What Leaked Docs Show About U.S.-Russia Fight for Middle East

15

Egypt considered sending tens of thousands of rockets to Russia. Kremlin spies claim the Emiratis are their new best friends. And Israel simply isn’t willing to give serious help to Ukraine as it battles a Russian invasion.

Such assertions, contained in a series of leaked U.S. documents that have rattled Washington, underscore the challenge the United States faces in convincing Middle Eastern countries to fully back Ukraine against Russia. That’s especially true as the region’s leaders express increasing concern that the U.S. isn’t committed to them.

U.S. officials deny that they are abandoning the Middle East, pointing to America’s large military presence and strong security ties there. But the documents suggest multiple countries in the region are embracing Russia amid worries of an emerging, U.S.-shaped vacuum.

“All the countries in the Middle East now are wondering what it means to be aligned with the United States, what it costs to be aligned with the United States, and whether there are ways to supplement the relationship with the United States,” said Jon Alterman, a former George W. Bush-era State Department official who routinely speaks with Middle Eastern officials in his role at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

America’s Middle East partners have long worried about their position in the growing rivalry between Washington and Beijing. Their concerns have continued under President Joe Biden, who sees a rising China as the biggest long-term threat to U.S. influence. China even recently brokered a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

But Russia’s influence in the Middle East, where it has a military presence in places such as Syria, also is significant. And Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has led to even greater competition among Washington, Beijing and Moscow for support — or at least genuine neutrality — from countries in places like the Middle East, which remains a key source of global energy supplies.

A Middle Eastern diplomat said one frustrating thing about America is its unpredictable domestic politics and the role short-term thinking plays in shaping policy. The wild swings in policy over the past decade — from President Barack Obama to President Donald Trump to now Biden — have added to the sense of uncertainty.

“You have an electoral cycle of two years, and the electoral cycle of the principalities and the kingdoms in the Gulf is basically a lifetime,” the diplomat pointed out. Like others interviewed for this article, the diplomat was granted anonymity to speak frankly about a sensitive topic.

The leaked documents indicate that even Middle Eastern countries that get billions of dollars in U.S. security aid aren’t willing to unflinchingly follow America’s lead.

POLITICO has been unable to independently verify the contents of all of the documents. But the White House has not denied that there is legitimate information in the batches, much of which was found on a social media site popular with gamers.

One document reported by the Washington Post says Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi ordered subordinates to covertly produce as many as 40,000 rockets as well as other weapons for shipment to Russia.

Egypt gets more than $1 billion in U.S. military aid annually. Egypt’s embassy in Washington did not directly comment on the document, but said in a statement that its position on the war “is based on noninvolvement in this crisis and committing to maintain equal distance with both sides.”

A senior Biden administration official said in an interview that no such Egyptian transaction with Russia had taken place. “Aside from Iran, there is no Middle Eastern country that is supplying munitions to Russia for the war in Ukraine, period,” the official said.

U.S. officials, however, wouldn’t comment specifically on whether Sisi had taken any steps toward making such a plan a reality.

Another document described Russian intelligence officers bragging that they had convinced the United Arab Emirates “to work together against U.S. and UK intelligence agencies,” according to an AP report. In a statement to the AP, the UAE called the claims involving Russian operatives “categorically false.”

Another document mentioning the UAE, viewed by POLITICO, describes how the tiny but wealthy country has been negotiating with a Russian firm to build a regional maintenance center for UAE weapons systems. The UAE ambassador in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

The Biden administration recently called out the UAE as a hot spot for Russian sanctions evasion.

Elizabeth Rosenberg, a top Treasury Department official, alleged in early March that “between June and November of 2022, UAE companies exported over $5 million worth of U.S.-origin, U.S.-export controlled goods to Russia, including but not limited to semiconductor devices, some of which can be used on the battlefield.”

Some of the leaked documents mention Israel, which receives nearly $4 billion a year in U.S. security aid.

One document lays out ways Israel could be convinced to provide weapons to Ukraine. One scenario argued Israel could be swayed to do more for Ukraine if Russia were to send certain key weapons systems to Iran, whose Islamist regime Israel considers a mortal threat.

But it also notes that Israel is trying to balance its ties between the U.S. and Russia because it needs Russia to look away when Israel bombs Syrian sites linked to Iran.

“Jerusalem likely will consider providing lethal aid under increased U.S. pressure or a perceived degradation in its ties to Russia as a result of Moscow’s actions in Iran or Syria that undermine Israeli interests,” the document states.

Despite longstanding ties, the U.S.-Israel relationship has faced unusual strain in recent months as a far-right government in Jerusalem has tried to push through laws that many Israelis fear will undermine their democracy.

But the Biden administration’s approach to the Middle East relies heavily on maintaining good relations with Israel and strengthening economic, diplomatic and other ties between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

The hope is that such “strategic integration” will reduce the risk of violence in the region. That will give Washington breathing room to focus beyond the Middle East, although the Biden administration is not saying that is the goal.

The U.S. also has pushed for an end to the war in Yemen, which has been a proxy battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Calming Yemen, where violence has fallen significantly over the past year, is one reason the United States has expressed few misgivings over the Chinese-brokered deal restoring diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

While Iran has sided with Russia in the war — even sending it drones to attack Ukrainians — the Saudis have taken a more mixed approach. Riyadh has tried to maintain cordial ties with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, and it has been unwilling to take certain steps in the oil sector that could ease prices, to Washington’s annoyance.

A White House National Security Council spokesperson, however, noted that Saudi Arabia has pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to Ukraine, including financing oil supplies. “The Saudis are helping keep the lights on and critical functions operating in Ukraine,” the spokesperson said.

The senior administration official also pointed to other recent U.S.-aided diplomatic breakthroughs in the Middle East, such as a maritime deal with Lebanon and Israel; new infrastructure connections between Jordan, Iraq and Gulf Arab states; and, in recent days, the restoration of diplomatic ties between Bahrain and Qatar.

While many Middle Eastern countries have voted for United Nations resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion, they have for the most part avoided imposing sanctions on the Kremlin or seriously curtailing relations with Moscow.

Many also want to maintain good relations with Beijing, whose interest in the region is largely business-driven and which has diplomatically — if not yet outright militarily — sided with Russia against Ukraine.

Biden has often presented Russia’s war on Ukraine as a battle between autocracy and democracy. But some of the Middle Eastern countries closest to the United States are autocracies, and their leaders’ priority is staying in power, not promoting democracy.

If staying in power requires finding more friends in Beijing and Moscow, then Middle Eastern leaders are likely to do just that.

“Many of these leaders do share some ideological affinities with Russia and China — they probably see the world more like those rulers do than how any U.S. leader does,” said Amy Hawthorne, an analyst with the Project on Middle East Democracy.

Source : Politico