Geopolitics Abhors a Vacuum: Why America’s Withdrawal From the Middle East – and Russia’s Rise – May Make War Inevitable

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As the world has learned in recent weeks, events in the Middle East are notoriously hard to read.  On the surface, it seems that the U.S., after a period of withdrawal, is recommitting to the region, with a robust military response to events triggered by Iran.  A more assertive U.S. has successfully defended its Baghdad Embassy, and audaciously took out Iran's Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike at the Baghdad Airport.

Beneath the surface, I see a different U.S. policy taking shape. In the midst of these military responses, I am witnessing what seems to be a fighting retreat.  Expect a strong U.S. response only when U.S. lives are lost or under imminent threat.  As the President’s National Security Advisor said on the Sunday talk shows:  “The President said we want to be out of the Middle East.  But what we need to do is leave on our terms….”

As the U.S. recedes, Russia advances. In the wake of the Suleimani drone strike, Russian President Vladimir Putin is crisscrossing the Middle East, meeting with Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, and stopping in Ankara to broker a cease-fire in Libya.

Nature, they say, abhors a vacuum.  So too does geopolitics. And so, Putin steps forward as America steps back.  Russia runs the show in northern Syria.  Assad stands unchallenged – given a second life by Russian backing.  Syria is now, if we speak freely, a protectorate of Russia.

Russia seeks a naval base with access to the Mediterranean.  Syria provides it.  Russia seeks air force bases in the region.  Syria provides them.  A small price for Assad to pay to keep his place in power, and his head on his shoulders.

Beyond Syria, the Russians systematically widen their influence, becoming a regional power broker.  Egypt holds joint exercises with Russia.  In Turkey, nominally a member of NATO, Russian influence increases as America’s influence on Ankara ebbs.  Saudi leaders welcome Putin.  In Geneva, the fate of Syria is decided.  At the table:  foreign ministers from Turkey, Iran and Russia.

Absent:  America. To say that Russia under Putin is not a natural ally of the West and of democracy is an understatement.  Russia, as an autocratic regime, is a natural ally of Iran.  What Ronald Reagan once said of Russia in its Soviet-era is true of today's Iran:  It is an Evil Empire.  Part of the affinity between Putin and the Mullahs is that neither are moved by the suffering of their people and – as we now see in the anti-regime protests in Teheran -- neither will hesitate to use violence to retain power.

As for Russia’s approach to Daesh, its opposition to ISIS will be situational: If its terror is trained on Israel and the West, its depravity will be ignored.  This U.S. victory in Syria, ending the Caliphate, may paradoxically pave the way for more terror, not less. 

In Israel, where we understand the necessity of military strength, we also understand we are a regional power – not a global power.  The U.S. was responsible for global force projection, ensuring Israel’s protection – Israel’s very existence in a hostile neighborhood.  Hating Israel is one thing.  But who would risk the wrath of America by acting on that hatred?   In the Middle East, image matters.  It can augment power.  Israel, formidable in its own right – has long enjoyed a close friendship with the United States.  The image of that “unshakeable bond” multiplied Israel’s strength.  

In stepping back from a region of “endless wars,” America has made more likely the next war.  And it is not at all clear that coming conflict will not once again pull America in – and this time, at greater risk, now that a renegade Russia, with America’s withdrawal, is the rising power in the Middle East.

What we see from the United States Government is a penchant for saying one thing one day, and another the next – whether the subject is the value of NATO or stationing troops in Syria.  This self-inflicted uncertainty is destabilizing.  As a force for peace, there is no alternative to the U.S. – no alternative to its military power, its economic strength, its democratic ideals -- but what we need is consistent policy, expressing a consistent message to friend and foe alike, sustaining a steady, strong approach to a vicious Iran, renegade Russia, and other malign forces in the world.

We need an America that is great again.  Peace, and not only in the Middle East, depends upon it.

Major General Amos Gilead (Res.) is the Executive Director of the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) at IDC Herzliya in Herzliya, Israel.  Prior to assuming his current position, General Gilead led a distinguished career for more than three decades in the Israel Defense Forces and in the Israeli Defense Establishment, his last position being Director of Policy and Political-Military Affairs at the Ministry of Defense. 

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