The US role in the Middle East is eroding as Russia gains traction

Wednesday, May 29, 2019
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

The US has yet to make a determination if Syria used chemical weapons in its attacks in Idlib province against al Qaeda-linked Islamic militants. It is also unclear from successive statements by the State Department if a red line still exists regarding their use. This puts the Trump Administration squarely in the dilemma faced by the Obama Administration: is there a red line or not and what is the price to pay for a violation of that standard?

Russia and Syria counter that the militants are behind the use of chlorine gas, seeking to divert blame from the Assad regime. Some determination will likely be made this week. Given the announced movement of some 1000 US troops to the region to counter Iranian pressure on US allies, responding forcefully to the use of chemical weapons will be another indicator of greater US involvement in the region, something that the Administration has been vocally avoiding. This is not the only theater in which the US finds itself caught itself in a conundrum.

When the US entered the civil war in Libya against Ghaddafi, American intervention was limited to providing logistics, air support and cover, and limited bombing forays, ostensibly to protect civilians. This was later mirrored by Russia in its initial Syria intervention to support its ally. The big difference, critics note, is that Russia has a plan and the US didn’t and has not, either in Syria or Libya.

This is beginning to pay big dividends in Syria as Russia has already realized many strategic economic and military benefits from its role. When Assad announced preferential status to Russian companies in 2016 in the energy sector, they moved quickly to build gas processing plants and refineries in several locations. We have previously noted the 50-year contract to develop Syria’s phosphate fields and the expansion of the port in Tartus.

Helping cement Russia’s role in global energy markets is its lead in the expansion of Syria’s gas and oil fields in the eastern part of the country and potentially the East Mediterranean basin, where it has key port locations. Taken together with Moscow’s pledge to build up Syria’s nuclear energy capability, Russia’s energy strategy will give it a significant role vis-à-vis other players such as Egypt and Israel and have an impact on gas supplies to the EU.

These economic benefits parallel the military advances that have accrued as Russia tests new weapons and weapons systems in Syria, literally making it a workshop for more than 200 advances in Russian arms capabilities. As noted in a recent article in Fikra Forum, “The entrenched nature of Russian military instillation in Syria emphasizes that even with Assad reclaiming significant territory, the Russian military intends to maintain a significant military presence in the country for the foreseeable future.” This becomes an obvious lever for countries like Iran, Egypt, and Turkey seeking to protect their regimes from US policies that they deem unfriendly and even hostile in the case of Tehran.

Lebanon, like Jordan, has a complicated relationship with both the US and Russia, as they attempt to fashion national strategic defense postures that preserve their territorial independence without being overwhelmed with refugees and border tensions. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Lebanon’s continuing border dispute with Israel over their land and sea borders. Now, it seems that the US may play a role in facilitating a resolution of the differing positions.

It was noted this past week that Israel may have agreed to Lebanon’s conditions for a final solution that included a role for the US and the UN, and that both the land and maritime borders will be agreed simultaneously. At question is the governance of around 350 square miles offshore which both countries claim are part of its exclusive economic zone. Whether or not this tentative agreement will stand up to the pressures of the small parcels of land claimed by Lebanon adjacent to the Golan Heights was not discussed in public.

Settling the border is critical for Lebanon, which, according to the Jerusalem Post, “Is grappling with an economic crisis, [and] is hoping to solve the demarcation dispute with Israel in order to accelerate the process to allow for companies to explore for oil and gas in the disputed area.”