Ahmed Ezz Eldin
Last updated: 14 November, 2013

Did America lose control of the Middle East?

Does growing discontent with US policies in the Middle East indicate that the US has lost its control of the region? Recent developments in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Turkey provide some clues.

The complexity of the political scene in the Middle East is increasing every day. Regional instability triggered by the Arab Spring and the Iranian nuclear program redrew the map of alliances and conflicts among regional players and global powers.

Disagreements has started to come to the surface, and rather than being enthusiastically welcomed, US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit to the Middle East was met by discontent from regional players due to the US stand on some issues. This posits a question about whether these growing disappointments, which sometimes are accompanied by independent actions, indicate that America has lost its control of the Middle East.

Recent developments from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, and Turkey provide us with some clues.

Saudi Arabia

The American reaction to the Syrian conflict, the Iranian nuclear program and the recent developments in Egypt has been a series of disappointments to the Saudi government. The two allies who managed to cooperate on many regional files are now far from political harmony.

The US has secured a deal with the Asad government as well as frozen the option of military intervention in Syria for now. The Saudis, on the other hand, view the situation in Syria alarmingly dangerous to their national security. Growing influence of Iran in Syria and the flow of Al Qaeda fighters to the Syrian lands bring the two perceived major threats to the Saudi regime closer to its borders.

As a response, Saudi Arabia has started arming Syrian rebels, independent of global powers, to oust Asad’s regime, undermine his allies, and control the Al Qaeda threat. Carnegie Middle East Center fellow Yezid Sayigh notes in a recent paper that the Kingdom is attempting to build a new Syrian national army for the rebels and unite the fractured Salafi Sunni rebels under the leadership of the “Army of Islam”. 

The recent negotiations with the new Iranian government regarding its nuclear program are another source of turbulence in the US-Saudi relations. The Kingdom regards Iran as its major threat in the region based on the historical, ideological, and political rivalry between the two countries. US intentions of going further in the negotiations, which might entail future alleviation of sanctions and eliminating the possibility of military intervention, do not satisfy the Saudis. As Foreign Policy reports, Saudi diplomats informed the American administration that they think the deal is too favorable to the Iranians and does not constrain the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions.

However, the Saudi’s concerns might be translated to more than diplomatic messages. A recent report by the BBC mentioned that the Kingdom funded the Pakistani nuclear program which comes with a possibility of obtaining nuclear weapons whenever it demands. Although the Saudi government denied the content of the report, if true, such a move would widen the gap between the US and the regime in Riyadh.

America’s trembling hand in tackling the recent developments in Egypt has also contributed to the Saudi disappointments. The Kingdom supported ousting the former Egyptian President Morsi. In contrast, the US showed hesitancy in its stand. The divergence in the views of the two countries regarding the Egyptian developing situation became clearer as the Saudis provided financial aid to the new interim government, while the US froze its military aid to Egypt. In addition to that, the US withdrawal of support to its long term ally Mubarak might have given a message to the Saudi royal family that American support is not always guaranteed.

Egypt

The US’ confused foreign policy towards Egypt led to an increasing anti-American sentiment on all levels. On the people’s level, the brotherhood supporters think that America has let them down by not supporting their president and the army supporters perceive the US decision to freeze military aid as a move against the Egyptian will and an intended hindrance to the war against terrorism in Sinai.

On the formal level, the interim Egyptian government’s disappointment of the American approach towards its domestic politics pushed it towards a new potential ally, Russia. As the US is constraining the arms’ deals and military cooperation with Egypt, Russia is making generous offers. The Russian minister of defense is expected to arrive to Egypt this week to secure an arms deal and discuss further military cooperation. If successful, this would be a strong alarming message to the US and a critical step towards potential high scale cooperation between Russia and Egypt.

Israel

Israel expressed its strong opposition to the negotiations with the Iranian regime regarding its nuclear program. “This proposal will allow Iran to preserve its ability to build a nuclear weapon. Israel is completely opposed to these proposals. I believe that adopting them would be a mistake of historic proportions and they should be completely rejected,” Prime Minister Netanyahu said.

Israel has announced earlier that it would undertake a unilateral attack on Iran if the nuclear threat was not curtailed. The Israeli approach to the Iranian issue is diverging from its close friend’s tendency towards a diplomatic solution, and so the question of its seriousness in undertaking an independent action becomes legitimate.

Furthermore, the Israeli Air Force has conducted strikes on targets in Syria which do not conform to the US no-intervention decision. There is a possibility that Israel will undertake continued and even stronger independent action that does not follow to the American policy in the Middle East. 

Turkey

Turkey – a key US ally in the region – is one of the heavily affected countries with the Syrian civil war due to sharing common borders. Waves of Syrian refugees cross its borders everyday and so do Al Qaeda and Kurdish fighters. Turkey has been calling for a military intervention to end the conflict, but NATO let it down.

The growing Turkish security concerns due to the Syrian conflict led the Turkish parliament to pass a bill that allows the government to undertake a military intervention, if needed. Again, there is a possibility of independent Turkish action that will not conform to the US policy in the Middle East.

The Turkish American relations also faced tensions lately due to US criticism of the Turkish government’s handling of the Gezi park protests this summer and Ankara’s intended deal with a Chinese missile producer that is under US sanctions. Despite NATO’s, especially the US’, objection to the deal, the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan mentioned that their views on the matter is “not a determining factor”. These are signs of growing disagreement between Turkey and the US.

Did America lose control of the Middle East?

Given these recent developments, the answer to this question seems to be Yes. Independent actions by different regional players, growing discontent, and new active players are on the rise.

However, the story is not that simple and to really answer the question we have to go back to the roots of the problems. The common element in the causes of these disagreements is the fact that regional actors are seeking American intervention. They seek intervention in the Syrian and Iranian issue. Egyptian government and its opposition are seeking legitimacy and intervention against their rivals. The Turkish case of the missiles’ deal might be the only exception.

These different actors view America as a strategic player in Middle Eastern politics and a guarantee to its stability. Indeed, they are asking the US for a more effective role and opening the door for more intervention. So rather than viewing the recent developments as a sign of less America in the region, they can be seen as a historical opportunity for more justified intervention.

However, a more important question would be: Is America losing control of the Middle East? The answer to this question will be different. The US is facing a considerable threat to its control of the region. More countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel are willing to take independent actions without waiting for the green light from the US. The consequences of the US failure to satisfy its allies might be more severe with the tendency of other powers like Russia and China to play a bigger role.

The US has a new historical chance to play a bigger role than before and correct for its foreign policy mistakes. However, if it fails to make use of it, it would undermine its future credibility and influence in the region. This might also push its allies to act independently or seek new partners.