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Arms Politics

A glance at the United States and Russian Middle Eastern policies emphasizes the dominance of arms politics. Trump’s first trip abroad was to Saudi Arabia, to secure a huge arms deal. The United States has been Iraq’s primary arms supplier since 2005 and this year the two countries signed a deal worth more than $22 billion that will stretch for over a 12-year period. While with the Saudis and Iraq we can talk about strategic need (fighting in Yemen and the war against ISIS) with Qatar it was pure politics. Pressed by the Saudis, Qatar paid its way for American support, purchasing US made arms with a $12bn deal worth. This after less than a week after condemned by President Trump for actively supporting terror in the region. Israel, one of the major clients of arms in the Middle East had its own share as well with the supply of the advance jet fighter F-35. The United States also signs deal to support allies in their fight against extremism in the region. For example, as part of the fight against ISIS the United States signed an arms deal with the Kurds. Lately, Lebanon received American military aid as part of an attempt to bolster the government against militant groups. All those deals took place this year, though not completed yet, under the current administration.

On the Russian side, the Assad regime in Syria has been the recipient of vast military aid that include multiple arms deals, especially since the Russian intervention in the Syrian Civil-War. Syria is a long standing Russian ally and it is only natural that arms deal will be signed between the two. Yet, Russia extends its sphere of influence in the Middle East via arms sale, reaching out for close American partners. Egypt turned to Russia for arms after the rift between the Egyptian leadership and both the Trump and Obama administration on the grounds of human rights abuse. This year Egypt and Russia signed a deal for supplying 46 attack helicopters. Turkey, a NATO member, choose Russia over NATO for buying their new missile defense systems. Expert assess that it is partially due to the European critique over Turkish purges after the failed coup attempt. Lebanese complains on the limitations attached with American arms (not allowed to be used against Israel), opened the door for Russian interference. Russia announced that it will gift Lebanon with arms and military supply. Russia also improved its relations with Libya by supporting the General Haftar, promising to help him lift the arms embargo on the country and supply his army with Russian arms.

Selling arms, especially complex weapon systems serves more than just military or economic functions. It is a political and cultural instrument to influence other countries leadership, armed forces, and political and military actions. Arms deals cultivate long terms relations and create dependency in national security. It represents an unbalanced exchange where the supplier in a way can influence national security of the buyer. Though there are economic incentives for maintaining relationships the risk taken by the buyer is higher. Buying a tank or a jet fighter is not similar for buying a car. Those complex weapon systems requires maintenance, replacement parts, training, unique facilities, and special ammo. Without those after a short period the expensive weapons won’t be effective or useful. A jet fighter cannot fly without good maintenance and a tank cannot shoot if it does not have ammo. Every arms deal in fact comes with a comprehensive package that include all the latter, creating a network of interactions and dependencies between the buyer and the supplier.

This means that beyond the economic gain, and the strategic support, arms dependency can create political dependency. Switching suppliers is not an easy thing to do. There are high economic costs that include the need to retrain soldiers, replace stokes of replacement parts an ammo, adjust facilities, and of course purchase new weapon system. In a setting like the Middle East, where national security issues are existential paying attention to arms deals can tell us a lot about the political and strategic alliances and spheres of influence in the new cold war that is forming.

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