News after news tells us of human suffering from Israel and Gaza. Nevertheless, we must try to understand the wider implications of the situation in the Middle East. Because the Americans now have their hands full, that leaves room for other powers.
Iran’s precise role in Hamas’ attacks remains unclear. It is already clear that the Iranian regime is now taking advantage of the situation. In recent years, there has been a rapprochement between Israel and the Gulf states of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to form an alliance against Iran. That rapport was increasingly solid, but now completely in doubt. The plight of the Palestinians makes a deal between Saudi and Israel impossible for now. Meanwhile, Iran positions itself as a supporter of the Palestinians in the region. Trying to take advantage of the situation?
Something fundamental has changed outside the region. To understand this, we must first take a step back. Since the Obama presidency, US foreign policy has increasingly focused on China.Forerunner to Asia‘. Think of the trade war that Trump started and that Biden continues in a different way. At that time, this realignment would require the U.S. military to leave Iraq and Afghanistan, and partners in Europe and the Middle East to guarantee stability.
Did it work? Yes and no. The US military is not currently engaged in a major war and is therefore free to exert power in East Asia. That is the heart of the new American strategy. But on the other hand, the situation now is similar to what it was after September 11, 2001. Washington is closely involved in both Ukraine and Israel. In both theaters it was an important supplier of war supplies, finance and diplomatic weight. US policy is decisive for both Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
Without the US military directly participating in the fighting, the Pentagon’s focus, expertise and attention are currently focused on two fronts from which it cannot separate itself. Just like when the country was active in Afghanistan and Iraq after 2001. It was unlikely to assert its power elsewhere, and Russia took advantage of this by attacking Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine a few years later.
Russia will once again welcome America’s renewed focus on the Middle East and will once again see how it can benefit. The situation may also present opportunities for China. How credibly can the Americans now rule in East Asia? Will China use this opportunity to become more assertive in the region and test whether the US will respond? There are many countries in the region that rely on the US.
Turkey is now a country to follow. The current three armed conflicts in Ukraine, Nagorno-Karabakh and Israel strengthen the country’s position. The country is already positioning itself as a negotiator and can directly expand its power in the region.
No one can predict that these countries, or other ambitious regimes, will actually become more assertive. But their space for this has become very large recently, so don’t be surprised.
Two weeks ago, a very dangerous geopolitical situation arose: the US superpower was deeply engaged in two war theaters at once – with no end in sight. As Ursula van der Leyen announced when she took office as president of the European Commission, the EU would do well to have a greater geopolitical role. But since his visit to Israel last week, European leaders have been beating each other up on the question of what the European position is. This could be a serious test of European ambitions for strategic autonomy: what would we do if another power became more assertive and the Americans could no longer lend a hand?
Haroon Shaikh is a Senior Researcher at WRR and Distinguished Professor at VU.
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