The approval of Turkey’s code-named Operation Peace Spring in north-eastern Syria by the United States, highlighted a strident contention of numerous Foreign Policy analysts on the basis of which the United States has ceased to be the preponderant force in the Middle East. The overemphasized passivity of the United States towards Turkey’s aggression and overall escalation in the Syrian theatre, forms, according to many, concrete evidence of America’s diminishing influence in the Middle East. In the communicative spectrum, this tolerance certainly does not reflect firmness, let alone will for power projection. The international community is not accustomed to such a yield from the American superpower, especially in cases in which Russia is entangled. However, this recent assertion is rather an overstatement. As Aristotle said ‘nature abhors a vacuum’, and in the field of geopolitics whenever a vacuum of power emerges other actors assume to fill it. But has there really arisen a vacuum of power in the Middle East?
Up until now, on the international stage, the United States has been identified with a wide-ranging involvement in middle-eastern affairs. This involvement derives from a foreign policy doctrine dating back in 1980. Then President Jimmy Carter, during his State of The Union address, established the ‘Carter Doctrine’ by solemnly saying, ‘any attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.’ Unarguably, thereafter, Carter’s symbolical statement formed the base of further American interventionism in the Middle East. Hence, it is clear that recent inactivity over the Syrian conflict contradicts the above mentioned foreign policy doctrine.
One significant factor that could underpin the frequently mentioned lessened importance of the Middle East is America’s recently achieved self-sufficiency in oil. In 2018, the United States became the largest global crude oil producer surpassing Russia and Saudi Arabia. Justifiably, this fact has reduced its dependence on foreign oil assuring that America’s energy lifeline is less vulnerable to negative developments in the Middle East. Therefore, from the scope of energy dependence, the Middle East has indeed become less critical, and this constitutes an important reason for American disengagement.
Evidently, after the retreat of U.S. forces in Syria, Russia has assumed the mantle of supreme power broker in Syria’s theatre. However, with the exception of Russia’s current military installations in Syria, by no means can Russia’s power calibre be characterized as dominant in the Middle East region. This characterization could guardedly be used as far as the region of Central Asia is concerned, considering that this region consists of former Soviet-Union states which still remain under Russia’s sphere of influence, an assertion which is confirmed by its extended military presence.
In 2011, with a provocative and visionary article, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton introduced to the public the pivot of United States foreign policy. Its title ‘America’s Pacific Century’ described distinctly America’s shift of focus. China’s reawakening and its consequent gravitational pull in the Asia-Pacific region provoked a severe structural stress which demanded the urgent re-prioritization of America’s foreign policy. However, despite this significant pivot, the American presence in the Middle East remains practically intact. There are currently tens of thousands of U.S. troops(approximately between 60.000 to 70.000 according to the U.S. Central Command) who are serving in the region, with a vast amount of U.S. bases situated mainly near the Persian Gulf, and a number of others the location of which remains disclosed for security purposes. This strong presence is further reinforced by the United States Fifth Fleet, which shares headquarters with U.S. Naval Forces Central Command in Bahrain, enabling the use of naval force and safeguarding American interests at sea.
Despite the fact that large-scale interventions have proven unavailing, there still exist numerous strategic necessities that require the continuation of American involvement in the Middle East. Given that the U.S., as a global player, strives for and benefits from international stability, the potential resurgence of terrorist organizations, growing influence of exterior actors such as China and Russia, hegemonic ambitions that threaten regional stability as well as international energy security are some unending headaches that demand competent confrontation from U.S.’s behalf. In addition to all these issues, there is also a strategic imperative of utmost importance: preventing any other hostile force from prevailing in a region of such enormous geopolitical and geo-economic gravity.
The rise of China has already initiated a redefinition of United States Foreign Policy. America’s orientation is now pointing towards the Pacific, where a challenger threatens to upend the ruling United States and alter the international equilibrium. America’s interest over the Middle East could be entering a period of degression, yet, in terms of hard power, which is still undoubtedly the most efficient and direct means of exerting influence and securing one’s interests, the U.S. still retains their actual dominance in the region. In respect to its long term foreign policy, although military presence might deteriorate, some strategic imperatives mandate their future involvement even by just the use of ‘softer’ devices. Consequently, from a realistic perspective, arguing at the moment that the U.S. either has or is about to lose their might in the Middle East is far from being the case.