American shift to China both opportunity and peril for US mideast allies

Written by on December 5, 2021

The American policy of redirecting its attention to the “China challenge” and the Indo-Pacific region, while reducing its presence elsewhere – including in the Middle East – will continue, according to what is known of the US Department of Defense’s Global Posture Review (GPR) whose completion was announced on Monday.

Although not surprising to US allies and foes in the region, the review once more highlights the need to prepare for the decreased American presence, which has informed some policies in recent times and will most certainly shape attitudes in the future.

The review in its entirety is not available to the public, but the Pentagon’s statement on Monday said, “The conclusion of the review comes at a key inflection point following the end of operations in Afghanistan and ongoing development of the National Defense Strategy. … The GPR will help strengthen posture decision-making processes, improve DoD’s global response capability, and inform the draft of the next National Defense Strategy.

“In the Indo-Pacific, the review directs additional cooperation with allies and partners to advance initiatives that contribute to regional stability and deter potential Chinese military aggression and threats from North Korea. These initiatives include seeking greater regional access for military partnership activities; enhancing infrastructure in Australia and the Pacific Islands; and planning rotational aircraft deployments in Australia, as announced in September,” the statement continued.

A DoD News article noted some practical consequences of this, such as improving American defense infrastructure in Australia, Guam and across the Pacific islands.

On the Middle East, the Pentagon’s statement said, “The GPR assessed the department’s approach toward Iran and the evolving counterterrorism requirements following the end of DoD operations in Afghanistan. In Iraq and Syria, DoD posture will continue to support the Defeat-ISIS campaign and building the capacity of partner forces. Looking ahead, the review directs DoD to conduct additional analysis on enduring posture requirements in the Middle East.”

 A man stands near a fluttering Chinese national flag on a cruise boat on the Yalu River separating North Korea and China, in Dandong, Liaoning province, China April 20, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/TINGSHU WANG) A man stands near a fluttering Chinese national flag on a cruise boat on the Yalu River separating North Korea and China, in Dandong, Liaoning province, China April 20, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/TINGSHU WANG)

The DoD News article said President Joe Biden had accepted the review’s recommendations. It further pointed out, “It is no surprise that the Indo-Pacific is the priority region for the review, given the secretary’s [Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s] focus on China as America’s pacing challenge.”

Dr. Mara Karlin, acting deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, told DoD News, “As Secretary Austin noted … we have global responsibilities and must ensure the readiness and modernization of our forces. These considerations require us to make continuous changes to our Middle East posture, but we always have the capability to rapidly deploy forces to the region based on the threat environment.”

Dr. Christopher Bolan, a senior fellow at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Middle East Program and professor of Middle East security studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College, told The Media Line, “I strongly suspect that we will see much more of a realignment of US force presence rather than a wholesale withdrawal or major reduction in US military presence.”

Bolan points to Iraq as an example, suggesting that while the US has said that its combat mission in the country will end by December 2021, “many of those 2,500 troops could remain while transitioning to a military training or ‘advise and assist mission.

“The army ground presence in the region will likely transition to a more narrow focus on conducting and supporting counterterrorism missions in addition to maintaining needed logistical, storage and transportation networks necessary to support a potential future surge of US forces if needed. Meanwhile, the US naval and air forces will provide the military muscle serving as a deterrent to aggressive Iranian actions,” Bolan says further.

Additionally, specialty units such as Patriot missile batteries, as well as aircraft carrier battle groups, may be sent to other “high demand theaters,” he says.

Referring to the impact of these changes on American allies in the Middle East, Bolan says, “American leaders hear a constant chorus of complaints from regional leaders that the US is abandoning the region. However, this rhetoric is greatly exaggerated for reasons of domestic and international politics. The US will remain militarily, economically and diplomatically engaged in the region, although at a reduced level of intensity as American leaders focus on great power competition at the expense of the 20-year-long ‘war on terrorism.”

However, Rasha Loai Al Joundy, a research supervisor at B’huth − The Dubai Public Policy Research Centre and a Gulf security expert, expresses what may be termed a sense of abandonment felt by traditional American allies in the Gulf.

“The discussion about US withdrawal from the Middle East has been brewing for more than a decade. However, the action to really withdraw from the region didn’t really materialize until recently, and the most critical step was withdrawing US missile defenses from Saudi Arabia in the midst of being threatened by Iran-backed Houthis, a move that was simply described by Brett McGurk, White House Middle East coordinator, as ‘natural redeployment,’ Al Joundy says.

“No matter how the secretary of defense Lloyd Austin asserted the commitment of the US to its allies in the region or the perpetual interest the US has in the Gulf, the actions led to the feeling of a serious pivoting from the region. And it generated a heated discussion among US allies,” Al Joundy told The Media Line.

