Against all odds, US President Barack Obama has so far been successfully resisting both pressure and temptation to take advantage of the Syrian crisis to rollback, or at least contain, Iranian influence in the Middle East. As the New York Times reported recently, Obama was trapped by conflicting impulses on how to respond to the Syrian crisis: Whether to side with those battling the Iranian influence — a genuine US interest — or to avoid the risk of becoming enmeshed in another messy war in the Middle East, another vital US interest. From the beginning, Obama made it clear that he did not envision an American military intervention, not even imposing a no-fly zone to protect Syrian civilians from bombings. He furthermore, refused to arm the Syria opposition fighting to topple the regime of Bashar Al Assad, Iran’s major regional ally. Instead, Obama was quite content to clinch a deal with the Russians on removing Syria’s chemical weapons and walk away with it. Similarly, he seems merely interested in cutting a deal with Iran over its nuclear programme, so that he can prove to his Israeli allies that he lived up to his promises of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Clearly, the Middle East does not occupy a central place in Obama’s foreign policy vision. “The future of politics will be decided in East Asia [not in the Middle East] and the United States will be right at the centre of the action”, Hillary Clinton, former US Secretary of State, wrote a while ago in Foreign Policy magazine. “In the next 10 years, we need to be smart and systematic about where we invest time and energy, so that we put ourselves in the best position to sustain our leadership, secure our interests and advance our values. One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment — diplomatic, economic, strategic and otherwise — in the Asia-Pacific region”, Clinton explained.
China, which is increasingly becoming America’s No 1 global challenge, has been set as the target for the new strategy. Iran’s influence in this context is seen as little more than a thorn that can only hurt as much as it contributes to Chinese power. The Obama administration believes hence that its predecessor’s major mistake was taking the US eye off the ball by fighting the wrong war in Iraq and thus strengthening Iran’s regional standing. It should have instead kept the focus on Afghanistan to prevent a geographic connection that could facilitate the flow of Iranian oil to China.
Over the past decade, China has transformed from being a regional power. Its main concerns are to defend its borders in a largely inhospitable environment, to a global power with interests extending throughout the world — particularly in pursuit of energy supplies. The quest for oil has taken Beijing as far afield as North Africa and Latin America. Oil demands are increasingly defining China’s attitudes towards US policies from Eurasia to the Middle East to North and West Africa. Concerns over oil security are influencing China’s diplomatic and strategic calculations, putting it in a collision course with the US.
In fact, just as the US is the hegemon of the Western Hemisphere, China is becoming the hegemon over much of the Eastern Hemisphere. That must be a worrying development for Washington. At the end of the Second World War, all of the key powers in the region — including China, Japan and Korea — were devastated. The US Navy owned the western Pacific as though it were an imperial lake. Those days are gone, Robert Kaplan, a prominent American strategic thinker wrote. This is exactly what forced Washington to shift its attention from the Atlantic and relations with the troubled European Union to the Pacific Ocean. It is also the key motive which made Washington retreat from the Middle East and the Gulf region to invest more in checking China’s rising influence.
Since the US completed its withdrawal from Iraq, it has become apparent that Washington’s appetite to confront Iran’s regional influence is dwindling. The Arab Gulf states must have hence realised that the Obama administration’s commitment to their security is no longer guaranteed. From now on, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries must rely on their own power to ward off Iranian interference and provocations. They must heed the call made by Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz during the 2011 GCC summit in Riyadh to move from cooperation to unity in order to face the mounting threats for their security. Clearly, Washington is no longer an ally to count on. America’s eye is focused somewhere else.
Dr Marwan Kabalan is the Dean of the Faculty of International Relations and Diplomacy at the University of Kalamoon, Damascus.