China, Russia Press for Mideast Gains While US Talks of Withdrawal

 In China, Iran, Egypt, GDI, Russia, Land, Defense, Air, Energy, France, Iraq

USS Bataan entered the Red Sea this week.

WASHINGTON: The close encounter between a Russian war­ship and an American destroy­er in the Arabian Sea last week was more than a new round of the Russian mil­i­tary play­ing high-stakes cat-and-mouse. It was a force­ful reminder that Russia hopes to gain influ­ence in the region as the US sends thou­sands of new troops, air­craft, and ships to a region President Trump has long claimed he’s anx­ious to leave.

As the Trump admin­is­tra­tion pub­licly wran­gles with the Iraqi gov­ern­ment over US troops there and repo­si­tions some 18,000 troops it has rushed to the region over the past sev­er­al months, the Russians and the Chinese are maneu­ver­ing for advan­tage.

“There’s no ques­tion the Middle East is at the epi­cen­ter of great power com­pe­ti­tion,” said Seth Jones, direc­tor of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The Russians see the US inter­est in with­draw­ing forces as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to expand their power and inter­ests.”

Last week, one day after Iraq’s par­lia­ment demand­ed the depar­ture of US troops from their soil in a non-bind­ing vote, China’s ambas­sador to Iraq paid a visit to Prime Minister Adil Abdul al-Mahdi with an offer to “rebuild and sup­port the Iraqi gov­ern­ment and people,” while noting Beijing’s desire to “increase secu­ri­ty and mil­i­tary coop­er­a­tion” with Baghdad.

In the mean­time, Russia and Iraq have been talk­ing on and off for over a year about a deal for the Russian-made S‑400 or S‑300 air defense sys­tems. Those talks appear to have been given a new sense of urgency after the US Hellfire strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani ear­li­er this month, and Iran launch­ing 15 bal­lis­tic mis­siles at Iraqi mil­i­tary bases in response. 

An Iraqi gov­ern­ment offi­cial recent­ly told Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency that talks with Moscow are ongo­ing, even after pre­vi­ous dis­cus­sions were scut­tled when the US threat­ened sanc­tions if Baghdad pur­chased more Russian mil­i­tary tech­nol­o­gy. 

This prob­ing for advan­tage in the quick­sand of the Middle East is what Washington offi­cials mean when they dis­cuss Great Power Competition and point to the National Defense Strategy.

There are limits to what either coun­try is likely to achieve at America’s cost. The Russian military’s abil­i­ty to for­ward deploy troops and sus­tain them is extreme­ly lim­it­ed, and the Syrian deploy­ment for the moment is about as deep as Moscow likely wants to get into having boots on the ground. 

But there are other ways to exert influ­ence. Putin has long court­ed Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, sign­ing a $25 bil­lion deal in 2015 to allow Russian state nuclear energy giant Rosatom to begin build­ing Egypt’s first nuclear power plant. Moscow pro­vides 85 per­cent of the financ­ing. The two coun­tries have also signed a slew of secu­ri­ty and eco­nom­ic coop­er­a­tion pacts in recent years, while Egypt with­drew from the Trump administration’s stab at build­ing an “Arab NATO,” last April after losing faith in Washington’s com­mit­ment to the effort. 

Just a month before that, Cairo and Moscow signed a $2 bil­lion agree­ment for 20 Russian Su-35 war­planes, lead­ing US offi­cials to warn Egypt that it could be sanc­tioned under US law for buying Russian mil­i­tary equip­ment.

But American threats are falling on deaf ears, as the so-far tooth­less Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) has yet to be used to wean an ally off Russian gear. The Egyptians were likely heart­ened by the Trump administration’s refusal to slap sanc­tions on Turkey over their pur­chase of the S‑400, a lack of action that the Iraqis and Saudis are no doubt study­ing close­ly. 

In an ironic twist, the Western sanc­tions imposed on Moscow for its 2015 inva­sion of Ukraine ended up being a major boon for Putin to forger a closer rela­tion­ship with Cairo. As part of the pack­age, France can­celled the planned sale of two Mistral heli­copter car­ri­er ships to Russia, return­ing about $1 bil­lion that Moscow had already paid for the ships. In quick order, Egypt stepped in to buy the ships — with money bor­rowed from Saudi Arabia — and added 50 KA-52 heli­copters Moscow had already built for the ships, sud­den­ly cat­a­pult­ing Egypt into a what could become a much more impos­ing naval power.

And in November, Russia deliv­ered the first tranche what will be a deliv­ery of 36 T‑90 tanks to the Iraqi Army, a deal forged in the wake of American com­plaints in 2017 and 2018 that some US-sup­plied M1 Abrams tanks had fallen into the hands of Iranian-backed Iraqi mili­tias fight­ing ISIS.

“The Russians have a deep, long-term role in the region; it is noth­ing like that for the Chinese,” Jones said. “The Chinese are not going to project a lot of mil­i­tary power in the region, but they are attempt­ing to expand influ­ence — for them it’s more eco­nom­ic than the hard power like the Russians have used.”

Beijing has qui­et­ly signed a series of eco­nom­ic coop­er­a­tions deals with regimes in the region, as their out­reach in Baghdad has shown. Most vis­i­bly, the Chinese gov­ern­ment has used its advanced drone pro­grams as a way to gain deeper mil­i­tary col­lab­o­ra­tion with deep-pock­et­ed gov­ern­ments.

Saudi Arabia has built up an arse­nal of Chinese-made bal­lis­tic mis­siles, and analy­sis sug­gests Beijing has helped the Saudi regime build its first facil­i­ty to pro­duce its own mis­siles. There have also been reports of the UAE flying Chinese Wing Loong II drones over Libya and Yemen, and the Saudis have bought both China’s CH‑4 and the Wing Loong II drones, and has opened its own CH‑4 pro­duc­tion facil­i­ty.

There is noth­ing to sug­gest that the Saudi reliance on US weapon­ry built up over decades is in seri­ous danger, but it is also grow­ing increas­ing­ly clear that gov­ern­ments in the Middle East are hedg­ing their bets and taking advan­tage of a world where the United States — pur­su­ing its America First poli­cies — is far from the only ally who can sell sta­bil­i­ty. Or some­thing close to it.

Source: Breaking Defense

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