In late July 2021, Republican Congressman Bryan Steil pressed the US administration to brief Congress on its decision, announced by the Department of Defense in mid-June 2021, to withdraw US military equipment from the Middle East. After having worked to strengthen them during 2019 and 2020, the Department of Defense announced the removal of US air defense systems located in the Middle East. In a statement, Pentagon spokesperson Jessica McNulty disclosed that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin had “directed the Commander of U.S. Central Command to remove from the region this summer certain forces and capabilities, primarily air defense assets”.
In this context, it is possible to review the most significant implications expected for the region as a result of the Pentagon’s decision to reduce US defense systems in the Middle East and withdraw them from the region to parts unknown. These are as follows:
1- Reduced American military presence in the Middle East: The Pentagon’s move to reduce US air defense systems in the Middle East comes amid confirmation of Washington’s desired strategy of reducing America’s military presence in the region. This strategy appears to transcend administrations and is not linked to whether the occupant of the White House is a Republican or a Democrat. On 15 November 2020, in the waning days of former US President Donald Trump’s term, Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller announced his country’s strategy to accelerate the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan and the Middle East, saying “It’s time to come home.”
American press reports revealed that the Pentagon had already removed eight anti-missile batteries from Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, along with a THAAD anti-missile system that Washington had deployed in Saudi Arabia amid increasing Houthi attacks on Saudi oil and military facilities over the last two years.
2- Imminent Russian expansion to compensate for the American withdrawal: The US’s new step came as an extension of Washington’s increasing tendency to devote itself to Russian and Chinese threats. This is in line with the current view in the Pentagon that the Iranian threat has greatly diminished, particularly given President Joe Biden’s administration’s involvement in re-working the nuclear agreement with Tehran, albeit in a modified form, to include other Iranian issues that have been negotiated in Vienna since last April.
However, according to observers, it is worth noting that the US’s hasty method of withdrawing from the Middle East will ultimately be in the interest of Russia, which has become more willing to engage in a number of important strategic regions around the world, especially the Middle East and North Africa and as far as the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa.
3- Regional replacement with alternative Russian defense systems: Washington’s withdrawal of its air defense systems from the Middle East is expected to accelerate moves by several regional countries to conclude huge arms deals with Russia to acquire the S-400 system. This comes as part of these countries’ strategies to balance the repercussions of the American withdrawal and address any potential strategic exposure of their air cover, especially given armed militias’ increasing use of missiles and drones in their attacks against influential economic and military targets.
In the coming period, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia may be the most eager to purchase the Russian S-400 system, which is considered a smart move to enhance the Kingdom’s defense capabilities amid Middle East instability, growing disputes between Riyadh and Tehran, and increasing Houthi attacks on Saudi oil and military facilities. However, Riyadh’s interest in acquiring the S-400 system faces a significant obstacle in that the Kingdom urgently wants to transfer the system’s technology for production inside the country, as part of Saudi Arabia’s ambitious strategy to localize defense industries in the country. However, Moscow may not be on board for that due to military, economic, and perhaps political considerations.
4- Open door to Chinese military presence via Iran: Amid the accelerated pace of the US withdrawal from the Middle East, the door is open not only to Russia but also to China—which may have already hastened the scene of America’s retreat from heavy involvement in the region’s crises by concluding a mysterious, 25-year agreement for a comprehensive strategic partnership with Iran. According to leaks and observer analyses, the agreement guarantees that Beijing can build military bases on the Iranian coast facing the Gulf, thus giving China a foothold in the place the US Navy considers its personal lake.
Likewise, some reports indicate that the Iranian-Chinese agreement contained articles granting China islands and military and air bases in exchange for Chinese investment in all economic, security, and military sectors in Iran and advance payments to Iran to purchase Iranian crude oil. China already established its first foreign naval base in Djibouti in 2017, which overlooks one of the most important sea lanes in the world and is only 10 kilometers from the headquarters of the US Army’s Africa Command. In July 2020, the Chinese army conducted naval exercises in the Gulf of Aden, where Chinese warships conducted training to test their ability to handle multiple security threats and carry out various military missions.
Finally, despite the assurance of Pentagon spokesperson Jessica McNulty that “[t]he decision was made in close coordination with host nations and with a clear eye on preserving our ability to meet our security commitments,” and her insistence that “these changes will not affect US national interests and our regional partnerships,” the current regional and international contexts point to seemingly negative repercussions on regional security given America’s tendency, under Biden, to pacify Iran, which, in turn has succeeded in strengthening its strategic relationships with Russia and China, who are expected to fill the American vacuum in the region. This state of affairs strengthens Iran’s regional and international brief to pursue further expansionist policies harmful to the countries of the region, particularly in the Gulf.