US power vacuum in the Middle East: What next?

US power vacuum in the Middle East: What next?

Under President Trump, the United States is looking to play a minor role in the Middle East and this reduced American presence will cause distortions in the region. US monopoly established since the early 1990s has recently been questioned by a rising China and reinvigorated Russia. Therefore, the absence of America will generate a power vacuum. There are multiple alliances keen on filling this new void. This contest will be more amongst regional than international powers.

Successive American Presidents, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, “seem to share the view that the United States is too involved in the region and should devote fewer resources” to the Middle East. This has been backed through political discourse. The Trump administration pressed for a reduction of troops. This indicates that the value of the Middle East to the U.S. has lowered and changes in its foreign policy will raise the stakes for the region. This is because the power vacuum left behind will either be a contested political space or a proxy battlefield for regional powers. Therefore, the risks of miscalculations by regional foes are high and cause uncertainty.

Geopolitical contests and bickering

Regional powers have been thriving since the late twenty and early twenty-first century. Territories of contestation are copious, from Libya to Afghanistan, via Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. However, qualified competitors to fill the vacuum are four. First, the alliance of Turkey, Qatar, and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Second, Iran, Syria and their non-state allies, such as Hezbollah, Iraqi armed factions. Third, Saudi Arabia (KSA), Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Fourth, Israel, that has built fine relations with the KSA-Egypt-UAE camp and with Turkey and Qatar. Therefore, these coalitions will race to fill the power vacuum and they might have points of cross-over and of differences depending on the geographical arena and circumstances. Russia enjoys a good relationship with all Middle Eastern countries and will also broaden its role.

Since 2003, the geopolitical battles have turned sectarian and bloody. This has set off a political and military firestorm across the region. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have exploited the Sunni-Shi’a divide for geopolitical interests. The Iran-led axis has proven an ability to endure hardships and also expand its influence in the region. It did so in post-Saddam Iraq, with the help of Hezbollah. They established Shi‘a pro-Iran proxies that have implemented its foreign policy agenda in Iraq.

They also headed to fight alongside the Syrian army when the civil war erupted. More recently, the IRGC and Hezbollah have used the Houthis to establish a presence in Yemen, also considered KSA’s backyard. Amid this tumult, Iran has been expanding its regional influence acutely aware of the sectarian discourse that has limited its advance into new theatres. Sunni-Shi‘a disputes have been limited to certain countries, such as Iraq, Syria, and Yemen – all of which Iran has capitalised on.

The anatomy of regional alliances and animus

With the rise of Turkey and its recent geopolitical expansion, alongside Qatar and the MB, a Sunni-Sunni confrontation has risen. The latter camp has been competing with the KSA-UAE-Egypt coalition on various territories such as Egypt, Yemen, and Libya. In a mostly Sunni Arab world, this geopolitical contestation might be ferocious because it is turning into an intra-sectarian competition and whoever prevails will lead the Sunnis in the Arab world. The Saudi-led camp has used the Sunni-Shi‘a discourse to discredit Iran and limit its manoeuvre amongst Sunnis. These sectarian slogans cannot be used to sideline the Qatar-Turkey alliance since both are Sunni countries.

Therefore, a geopolitical confrontation can result in a few outcomes. It can either be the triumph of one side, for example, Abdel Fattah al-Sissi (backed by KSA and UAE) removing Morsi and MB in Egypt. Or it could lead to a stalemate, like in Libya’s capital, Tripoli. Israel, on the other side, perceives the Iran-led camp as its primary threat in the Middle East. Tehran, with Hezbollah’s assistance, has built strong relationships with Palestinian factions. These are, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, two MB offshoots. Additionally, Hezbollah’s position on Israel’s northern gate and its expansion to Syria more recently, has exerted Israel’s calculus vis-à-vis the Iran-led axis. Therefore, if Iran to be attacked by either the U.S. or the Israeli Defense Forces, Hezbollah will likely launch a ground offensive into Israel.

Avalanche of possible confrontations

Amid these standings and geopolitical complexities, it is hard to predict the ultimate outcome but the following are potential scenarios.

Iran’s relationship with Turkey and Qatar has been recently growing. Turkey has been an economic escape route for Iran’s goods and oil. Throughout Syria’s civil war, Turkey and Iran have cooperated on multiple levels and many battles, i.e. Aleppo’s retreat of the Turkey-backed opposition groups allowing pro-Assad forces to recapture it and the Russia-Iran-Turkey agreement in Sochi over a de-escalation zone in Idlib. Furthermore, Tehran’s relationship with MB offshoots in Palestine, and its Islamic identity have put it closer to the Turkey-Qatar alliance. Consequently, an alliance between these two camps can be possible as they share multiple interests. This will result in a Sunni-Shi‘a alliance which will undermine anti-Iran sectarian discourse amongst Sunnis.

The Saudi-UAE-Egypt alliance has been getting closer to Israel. Although the latter shares a good relationship with Turkey, it has taken advantage of Saudi Arabia and UAE’s rivalry with Iran and their angst over its expansion in the region, to deepen its links with the camp. Also, Israel might stand alone against the Iran-led camp in any future confrontation, therefore it needs an Arab, namely Sunni, umbrella to facilitate its manoeuvre in the region.

The UAE has reopened its embassy in Syria, in a clear step to reinstate the relationship with Damascus. The Saudi-led camp has changed its anti-Assad policy and is seeing Syria as the first defence line against both Iran and Turkey. Damascus will need Saudi Arabia and UAE money for reconstruction but also endears Iran’s sacrifices to buttress Assad. Therefore, on one side, it is most likely that Syria will not take sides; on the other, it will need many years to recover and meanwhile, it will remain a territory of proxy confrontation.


The post-U.S. Middle East will witness a proxy game between regional powers. Seeking to fill the power vacuum can cause violence and economic depressions. The most possible confrontation will be between Iran and Israel. However, a proxy war has better chances. This will be paralleled by a geopolitical contestation where these camps will take advantage of any dispute or disagreement to interfere, such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s political and financial intervention in Sudan. Divided societies in fragile states, such as Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, can clash in the midst of any geopolitical contest.

A Sunni-Shi‘a schism will not end, but a Sunni-Sunni confrontation can reduce sectarian tensions. A confrontation between Israel and the Iran-led axis might ease Sunni hatred and antipathy against the latter and its Shi‘a and Alawite allies. All regional powers prefer a geopolitical contestation rather than a military confrontation. Therefore, war drums will not beat, except in the case of a miscalculated step by either party. However, this does not mean that these regional powers will not provide proxies with the oxygen they need to fan the flames of chaos.

About Author

Hadi Wahhab

I am Lebanese with a BA in business and management at the Université Saint Joseph in Beirut. I accomplished my Masters in International Affairs in the Lebanese American University and am currently a Doctoral Researcher at the University of Exeter. I am specializing in Hezbollah and my PhD title is the following: “Hezbollah: a regional armed non-state actor”. I will mainly be focusing on Lebanon and Syria, and occasionally on other Middle Eastern countries.