In the last decade, two other major powers have been working hard to increase their influence in the region. Through different strategies, China and Russia are trying to fill the void left by the gradual American disengagement in order to become essential political stakeholders in regional dynamics.
Russia's commitment has taken a quantum leap forward with direct military intervention to keep the Syrian dictator in power, as well as the extensive use of mercenary troops in the civil conflict that has been raging in Libya since the Arab Spring. China, on the other hand, is pursuing a path marked by deepening its economic and commercial penetration through dialogue with all regional players.
Let us therefore take a look at the strategies and instruments used by these two great powers to increase their influence in the region.
Russian strategy: between hard power and diplomacy
In recent years, Moscow has had no qualms about exploiting the military instrument to preserve its areas of influence and create new room for manoeuvre. Unable to exploit its economic soft power, given the perennial precarious state of its economy, Russia has pursued a policy of power through a surgical use of the military force, alongside diplomatic initiatives aimed at maintaining good relations with most of the major regional players.
In 2015, Moscow opened a military air base southwest of the port city of Latakia in Syria. Through this new asset it has been able to carry out numerous strikes against ISIS and Assad's rebel opponents. Ground forces were also deployed in Syria to monitor the ceasefire along the border areas in the disputed Kurdish territories with Turkey.
In the Libyan conflict, Moscow intervened by sending military advisers and mercenary units of the Wagner group to support the army of Cyrenaica's strongman General Khalifa Haftar.
Even after the conclusion of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, Moscow sent peacekeeping units to the areas that remained under Armenian control in Nagorno Karabakh, thus managing to increase its weight in the political dynamics of the Caucasus.
One of Moscow's historic allies in the Middle East is the Islamic Republic of Iran, with which relations are not as solid as they might seem. Russia's priority is to maintain Syria as a vassal state, while Tehran has been trying for years to create a zone of influence between Lebanon and Iraq. These two strategic prerogatives are not always easy to harmonise. In fact, in the last period Moscow has also sought an indirect side with Israel to limit Iranian expansionism in Syria.
With the other Arab countries, on the other hand, Moscow has used a pragmatic approach, trying to cooperate with the Gulf countries on oil issues and trying to forge political ties through arms sales agreements. Russia's largest customers in the region are Egypt and Algeria, but Moscow is also trying to be a supplier to the Gulf Arab countries, who must weigh their defence needs against the threat posed by Russia's main ally in the region, Iran.
Chinese strategy: 'business first' and commercial soft power
Over the last decade, Beijing has opted for a dialogue approach with the various regional players, with a view to finding fertile ground for its own economic projection. The Asian giant is pursuing a gradual strategy of integration in the region through trade agreements and investments in strategic sectors.
China aims to control the maritime trade hubs whose flows connect the Mediterranean to the South China Sea. In the eastern Mediterranean, the Chinese now control or operate in many ports, including Tripoli in Lebanon, Haifa and Ashdod in Israel, and Chinese shipping companies are also present in many Egyptian ports. Following the dramatic events in the port of Beirut, China stepped in with a view to rebuilding the site, a move that raised concerns from other players such as France and Turkey.
In March 2021, Beijing signed a massive economic cooperation agreement with Iran, potentially one of the largest markets in the region. The Chinese offer themselves as an alternative to the West to lift the Persian power's ailing economy.
Syria, on the other hand, recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding to link the country to the Belt Road Initiative. At the beginning of January, on the other hand, some foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council visited China to start a process of deepening economic ties between Beijing and the organisation's members.
Translated by Margherita Folci
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