The Middle East Channel

Will failure to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict mean a new Cold War in the Middle East?

Is a new Cold War taking shape in the Middle East? It is not hard to understand why skeptics believe it may be. President Dmitry Medvedev visited Syria on Monday, the first ever visit by a Russian or Soviet head of state. Syrians are excited. They are hoping that Russia will resume its old role ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Is a new Cold War taking shape in the Middle East? It is not hard to understand why skeptics believe it may be. President Dmitry Medvedev visited Syria on Monday, the first ever visit by a Russian or Soviet head of state. Syrians are excited. They are hoping that Russia will resume its old role as armorer and advocate of those states prepared to "defend Arab rights" and resist U.S. hegemony.

When Barack Obama first became U.S. president, Syrians were hopeful that he would break the mold of U.S. policy and carry through with his promise to finally end the Arab-Israeli conflict based on land for peace. To Syrians, this means they will get back the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in 1967; it means a two-state solution for the Palestinians. For the past several months, Syrian authorities have been telling anyone who will listen in Washington that the one thing they want from the United States is help getting back the Golan. If Syria gets back its land, it will modify its alliances and end its enmity toward Israel, allowing for a new relationship with the United States. Today, that hope seems to be all but dashed.

It is in this context that we can understand the events of the last few months that have ended with renewed threats of war between Israel and Syria, the rapid deterioration of U.S.-Syria relations, and Syria’s effort to strengthen a system of alliances that it hopes will right the terrible imbalance in power between it and Israel — an imbalance which the United States supports and which Syria blames for Israel’s intransigence. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claims that "the Golan will remain in our hands." His refusal to stop expanding settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank in the face of U.S. urging suggests that the two-state solution for the Palestinians is doubtful.

Syrians are convinced that the Obama administration will cave into Israeli pressure to soft-pedal the peace process and put the best face on the status quo. With congressional electioneering in full swing and the presidential election not far behind, all signs are that Obama is feeling compelled to patch up frayed relations with Israel. This will be done at Syria’s expense. Hence, Israel and the United States joined voices in accusing Syria of supplying long-range missiles to Hezbollah. Also last week, Washington renewed sanctions on Syria. Why? Because U.S. officials said Syria continues "to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States." The renewal of sanctions only reminded Syrians of how intractable U.S.-Syria enmity is and how dependent any improvement of relations will be on a Syria-Israel peace. This is why Syrian authorities have put so much hope in peace with Israel. They believe that if Syria can negotiate peace and get back the Golan, all other problems, such as the U.S.-Syria relationship and sanctions, will fix themselves with minimal tinkering.

So what are Damascus’s options in the face of Obama’s climb down and Israel’s refusal to trade land for peace?

Damascus insists that it will not give up its claim to the Golan or its right to resist occupation. This means arming Hezbollah and Hamas. Getting Russia on board Syria’s efforts to resist will be key, as Russia is the most likely country to help with more sophisticated missiles and anti-tank weapons, as well as anti-aircraft defense. From Syria’s point of view, it must improve its ability to defend against Israel’s periodic incursions and raise the cost of Israeli refusal to return the Golan. 

Syria is doing everything it can to build up what it is calling a "northern alliance" between Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. This is the primary building block in Syria’s strategy for countering Israel’s overwhelming military superiority. Rapidly improving relations with Turkey are at the heart of the alliance and breaking out of Syria’s narrow dependency on Iran. In the last two years, all visa requirements between the Turkey and Syria have been dropped, and trade has increased rapidly. In an effort to expand improving economic ties into the world of defense, Syria recently held military exercises with Turkey. It is no surprise that Medvedev will follow up his two-day Syria visit with a Turkey stopover. Assad has just concluded a tripartite summit in Istanbul with Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdogan and the emir of Qatar. A spokesman at the Russian Embassy in Damascus told AFP, "We are seeking to recover lost ground with old friends." On the agenda of Russia-Syria talks are the Mideast peace process, Iran’s nuclear program, and the bilateral arms trade between the two countries.

