The New Cold War in the Middle East

Syria's war is a proxy battle in the rebalancing of the Saudis against Iran and the Americans and Israelis against the "Axis of Resistance."

The Saudi and Qatari governments have provided financial support to the Syrian opposition, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries reportedly have sent weapons systems to the Free Syrian Army and other armed elements fighting the Assad regime. Such external support has helped turn the conflict into a full-fledged civil war.

These reports seem to be borne out by the increasing lethality of opposition attacks on regime targets, including one on the regime’s security apparatus nerve center on July 18, 2012. It killed several top regime stalwarts, including the Defense Minister and Assad’s brother-in-law. Insurgent groups’ partial takeover of Aleppo and their continuing encroachments into Damascus further indicate that foreign friends constantly replenish their arsenals.

The involvement of regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, on behalf of the opposition, and Iran, on the side of the regime, has turned the Syrian conflict into a regional affair. But it could have global ramifications as well, thanks to the Syrian regime’s strategic and economic links with Russia and the support extended to the opposition by the United States and Europe. Russia and China have so far resisted Western calls to put pressure on Assad to resign. They have also vetoed three UN Security Council resolutions seeking to impose sanctions on Syria, the most recent on July 19, 2012.

But Russia has signaled recently that it is not committed to Assad indefinitely. One analyst suggests Russia’s goal is to guard against instability, not to support Mr. Assad. "They have signaled that Russia would accept a change of leadership in Syria," he says, "but only if devised by Syrians and not imposed from outside.” This suggests that, while Moscow is not committed to the indefinite preservation of the Assad regime, it is averse to a Libyan-style Western intervention that would damage Russia’s standing and role in Syria, its solitary ally in the Arab Mediterranean. Russia’s sole military base outside the countries that formed the former Soviet Union is located in Tartus, Syria, and that should not be underestimated as a psychological factor for Moscow.

While Russia’s Syria connection constrains the Western powers’ proclivity to directly intervene in Syria, Assad’s relationship with Iran incents the United States to seek the regime’s removal. Syria is Iran’s trump card in the Arab world, acting as a conduit to Hezbollah, augmenting Tehran’s potential for retaliation against Israeli and American targets if Iranian nuclear facilities are attacked.

Working against this logic is the fact that Western intervention to depose the Assad regime is likely to leave the United States and its allies stuck in a quagmire. Washington worries that post-Assad Syria may unleash the anarchy and violence seen in Iraq after Saddam. America’s Iraq invasion and its consequences have left the U.S. image in tatters in the Middle East. A similar intervention without a Security Council endorsement — highly unlikely because of Russian and Chinese opposition — could embroil the Western powers and regional allies like Turkey in serious conflicts with Iran and Russia. Thus, while the United States has cranked up its anti-Assad rhetoric and covertly supported the armed opposition, it has refrained from direct military intervention in Syria.

The lack of unity among opposition forces fuels fears of anarchy in a post-Assad Syria. According to one analyst, “A wide gulf has opened between the exiled political opposition and the commanders of the rebels on the ground; there are tensions between the Muslim Brotherhood and other groupings; and regional militias are establishing themselves as provincial powers.” UN envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi calls for a negotiated settlement between the regime and its opponents to install a transitional government in Damascus to prepare for an eventual transfer of power. He warns that such an agreement is needed to forestall Syria’s "Somalisation, which means warlords, and the Syrian people will be persecuted by those who control their fate." He adds that if a negotiated agreement about a transitional government is not reached soon, a hundred thousand Syrians likely will die next year as a result of the ongoing civil war.

No such negotiated settlement can happen unless the regional and global players involved in the crisis—Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, the United States and Russia, in particular—endorse such a move and allow intra-Syrian negotiations to proceed without negative intrusion. The problem is that they all can act as “spoilers” because of their links—financial and military—to client groups within Syria. These pro- and anti-regime groups are in turn capable of subverting any agreement reached without the consent of their patrons.

The struggle for Syria is further complicated by two intertwined issues in which many of the same protagonists face off against each other. The first is the struggle for influence or control over energy-rich Iraq between Iran, on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia and Turkey, supported by the United States, on the other. The second is the confrontation between Iran, on the one hand, and the United States, Europe, Israel and Saudi Arabia on Iran’s right to nuclear enrichment and the parameters of that right.