Outlook 2017

Middle East's new power brokers

Russia, Turkey and Iran flex muscles as Putin fills power void left by Obama This is the last of a five-part series looking at the key events and issues facing the world in 2017. Today, The Straits Times looks at the Middle East and enormous challenges facing the war-torn region.

A young Syrian sweet seller warming himself by a fire in a damaged building in Aleppo on Christmas Day. Events this year have shown the new arbiters of the Middle East to be Russia, Turkey and Iran.
A young Syrian sweet seller warming himself by a fire in a damaged building in Aleppo on Christmas Day. Events this year have shown the new arbiters of the Middle East to be Russia, Turkey and Iran. PHOTO: REUTERS

As another grim year of warfare and immense human suffering concluded in the Middle East, three key powers recently got together to coordinate their regional moves in the coming year.

At first glance, it was nothing unusual; summits on the Middle East are not exactly a novelty. But this meeting was radically different. For it did not include the United States, until recently the Middle East's chief arbiter. Nor did it include the representatives of even one Arab nation; instead, it involved Russia, Turkey and Iran, the region's new main players.

Few events illustrate the Middle East's real condition more accurately than this summit. For this is a region from which one superpower is sliding off, a former superpower is returning, and almost everyone else is running fast just to stand still.

The outgoing US administration of President Barack Obama bristles at the suggestion that it has abandoned the Middle East. It points to Washington's crucial role in negotiating the nuclear deal with Iran, the presence of US special forces in Iraq, the supply of essential intelligence information in the continued fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and US military assistance programmes for key regional allies such as the Gulf monarchies, Israel and Jordan.

Still, seasoned politicians and diplomats across the region cannot recall a period when the US counted for so little. For it's not only Iran which is acting more brazenly by encouraging its proxies to fight openly for regional influence, but also US allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, which are openly defying Washington's advice and engaging in their own military adventures.

Perceptions play a key role in America's decline as a regional power. With 45,000 troops stationed in and around the Middle East, the US military still packs a bigger punch than the national armies of many of the region's own countries. And nobody doubts America's ability to pour more troops into the region, should it wish to. The problem is Mr Obama has clearly decided that, whatever happens in the region, he will not allow the US military to become directly engaged. He cannot complain, therefore, if nobody takes the US seriously now.

America's void was filled by Russia. Back in September last year, when President Vladimir Putin ordered his military to intervene in Syria, Moscow's objective was merely to prop up the government of President Bashar al-Assad and earn for Russia a place at any future regional negotiating table. Nobody took this seriously; Mr Obama famously warned that Russia merely walked into a "quagmire".

But during 2016, it became clear that it is Washington which is now facing a quagmire. For the Russians not only succeeded in propping up Mr Assad, they also forged new strategic partnerships with Turkey and Iran. Russia has now regained the role of an important regional player, a position last held in 1973; it is a spectacular turnaround of a kind even Mr Putin could not have imagined a few years ago.

And this has been followed by the continued rise of Iran's footprint in the region. Gone are the days when Iran was careful to hide its involvement in neighbouring countries; its Shi'ite proxies now openly proclaim their allegiance to Iran, and are actively engaged in warfare in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

It is a nightmare which has already cost the lives of about 400,000 Syrians. And even if Western-trained and supplied forces succeed in defeating ISIS, violence will merely shift to other targets. The basic fact remains that the borders of the region's states - carved out by the old colonial masters of Britain and France almost exactly a century ago - are slowly melting down.

In theory, it is possible that the incoming Donald Trump administration will reverse course. But some of its proposed initiatives, such as the repudiation of the nuclear deal with Iran, will only guarantee an even higher level of regional violence. And Mr Trump's close association with Israel will continue to hamper US efforts to influence the behaviour of other Arab states.

The bitter irony is that Mr Obama, who came into office determined to stabilise the Middle East by withdrawing US military commitments, now leaves behind a smouldering Middle East whose flames will take years to control.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 31, 2016, with the headline Middle East's new power brokers. Subscribe