What Drives Great Power Intervention in WANA?

Arushi
The Futurian
Published in
5 min readMar 25, 2022

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THE FUTURIAN #5

Photo by Adolfo Félix on Unsplash

The West Asia and North Africa (WANA) region has continuously stood at the intersection of great power competition owing to its strategic location between three continents and as a key source of natural resources. Great power competition has been further intensified by the ongoing crises in the region especially the Civil Wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen. These conflicts have permitted great powers such as Russia and China to exert greater leeway and have offered these powers the prospect of greater leverage in the region. The US has provided three countries in the region with the coveted Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA) status. Multiple and evolving factors inform the great powers and their actions in the region.

Some of the historical factors which have provided a context for great power competition have been linked to natural resources as well as to the strategic location of the WANA region. Both these factors remain critical to the global economy as a whole. Additionally, Egypt controls one of the most strategic channels globally, the Suez Canal, and is appearing as a major gas hub. The region also includes the Bab el Mandeb and the Strait of Hormuz. American policy includes a denial strategy whereby America controls the resources in the WANA region to deny their use by the rivals of the US.

In sharp contrast, Russia has strong economic motivation for increasing its involvement in the region. North Africa contains some scarce minerals which are essential for commercial activities and include manganese, bauxite and chromium. Moscow possesses experience in energy extraction which gives it the ability to be able to use its expertise to gain leverage within the resource-rich nations. Interest in the Syrian potential for hydrocarbons is one of the reasons that Russia is involved in the country. Respective Russian firms have likewise made noteworthy investments in Algeria, Egypt and Libya’s hydrocarbon industries.

Energy Diplomacy has been referred to as an attempt by Russia to achieve its ambitions by integrating itself in the oil sector of countries in the region. This is despite Moscow facing competition from them in the global energy markets. Additionally, the Kremlin understands the potential of the WANA region as a consumer marketplace for Russian natural gas supply. To an even larger extent, China’s energy requirements and national security obligations requires the continuous movement of hydrocarbons from the WANA region. It has also led to an increased focus of China in the region. It has been proposed that China’s involvement can go from being economic to being security-based in order to secure its hydrocarbons in the region.

The retrenchment of the US has provided Russia with the opportunity to acquire access to the Mediterranean through the countries of North Africa. Russia sees this as key to obtaining the sought-after status of great power. This is helped by Turkey drifting away from its Western alignment. The Kremlin is keen to exercise control over the energy resources, ports, and naval bases located along the Mediterranean. This is linked to a pattern extending to the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea as well as with the efforts of Moscow to create an Anti-Area Access denial (A2AD) in Syria with the assistance of Russian defence hardware.

Moscow has profited from withdrawal of the US from the WANA region since the Arab Spring and from the effectiveness of Russia in Syria. President Putin correspondingly has an awareness of and interest in destabilising or obscuring US efforts for diplomatic leadership. The aim is to improve Russian internal and regional displays of power in order to highlight US impotence. Additionally, China’s very tangible and cumulative political and financial heft in the region is increasing as the US retreats. This is an alternative method of hedging against ambiguity regarding the US role in the region.

Moscow has also been aware of Iran’s anti-Americanism as a mode to tilt the geopolitical scales in its favour as well as to reduce the dominance of the US. It has utilised Iran’s nuclear program as a bargaining chip with the US in order to reap gain. Iran has likewise been focused on countering the US strategically as well as nurturing multipolarity. Both countries are founding members and sponsors of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum and collectively possess approximately 40 percent of world-wide natural gas reserves. Moreover, Russia and Iran have tacitly arranged to reduce hostilities in the Caucasus in order to sustain shared objectives regarding Caspian energy transit. Cooperation in Syria is part of Russian strategy to position itself favourably with the US on intra-Syrian negotiations and to be a leading stakeholder in the peace process.

China has been provided with a space to thrive after the 2008 financial crisis. China perceives its rise as leading to a renewal of the natural order of international relations, with China as the biggest economy and main power centre. To that end, through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China is endeavouring to attain its regional objectives. China seeks to promote economic expansion in the region. China is focusing on the development of its western provinces to reduce the growing religious/ethnic frictions and to decrease dependence on the Strait of Malacca. China has additionally been selling more arms into the region and has developed a strategic partnership agreement with Iran.

The US has been extremely concerned with its security priorities in the region, particularly nuclear proliferation by Iran, the security of Israel from Iran and its proxies along with countering terrorism. Russian involvement in Libya was partially caused by Moscow’s desire to avoid the disintegration of the Libyan state which it saw as serving the Islamists. Russia and the US are united in one key priority in the region which is security. The security in the region currently has a focus on countering terrorism and violent non-state state actors. Moscow is concerned about Islamist extremism penetrating into Russia and its neighbouring countries. This further propels the Kremlin to satisfy this security need by developing alliances and forming bilateral relationships with all countries in the region. Beijing’s backing of regional authoritarian regimes and its policy against the Uyghurs has attracted the attention of terror groups. These considerations have prompted China to take several measures including counterterrorism efforts to prioritise engagement with regional powers.

Traditionally, the region has drawn great powers due to its various attributes including its natural resources, strategic location and regional geoeconomic opportunities. The region also provides the great powers with the occasion to display their military prowess as well as opportunities to emerge as agenda setters due to various conflicts which provide an opening for great power intercession and arbitration. The great powers are also afforded trading and investment prospects to sustain their military-industrial and atomic energy complexes. Geopolitical rivalry between regional players has likewise offered a gateway to great powers into the region and as a continuum for their ambitions in the region. However, as the relations between the great powers are changing, so are the geopolitics changing. America in retreat, China advancing, and Russia caught between the two. This geopolitical reset is driving the change in the WANA region.

© Arushi Singh 2022

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Arushi
The Futurian

Arushi Singh’s areas of interest include the geopolitics of West Asia, geopolitical implications of great power competition in Africa and emerging technologies.