US Leadership Vacuum Being Filled by Russia, Iran and Other Nefarious Actors
Russia’s military involvement in Syria, in cooperation with Islamic Iran and an Islamizing Turkey, is creating a new regional dynamic that is likely to shift the balance of power in the Middle East. This dynamic is the direct result of the “strategic patience” shown for nearly a decade by America — the world’s once proactive, and now seemingly reluctant, sole superpower.
The Trump administration, confronted with both internal and external challenges, is realizing that none of those problems can be whisked away through grandiloquent rhetoric or symbolic acts. The Middle East, in particular, is in an accelerated transition period that presents its own dangers. What is required of the US is a substantive grand strategy befitting a superpower in a world that is readying to accommodate a global multipolar geopolitical reconfiguration.
Beijing is pursuing a “post-American world order,” the political-economic effects and geopolitical consequences of which will affect the Middle East (which China is preparing benignly to dominate). China just inaugurated a new military base in Djibouti, a few miles from the US’ only base in Africa.
With regard to the North Korean crisis, Beijing has been aloof and supercilious towards the US, and has sought to diminish the US by proposing that Beijing become Pyongyang’s sole direct interlocutor. China also issued a joint declaration, with Russia, that the world is irrevocably evolving “into a multipolar international system.” Beijing’s 68-country, $150 billion ”Belt and Road” initiative, is intended to link the Far East to the West via the Middle East — and will stand in direct competition with the existing transatlantic trade route.
Pakistan, in close collaboration with China, continues to pursue its behind-the-scenes interests in the Middle East, as India seeks greater security cooperation with the US and Israel. Iran, having voted for a budget increase to boost its ICBM program, continues to build military complexes in Syria — even as it deepens its grasp on Iraq and Yemen.
The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan and Egypt have finally turned on Qatar for two reasons: its obstinacy in continuing — in collaboration with an increasingly activist Turkey — to support the Muslim Brotherhood and its regional offshoots (notably Hamas); and its accommodation with Tehran, with which Qatar shares colossal underwater energy reserves in the Gulf.
A Shiite front will soon surround the Sunni bloc (excluding Turkey), extending from Lebanon and Syria, around Iraq and Iran, and up to Yemen and perhaps beyond. That front is now busy gluing together all the hitherto disconnected Shiite elements in the region.
Tehran’s ballistic missile program, which relies on North Korean military technology, is predicated on an anti-American ideology. This explains why ballistic missiles have formed the core of Iran’s and the DPRK’s high-level technological cooperation since the signing of the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. It also explains why Tehran’s EMAD and Pyongyang’s Rodong missiles look like twins.
The Iranian-North Korean collusion, in defiance of all international countermeasures, is not merely transactional, but cooperative. Tehran is both a contributor to and a benefactor of Pyongyang’s thirst for nuclear prowess, and is thus a major threat to both the Sunni Arab states and Israel. If Iran is not, even at this late stage, decisively and successfully encouraged to assume a less belligerent stance, Shiite supremacy in the region is unavoidable.
Iran’s adoption of the DPRK’s BM-25 Musudan missile system may shift the regional balance of power in the Middle East, should Washington’s adherence to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty prevent it from developing short-/medium-range missile deterrents capable of neutralizing missiles in that category.
This begs the question of who could confront a “nuclear” Iran that is connected to Pyongyang and Beijing. The only Gulf state to remain apparently unthreatened is Qatar, which just re-established full diplomatic relations with Iran to spite Saudi Arabia.
Syria, which was supposed to have been emptied of the chemical weapons that it used on its own people, just surprised the world by using them again. In August of this year, two vessels were seized carrying North Korean supplies of deadly chemicals on their way to Syria.
This is even more troubling because Russian 9K79 Tochka (SS-21/Scarab-A) missiles sent to Syria in 1983 found their way to the DPRK in 1996 (where they were reverse-engineered and tested in 2004 and 2005; manufactured in 2006; paraded in 2007; and put into service in 2008). It is worth considering what illicit links Damascus might enjoy with Pyongyang — either directly or via its Iranian ally — should Moscow happen to be looking the other way and the US be absent.
As for the Palestinians, North Korean military advisors provided the PLO with instruction and training in paramilitary and terrorist operations in the Middle East and in North Korea. On this year’s remembrance day of “Korea’s” victory over Japan in 1945, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sent a telegram to Pyongyang to voice the Palestinians’ admiration of “the great sacrifices [endured by the DPRK] for the sake of its freedom and dignity.”
And during an earlier visit to Beijing, Abbas urged the Chinese leadership “to use its relationship with Israel to remove the obstacles that obstruct the Palestinian economy.” (Though China’s conditioning its trade and cooperation with Israel to such an end is unlikely.)
In 2013, Israel claimed that it had hit a “shipment [of Iranian Fateh-110 guided ballistic missiles] in Syria, [that were] destined for Hezbollah” in order to prevent game-changing weapons from falling into terrorists’ hands. The same year, Israeli media outlets reported that reconnaissance satellites had caught the Syrian army aiming a battery of Tishrin missiles (the Syrian version of the Fateh-110) towards Tel Aviv.
In 2014, Iranian and Lebanese sources reported that Hezbollah had received and integrated Fateh-110s missiles with a 250–350 km range (thus capable of hitting the northern Negev when fired from Lebanon). These reports attest to the security threats and ominous systemic changes that are currently underway in the Levant.
The world is waiting to see how the US administration will align its rhetoric to an actual posture, not only against the military threat to its territory from North Korea, but also in response to the challenges to its long-neglected leadership in Middle Eastern politics.
BESA Center Perspectives Papers, such as this one, are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.