The New Cold War in the Middle East

January 16, 2013 Topic: Security Region: Middle East

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."


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.