Will failure to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict mean a new Cold War in the Middle East?
(Foreign Policy) -- By Joshua Landis --
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."...
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...MORE...LINK