Russia is seeking to beef up its role in the region. It is helping rebuild the port of Tartus as a docking and repair station for the Russian fleet. It has also won contracts to play an expanded role in Syria’s gas and oil industry. A bevy of Russian businessmen are accompanying Medvedev to Damascus.

Syria is looking to Russia for help in deterring the United States and Israel. "After the USSR collapsed and Moscow voluntarily left the Middle East, the balance of power shifted in favor of Israel and the United States," Samir Ismail, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at Damascus University, told the Russian news service, Ria Novosti. "The return of Russia, one of the poles of world policy, will bring balance, safety, and stability to the region," he insisted. "Russia is a key player" and it "should force Israel to resume the peace process," Samir added.

So where does this leave the United States? Syria must try to raise the cost of Washington’s support for Israel. It can do this in two ways: by attacking regional governments that ally with America as traitors to the "Arab cause," and radicalizing their people by stressing the extent to which the United States is the enemy of Arabs and Muslims and sides unfairly with Israel. Syria will have to force the United States to decide as frequently as possible which side it is on. It will hang Israel around America’s neck and work to isolate both in the region.

America’s leading allies have been Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt. The Saudis have shown some signs of distancing themselves from Washington and have reached out to both Russia and China to hedge their bets. Saudi-Syrian relations reached a low point during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 2006, when Syria accused Riyadh of supporting Israel against Hezbollah and called Saudi leaders "quasi-men." Since then, Syria and Saudi Arabia have patched up their relations by agreeing not to allow differences over Lebanon to come between them. Saudi Arabia has shifted its attention away from Lebanon and toward Iraq, where it can cooperate with Damascus on stabilizing a post-American government. Both governments stood together in favoring Ayad Allawi as leader of a new Iraqi government. Syria has supported Saudi actions in Yemen. Jordan has also worked to improve relations with Syria. King Abdullah has warned the United States that it must pressure Netanyahu to stop settlement expansion for fear that war will break out.

Egypt’s relations with Damascus have been the most resistant to improvement. The two countries traded nasty accusations during Israel’s invasion of Gaza in 2008. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in bringing a bunch of Hezbollah operatives to trial recently, has shown that Syria and Hezbollah threatened Egyptian state security. This was a blow to Syria. All the same, Syria will continue to paint Mubarak as a traitor and Israel-lover who is willing to starve the Palestinians. This is not good for the Egyptian president, who has extended an olive branch of sorts to Syria by speaking up in favor of Syria’s accession to the World Trade Organization and by championing a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East. Syria will work to isolate the United States in the Middle East.

Russia will fish in the troubled waters of the Middle East. American isolation can only redound to its advantage. The Arabs and Iran will look to Russia for arms. Russia can also be gratified by the deterioration of Turkey’s relations with both Israel and the United Stats. It will continue to look for ways to frustrate U.S. efforts to add teeth to its sanctions regime against Iran.

So long as America’s No. 1 foreign-policy goal in the region is to hurt Iran and help Israel, Russia will be drawn back into the region and a new Cold War will take shape. Washington’s failure to realign relations with Iran and Syria dooms it to repeat its past. But this time Israel will be more of a millstone around its neck as it thumbs it’s nose at international law and human rights. China also presents a new and potent challenge.

Gamal Abdul Nasser claimed that in the Middle East there was a role in search of a hero; he tried to fill it at great cost to Egypt. So long as the Arab-Israeli conflict remains unresolved, however, that role will exist. Iran and Syria are trying to fill it today. They claim to defend Arab and Muslim rights in the face of Israeli expansion and U.S. imperialism. If they are to have any success, they will need a larger power to champion their efforts. And Russia is the obvious candidate — that is, until China is prepared to throw its weight behind Middle East peacemaking. Syria is well aware that neither Russia nor China can dare challenge the United States or Israel for at least a decade, but Syria and Iran seem prepared to play for time. The alternative to taking the long view for Syria is the loss of the Golan and national humiliation.

Joshua Landis is director of the Center for Middle East Studies and associate professor at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of the blog Syria Comment.

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<p> Joshua Landis is the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of &quot;Syria Comment,&quot; a daily newsletter on Syrian politics. </p>