Syria, a Proxy Conflict in the Middle East Cold War

by John Turner

The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iranmarked the beginning of the second Middle East Cold War. Saudi Arabia and Iran along with their allies have been engaged in cold confrontation since that time. However, in large part this began to thaw in the years following the election of Muhammad Khatami to the Iranian presidency in 1997. Recent events, most notably the Arab Spring along with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, have renewed old tensions.  Some have argued that the uprising in Syria has now set the country up to be a proxy conflict in a renewed Cold War between Russia and the West, dividing the world along the lines of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and most of the Arab states on the other. Indeed Syria is in danger of becoming a proxy conflict in a cold war, but this conflict is not reflective of the Cold War that consumed the world in the 20th century. It is rather a Middle East Cold War. It is driven not by external actors seeking to exploit regional uncertainty for advantage, but by internal rivalries that position the world’s great powers, the US, EU, Russia and China, in an awkward position, actors who for the most part prefer regional stability.

The politics of the Middle Eastare influenced by religion and sectarian divides, add to this ideological, ethnic and tribal tensions and the region is further complicated. The ideas of Arab nationalism, Islamic unity, foreign influence, as well as sectarian and ethnic divides have all plagued, undermined and at times strengthened the various states of the region. However, in spite of these persistent challenges to the sovereignty of individual states and the problems these have posed to political elites, the Middle East sub-state system can still be understood through the Westphalian lens. The Middle East Cold War is defined by state interests, however sectarian and ethnic divisions as well as ideological positions represent both the defining features of the Middle East Cold War and tools that are employed to fight it.

The influence of Iran on the Shia populations of the region, who represent a majority in Iraq and account for nearly 70% of the population of thePersian Gulf, has been a consistent concern for Arab leaders. Before the fall of the Iraqi regime in 2003 Iraq served as a buffer against Iranian hegemonic ambitions, real or imaginary. In fact, Iran had never successfully managed to convince the Shia to rebel against their Sunni masters, as was demonstrated most clearly during the Iran Iraq War 1980-1988. Jordan’s King Abdullah warned before the US led invasion of Iraq that if the Ba’ath regime in Bagdad were to be dismantled a Shia Crescent would engulf the region from Iran across Iraq into Lebanon and Syria. In reality, however, the Middle East Cold War has less to do with sectarian divisions and is linked rather to differing interpretations of regional politics. Iran and its affiliates are transformational actors seeking to limit Western influence and undermine Israel. The Status Quo Arab bloc seeks greater regional stability and is willing to tolerate US military presence as it serves as a security guarantor.

The Arab Spring represents both an opportunity and a danger to these cold war adversaries. Egyptwhich was once firmly bonded toSaudi Arabia, friendly to Western powers and committed to the Camp David Accords, is now an unknown. Iran may well have seen the prospects of an Islamist government in Egypt, though of Sunni origin, as an opportunity for stronger relations with that country and as well an opportunity to peel Egypt away from its traditional allies. The events inEgypt however were largely an Egyptian enterprise. Syria may not be quite so simple. Iran openly championed the revolutions in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Bahrain, heralding them as a blow to Western intrusion and a victory for Islam. However, no such cheerful praise was afforded the Syrian revolutionaries from Ahmadinejad or the Ayatollahs. With the uprising against Bashir al-Assad’s regime the tables to some extent are being turned onIran. Its erstwhile ally is under threat and the Arab bloc may itself see an opportunity to remove Iran’s most valuable ally. With the West unwilling, or more likely unable, to intervene in the crisis, regional players no doubt will. Saudi Arabian clerics have urged jihad against the Syrian regime and the Arab league has attempted to stop al-Assad’s crackdown. More concerning, however, may be that the Saudis are arming the Syrian Free Army through tribal channels in Iraq and Lebanon. At present,Iran may be less able to influence the conflict directly, apart from symbolic acts of sending war vessels to anchor in Syrian ports, but the regime has other friends. What appears evident is that the Syrian affair will not remain a domestic one. The intervention of outside powers may ensure the conflict endures for some time. Unlike Libya, Syria is a key strategic player in the Middle Eastand its fate represents both an opportunity and a peril to the states of the region that could well tip the balance in the Middle East Cold War. Some may see this as a positive development weakening Iran’s ability to stretch its influence into the heart of the Middle Eastand bringing an end to a bothersome and distasteful regime. However, the cost in humanitarian terms will likely be even higher than at present and the prospect for regional stability significantly diminished.

John Turner is a PhD candidate in the School of Politics