The US and Russia are playing a game of weapons diplomacy in the Middle East

States no longer have to choose between western and Soviet armaments – as a result, the political value of arms deals has soared

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov takes part in a press conference with his Kuwaiti counterpart on March 6, 2019 in Kuwait City.  / AFP / Yasser Al-Zayyat
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The arms race between the US and Russia took a Middle Eastern turn this week in the Gulf and Turkey, highlighting an emerging weapons diplomacy in an era of dangerous improvisation that has replaced conventional long-term policy planning. The fallout from the collapse of the INF treaty, signed between Washington and Moscow in 1987, has expanded, and now the race to sell arms to the Middle East has become more important for both powers than resolving the region’s conflicts. As a result, the prospects for ending wars are declining with the odds for further destabilisation in the region increasing at the same time. It is an era of “transitional diplomacy”, as one expert on US-Russian relations put it. The preference is not for statecraft of the pre-emptive, personal or multilateral variety, but of the kind that tests boundaries and red lines as it marches towards the brink.

This week, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov made a tour of the Arabian Gulf region, and seemed to focus on arms exports and luring investments in Russia, with little effort made to propose serious initiatives to resolve the region’s conflicts. According to one familiar source, Mr Lavrov did not bring with him any ideas regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the stand-off between the Gulf and Iran. Although he reiterated the Russian position that the Syrian regime must be readmitted into the Arab League, which was snubbed in the Gulf, his tour was not about Syria, but mainly about bringing in hard currency for Russia.

Mr Lavrov’s stop in Saudi Arabia had special characteristics that covered oil, politics, and armaments, in light of indications suggesting that Riyadh wants to acquire from Moscow the S-400 missile defence system if the US sale of the THAAD system is blocked. The US system is twice as costly as the Russian-made one, which makes the latter an obvious alternative for the Saudis. If the US Congress blocks the deal with Saudi Arabia and President Trump does not veto its decision to protect wider arms deal with Riyadh over the next two decades, Saudi Arabia will not hesitate to seek alternatives in the East.

Today, with the advancements in defence technology around the world, there is no need to adhere to a single doctrine as had been required during the Cold War, when states had to choose between western and Soviet equipment. As a result, the political value of arms deals has soared. Moreover, the ability to diversify defence sourcing has given importers an important margin for manoeuvrability within the grander geopolitical and strategic equation.

Mr Lavrov’s visit comes in this context, as Saudi Arabia explores alternative markets, including China. The US is not oblivious to this, and most likely will not renege on the massive deal with Saudi Arabia. However, the hint by the kingdom that it wants to diversify has encouraged Moscow to jump at the opportunity.

The arms race between the US and Russia is very costly, especially for Russia. As for the arms race in the Middle East, its financial and strategic revenues are immense, not just in the Gulf but also in Turkey, where the equation between the Russian S-400 system and the US F-35 has different dimensions.

The US State Department this week told Turkey that if it goes ahead with the S-400 deal, then Washington will have to reconsider Ankara’s participation in the F-35 program and the transfer of other US defence equipment.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said Turkey will not back away from the deal, and suggested that Ankara could participate in producing the system and may also consider the S-500 system afterwards, rejecting US threats of sanctions. Such escalation will have consequences, not just for US-Turkish relations, but also Turkey’s status in the Nato alliance.

Bringing Russia in to the heart of Nato will be unacceptable to Washington and western European capitals, regardless of Ankara's assertions

President Trump has now backtracked from his pledge to withdraw US troops from Syria, which he announced in a now-infamous tweet that undermined US credibility. Mr Trump endorsed a letter from Congress that gave US forces in eastern Syria a fourth mission in addition to fighting ISIS, confronting Iranian plans, and guaranteeing US interests in the political process there. The letter said that US and European presence in eastern Syria aims to “help prevent conflict between our Nato ally Turkey and the Syrian Democratic Forces that have been central to the counter-ISIS campaign". In other words, Turkey will not be allowed to crush the Kurdish-led SDF or use Syria to implement its agenda on the Kurdish question. This is a small victory secured by Congress for the Kurds who had been let down by Mr Trump’s tweet. Broadly, this is a victory for the US establishment against the administration.

Senior US administration officials have visited Turkey and Lebanon on the eve of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's tour of the region, sending a number of signals regarding American priorities. These certainly include marketing US arms in the Middle East. At this juncture, the main American message contains the following broad lines: first, continued distrust in Russia amid rivalry at the levels of weapons exports, strategy, and geopolitics; second, containing Iran especially economically, reflecting an irreversible US strategic decision that includes containing Hezbollah and its allies in Lebanon; third, firmly telling Turkey that its actions in Syria and relations with Russia are not immune to consequences.

US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs David Satterfield visited Lebanon this week ahead of Mr Pompeo’s visit, carrying warnings to Lebanese parties to take seriously the US determination to dry out Hezbollah’s revenue streams and prevent Hezbollah’s attempts to use its government portfolios to offset US measures and find alternative sources of funding.

The US message, echoed by Britain’s minister of state for the Middle East Alistair Burt, is that there is less wriggle room now to accept Lebanon’s “particular” position with regard to Hezbollah. Western powers are fed up with Lebanon’s dithering on difficult decisions, or its pretexting of “resistance” as cover for its state within the state of Lebanon. Now, Britain has joined the US in blacklisting both of Hezbollah’s political and military wings, and the US has signalled to Lebanon that its patience is running out, but that it is ready to support its economy and stability if it makes the right choices.

Mr Satterfield did not meet with President Michel Aoun. That snub highlights the tense relations between the US administration and the president and leaders in his Free Patriotic Movement, led by Mr Aoun’s son-in-law and foreign minister Gebran Bassil. The FPM remains a close ally of Hezbollah, and Mr Bassil seems to think that he can weather the US containment targeting his faction and Hezbollah.

Washington believes that Mr Aoun continues to give political cover to Hezbollah’s extrajudicial arms, clearly undermining the sovereignty of the Lebanese state and the standing of its national army. Washington believes that Mr Aoun is also protecting Hezbollah from US accountability, turning a blind eye to the group’s violation of Lebanon’s declared policy of neutrality in Syria by intervening militarily alongside its regime there.

In other words, Washington sees Mr Aoun and Mr Bassil as implementing Hezbollah’s agenda in many places, as well as protecting Hezbollah, and there will be serious consequences for this.

An upcoming visit by President Aoun to Moscow is also being watched by the US – not because Lebanon is a valuable strategic asset in the US-Russian arms race or geopolitical rivalry, but because of the Iranian and Syrian agenda in Russian-Lebanese talks, and Moscow’s interest in displacing Washington in arming the Lebanese army.