November 13 was a busy day in defense diplomacy. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote to Egypt’s defense minister, warning America’s closest Arab ally that it could face sanctions if it proceeded with its purchase of Russian warplanes.
On the same day, Donald Trump met Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at the White House, where the US president again urged Erdogan to give up the Russian S-400 missile-defense system purchased earlier this year, or face sanctions.
The threat of US sanctions now hangs over two allies – and all because of Russian-made weapons.
Such overt threats are a sign of how seriously the US takes the protection of its interests abroad and its arms industry at home. After all, these are not unfriendly countries. Despite a recent collapse in relations with Europe, Turkey is a NATO ally, and Egypt the recipient of vast sums of military aid. Both are locked into America’s security orbit. But the US faces a tricky balancing act these days as it tries to stop global competitors from muscling in on a Middle East arms market long dominated by American and European companies, while also maintaining its political goals. Within the region, the US and its Middle East partners are at odds. Given the current direction of US politics, the flow of armaments not made in the West is unstoppable.
US weapons sales to the region have always come with a side order of politics. One constant for America has always been to ensure Israel maintains a military edge over its Arab neighbors. Currently, that technical advantage is embodied in the F-35 fighter jet, the most advanced jet made by the US. Although it has sold the jet to Israel, it has refused to sell it to other countries in the Middle East.
Only last week, Ellen Lord, a US official at the Department of Defense, told reporters at the Dubai Airshow that the US was not currently talking about selling the jet to the UAE. So even though the F-35 performed a demonstration in the skies above the UAE at the Dubai Airshow, it will be some time before it is parked on the ground in the country.
Indeed, it was the refusal to sell the F-35 that led to Egypt being threatened with sanctions. Egypt is looking to diversify its air power and wants to buy the Russian-made Su-35, a direct competitor to the F-35.
Now the threat of US sanctions complicates an already tricky calculation for Egypt: buying the Su-35 could jeopardize US military aid, which the country badly needs, but not broadening its range of military suppliers keeps it permanently at a disadvantage, at the mercy of Washington’s whims and policies.
Nor is Egypt alone in this dilemma. This week, Erdogan told Turkish parliamentarians that not only did he tell Trump the S-400 missile defense system was non-negotiable, but he warned the US president that if America continued to block the sale of F-35s, Ankara would look elsewhere for jets. And “elsewhere” almost certainly means Russia and the Su-35.
For the US, maintaining Israel’s military superiority is not the only issue; Washington is also determined to maintain its own. The concern is that the S-400 has the ability to the spy on the F-35s the US has at Incirlik air base in Turkey. Russia would have access to the jet’s stealth capabilities.
Weapons sales and politics have always gone hand in hand in the Middle East. As America withdraws from one, it is inevitable the other will diminish too.
Anyone buying large amounts of weaponry from the US is expected to know that with the purchase comes an obligation on the part of the US to commit to the security of the country it is selling to.
But starting with the Obama administration, and now with Donald Trump in office, US allies have begun to doubt America’s vision and commitment.
The Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration was done behind the backs of America’s Gulf allies. The hands-off approach to the Syrian civil war and the failure to enforce Barack Obama’s “red lines” on Syrian chemical weapons created further doubts.
Even the lack of full-throated support for the Iraqi government in its current travails with protesters, to say nothing of America’s sudden abandonment of Syrian Kurdish troops as it pulls its own forces out of northern Syria, has engendered a growing mistrust of Washington in Middle East capitals.
Russia is an obvious alternative, although less capable. But Moscow has at least shown consistency. Though many in the Middle East opposed Russia’s policy toward Bashar Al Assad and his regime, they acknowledge that Russia has shown herself to be a dependable ally, one willing to use political, financial and military means to prop up the regime.
But Russia could not be a replacement. US political power vastly outstrips Russia’s, which is why others are hedging their bets rather than throwing their lot in with Moscow, as some did during the Cold War. Instead, the retreat from the region has created opportunities for other suppliers as well, most notably China.
A lack of clarity in America’s long-term policy toward the Middle East has opened a door long closed to the arms industries of other countries. Given the vast sums of money and long-term technical commitments involved when buying advanced military hardware, it is a door that future American administrations will find hard to shut again.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.