She says there has been a “fundamental change in the US strategy regarding its vision of maintaining its influence in the Gulf region.”

The US now seeks to impact the region, Al Joundy explains, by supplying Gulf countries with advanced weaponry that will help to compensate for the reduced US support. She warns, though, that “the intention to translate the approach to reality needs at least a decade since it includes massive training and cooperation among regional countries, including Israel, to be able to lead a defensive model as an alternative to the US military umbrella.”

Al Joundy adds that Tehran, “the main threat to US allies,” isn’t deterred, it appears, by advanced munitions “since it works on shadow wars, not direct confrontations.” With this in mind, she says “there is no guarantee that a strategy in which the Arab states work together with Israel under CENTCOM [the US military’s Central Command] would lead to a safe region and deter Iran.”

Notably, Al Joundy believes that the American realignment may not only spell trouble for its allies in the region but could also prove counterproductive to its own goals. “If the US wants to contain China, the Gulf should be on its top list, not the contrary, since China relies on this region for its energy security and seeks to include it in its Silk Road initiative,” she says.

Additionally, Russia and Iran are likely to expand to fill the gaps created by the American withdrawal. Following the US stepping back, “the region would face the chaos of Iran and its proxies pursuing hegemonic presence on a massive scale, probably more than what the region witnessed after signing the JCPOA [Iran nuclear deal] in 2015 or after the [US] withdrawal from Iraq in 2011.”

In the Gulf, says Al Joundy, “countries are trying to react positively to the US’s new strategy but also putting [out] a strategy of their own.” This includes repairing relations with Qatar and Turkey and even reaching out to Tehran. Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have made efforts to lower tensions with the Islamic Republic. Al Joundy explains that this is indicative of the urgency with which these two countries are acting to protect themselves, in the face of changing American priorities.

“A strategy of working with the foes [Iran and Turkey] and making new friends by solidifying the Abraham Accords is the cornerstone of the new foreign policy in the Gulf [as], in fact, it should be,” Al Joundy says. She warned, however, that “extra caution is needed because working with the foes does not change the fact of them being foes.”

Col. (res.) Eldad Shavit, a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies and an expert on regional security and US policy in the Middle East, also told The Media Line that understanding in the region has long been that “the Americans are changing their priorities, and focusing their attention and force mainly on Asia.”

This does not mean, he says, that the US has stopped being an important element in the region, but it is less likely to commit militarily before very carefully considering its interests.

“I believe,” Shavit says, “that a significant part of the developments in the region nowadays are a consequence of this understanding that US policy has changed.”

In addition to diplomatic efforts mentioned by Al Joundy, he points to warming ties between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Arab states such as Egypt and the UAE, which had turned their backs on the president, blamed for atrocities against civilians in the war-torn country. “Much of this arises from the understanding that future conduct needs to be different, mainly because of the feeling … that it will be a Middle East in which the US is no longer central,” he says.

For Israel, Shavit says “there is no doubt that the understanding that the US is here was a part of Israel’s security agenda, and the moment that the Arab conception is that the US is no longer here, that could certainly harm Israel, and maybe even challenge its stance in relation to its enemies.”

Israel’s main cause for concern is Iran, and Shavit explains that Jerusalem wishes the White House were more assertive in its dealings with Tehran, including clarifying that military action against the country’s nuclear program is on the table. That, however, is something that the US does not appear to be interested in, he says. Quite the contrary, on Monday, the US resumed negotiations with Iran after a five-month hiatus in an effort to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.

America stepping back is not all bad for Israel, however, says Shavit.

“I think that the present situation could be an opportunity [for Israel]” to further its cooperation with its allies in the Gulf, as well as advance its collaboration with the US on global concerns such as climate change and water supplies,” he says. With the US less present, Israel could improve its understanding with Washington as well by helping to preserve American interests in the region on the one hand, and at the same time, perhaps having a better chance at furthering its own interests.

Bolan also sees a possible opportunity.

“Ideally these developments would compel Arab leaders to reduce regional tensions and establish more effective cooperative bonds across the region. In terms of defense posture, this would mean lowering regional tensions while forging a common Gulf Arab military strategy and establishing integrated military capabilities that would better contribute to deterrence of Iran,” he says.

“In terms of domestic policies, Arab leaders will need to directly address those domestic political, economic and social forces that fueled the Arab uprisings. That would include domestic reforms that will improve the effectiveness of government, create more resilient and tolerant societies, and generate better economic opportunities for their citizens,” he continues.

However, perpetual instability in the region threatens efforts of de-escalation and increases intra-regional competition and tension.

“The ultimate outcome of this pull and tug between competition and cooperation is uncertain. But there is little doubt in my mind that the future of the region would be better served by seizing on the current prospects for reduced tensions, increased integration, and more effective cooperation,” Bolan says.

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