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."

Because of its strategic location between the two twentieth-century centers of Arab power, Egypt and Iraq, Syria has been for many decades a bellwether of Arab politics, viewed widely in the region as the heartland of Arab nationalism. The fact that the first major pan-Arab nationalist party, the Baath, was established in Syria and the leading roleplayed by Syrian (including Lebanese) intellectuals and activists in making pan-Arab ideology popular contributed greatly to this perception.

Moreover, whichever ideological or political trend emerged victorious in Syria came to dominate, more often than not, the Arab political scene. This was true in the 1950s and 1960s during the time of a "cold war" between “revolutionary” military regimes espousing the cause of Arab nationalism and conservative monarchies determined to hold on to their power and privilege. According to one analyst, today’s regional politics are showing signs of a new cold war, "and, once again, that broader conflict is manifesting itself in a struggle for Syria.”

But this new cold war extends beyond the Arab world. Saudi Arabia is being challenged by non-Arab Iran. Also, the ideological lines of conflict are blurry. Arch-conservative Gulf monarchies, steadfastly opposed to democracy in their own countries, support democracy in Syria, along with non-Arab democratic Turkey. Meanwhile, the authoritarian Assad has the support of Iran, whose hybrid political system encompasses both clerical and representative institutions.

Some argue that Iran’s role in the current regional cold war has introduced sectarian (Shia versus Sunni) as well ethnic (Persian versus Arab) divisions into the region. But Tehran supports Assad largely for strategic rather than sectarian (leave alone ethnic) reasons. Syria has been Iran’s only loyal Arab ally, even during the devastating Iran-Iraq War imposed on Iran by Iraq. All other Arab regimes, principally the Gulf monarchs newly flush with petrodollars, not only supported Iraq but largely financed Saddam’s war machine. Equally important, if not more so, is the fact that since the 1980s Syria has been the principal conduit for Iranian military and financial assistance to the Lebanese Hezbollah and, until recently, to Hamas.

The relationship’s economic dimension also is important. Syria has become a crucial economic lifeline for Iran. As one analyst puts it, "As both countries become increasingly isolated from the international community their economic ties have become exceedingly more important.” These ties have included a $10 billion agreement signed just before the Syrian uprising began for the construction of a gas pipeline running though Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and reaching Europe via the Mediterranean.

Additionally, Assad’s Syria is perceived by Iran as a part of the “resistance” front against Israel, one of Iran’s two primary regional antagonists — the other being Saudi Arabia. It is the authoritarian Sunni Arab regimes, such as those in Saudi Arabia and Jordan (and until recently in Egypt under Mubarak), that have fanned the fires of sectarian conflict by dubbing Iran’s support to Syria’s Alawite regime as sectarian and part of an Iranian effort to create a Shia crescent to dominate the Middle East. This allegation makes little sense when applied to Iran’s policy toward Syria since the Alawites are considered heretics or even non-Muslims by most Muslims, Sunni and Shia alike. But the allegation resonates with some because of the Shia-dominated Iraqi government’s close relationship with Iran and Hezbollah’s dependence upon Iran for military and financial support.

But Iran’s policy both toward Iraq and Hezbollah is driven only partly by sectarian-religious considerations. Tehran considers it essential to have a friendly regime in Baghdad because it cannot afford a re-run of its war with Iraq, which inflicted colossal damage on both countries but particularly on Iran. Saddam’s fall empowered Iraq’s Shia majority, which bolsters Iran’s sense of security vis-à-vis its neighbor. All major Shia parties in Iraq are led by people beholden to Iran, which gave them refuge and training during Saddam’s rule. The Lebanese Hezbollah has had close religious and ideological ties with Iran’s ruling clerical elements, but the relationship also has a strategic logic. Hezbollah is the only Arab force capable of standing up to Israel and giving it a bloody nose, as it did during the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Hezbollah’s military capabilities provide Iran a backdoor option against Israel in case of an Israeli or American attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Conversely, Saudi Arabia supports the Sunni-dominated opposition against the Assad regime not so much for sectarian reasons but because of the latter’s connection with Iran. For the Saudis and their monarchical allies in the Persian Gulf, keeping Iran bogged down in the Syrian quagmire diverts Tehran’s attention and capabilities from the Gulf theatre. This benefits Gulf kingdoms apprehensive of the fallout from the Arab Spring on their own legitimacy and longevity. The uprising in Bahrain, brutally crushed by the al-Khalifa regime with military support from Saudi Arabia, has made the absolute rulers of the Gulf very nervous about their own future. Thus, they paint the democracy movement in Bahrain as an Iranian conspiracy in order to gain support from Arab publics and Western powers.

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.

Syria has thus become a part of a region-wide tussle that is essentially about the re-calibration of two interrelated balances of power: one between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf; the second the overall regional balance of power between the American-Israeli axis and Iran. Syria is merely a sideshow of these wider and strategically much more important struggles. Iran’s support for Assad and the US-Saudi support for his opponents can only be understood in the context of these larger struggles for power and influence. The resolution of the Syrian crisis is, therefore, linked to what happens in these other arenas and cannot be separated from them.

This paper formed the basis of a presentation at an international conference on “Resolving the Syrian Crisis” organized by the Center for Middle East Studies, University of Denver, January 10-11, 2013.

Mohammed Ayoob, author of The Many Faces of Political Islam(University of Michigan Press, 2008), is University Distinguished Professor of International Relations, Michigan State University, and Adjunct Scholar, Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. His edited volume Assessing the War on Terror will be published later this year. He is currently working on a book Will the Middle East Implode? which is scheduled for publication in early 2014.

Image: Flickr/Khalid Albaih. CC BY 2.0.