle East—it will have to resist alarmism as vigorously as complacency.

Ali Wyne is a senior analyst with Eurasia Group’s Global Macro practice.
Colin P. Clarke is the director of policy and research at The Soufan Group and a senior research fellow at The Soufan Center.

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