Cold War Winds Blow Through the Middle East

Article Summary
The Russian veto of a draft resolution on the Syrian crisis at the UN Security Council signals a level of polarization between world powers not seen since the era of the Cold War, writes Sami Kohen. The sharp division between Western and Russian interest means that neither side wishes to see the other take the lead in mediating the conflict.

In the midst of the Arab Spring in the Middle East, winds of a new Cold War have started to blow. The region is becoming polarized, especially over the Syrian issue. The Syrian debate at the UN Security Council which ended with the vetoes of Russia and China have unveiled new frictions and serious conflicts of interests between regional actors.

The issue is not only about the right to veto held by the five permanent members of the UNSC. The US has also exercised its right to veto against several proposals that it didn’t like, just like Russia. But this time, Russia’s veto signals serious divergence on basic policies and interests between the major countries involved in the Middle East.

On one hand there is the Western bloc, led by the US and with the Arab League at its side. On the other, there is Russia and China, joined by Iran which shares similar views and interests with regards to Syria. Turkey falls into the Western camp.

Since the beginning of Arab Spring, the Western countries and Russia have not differed much  in their approaches to regional developments. Moscow and Beijing were cautious over developments in Tunisia and Egypt, but they nevertheless supported the change. They didn’t oppose the West’s intervention in Libya, but they were disappointed afterwards. Ever since the beginning of the crisis in Syria, Russia and China have supported the regime of Bashar al-Assad and opposed the popular uprising. The reason is clear. Since the days of the  Soviet Union, Syria has held special importance for Moscow’s Middle Eastern policy. Russia has strong strategic, military and economic relations with the Assad regime. To maintain its  presence in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean, Russia has tried to keep Syria within its camp, under Russian influence.

Thus in Syria, Russia will support the Assad regime at any cost to preserve its vital interests, even if it violates moral values.

Iran also gives active support to Assad to preserve its own strategic interests, which fall in line with its regional policies. Those “vital interests” played an important role in Russia’s veto at the Security Council, where a resolution was proposed asking Assad to transfer power to a deputy and accept the conditions set forth by the opposition. Russia has proven its unwillingness to let the West take the initiative. It does not want to lose Syria, and wants to demonstrate its enduring influence as a regional actor.

While trying to protect its interests in the region, Russia has not been dissuaded by friction with actors opposed to it [i.e. the Syrian opposition, Turkey and the West].

While the Arab Spring changes the political balance in the region, external powers are making strategic adjustments to consolidate their presence. The region is now a playground for a new “Great Game”: The West versus Russia, China and Iran.

As a result, signs of renewed polarization are emerging, along with new [zones of confrontation] - both strongly reminiscent of the Cold War era.

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