US hegemony in Middle East is ending

Talk of a Middle East cold war is inaccurate – Russia and Turkey are simply capitalising on the region’s new power vacuum

By Christopher Phillips, The Guardian, 31sy May 2010

A recent arms deal between Russia and Syria has raised the prospect of a new cold war in the Middle East. Foreign Policy’s Josh Landis, for example, suggests that unconditional US support for Israel will draw Moscow back into its pre-1989 role as supporter and arms supplier for the enemies of Tel Aviv and Washington.

Yet Russia’s return to Syria, whether it be the sale of MiG-29s or building a naval dock on the Syrian coast, is not the action of a superpower challenging US hegemony as it was in 1945-89 but rather an assertive regional power taking advantage of the emerging power vacuum in the region. Instead of a new bi-polar cold war, regional powers such as Russia and Turkey are increasing their influence at the United States’ expense.

The idea of a new cold war has gained currency in some quarters for the wrong reasons. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad himself told La Repubblica last week that “Russia is reasserting itself. And the cold war is just a natural reaction to the attempt by America to dominate the world”.

In the same interview he asserted that there was a new triple alliance between Syria, Turkey and Iran – part of a “northern alliance” that Damascus has been trying to construct against Israel and the US – with Russia now cast in the role as superpower benefactor.

As leader of a small power attempting to defy the global hegemon, it is in Assad’s interests to exaggerate the strength of such an alliance. Yet no such cohesive united bloc actually exists. Russia is pursuing a realist regional agenda, ensuring it can maximise its influence without unnecessarily confronting the US – a cornerstone of Dmitry Medvedev’s foreign policy. A recent spat with Tehran over Russian support for Washington’s new UN sanctions on Iran hardly suggests a united anti-American/anti-Israeli front.

Turkey, too, is not tying itself to any camp. Damascus may regard Ankara’s rekindled relationship with Iraq, Iran and Syria as crucial for any new alignment, but Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbours” policy is not limited to those states on its southern border. Turkey is seeking influence and markets for its rapidly expanding economy across the region, including Israel.

Though prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rhetoric has been increasingly populist and anti-Israeli since the Gaza war of 2008-2009, the deep commercial, economic and military ties between the Turkish and Israeli establishments show no signs of receding. Like Russia, Turkey is pursuing its own interests by asserting its influence in the whole Middle East, not just as the lynchpin of an anti-America/Israel bloc.

Yet even though the return to cold war bi-polar blocs in the Middle East is unlikely, the region’s international relations are changing. US power is waning. Though Washington remains the world’s only superpower, the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan have exposed the limits of US ambitions, while the economic crisis has forced the Obama administration to focus energy elsewhere.

While the Bush era saw the US hegemonic in the region, squeezing the defiant few like Syria and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, today’s Middle East sees a power vacuum led by partial US retreat being filled by assertive regional and middle powers. Turkey and Brazil’s recent nuclear deal with Iran typify this emerging new climate.

Stephen Walt has highlighted that this shift in power is global, with Asia’s share of GDP already outstripping that of the US or Europe. As ever, it seems the Middle East could prove a microcosm of these international changes. If the age of American uni-polarity is coming to an end, perhaps hastened by unnecessary wars and economic shortsightedness, it is much more likely that international relations in the Middle East will come to reflect the multi-polar world that will follow rather than revert to a bi-polar cold war.

In such circumstances, it won’t just be Russia and Turkey expanding their reach in the region, but China, India and Brazil will all bid for a role, too – presumably having fewer demands than Washington about their clients pursuing democratic reforms and peace with Israel. Saudi Arabia’s growing relationship with China might signify the shape of things to come.

Not that this era is yet upon us. The US remains the superpower and could still effect serious change in the region, should it desire. However, the recent actions of Russia and Turkey in the Middle East do show a new assertiveness from regional powers to pursue their own path in defiance of US will, whether through arms deals, trade agreements or diplomatic coups. A new cold war is unlikely, but the age of unchallenged US hegemony in the Middle East could be ending.

Syrian and Israeli bloggers try to resolve their differences online

Exciting concept reported on by Ian Black in The Guardian:

Syrians and Israelis are crossing one of the Middle East‘s great divides to co-operate – in cyberspace – to explore ways to advance peace between their countries.

The groundbreaking website aims to bring together prominent Israelis and Syrian bloggers, academics and experts seeking ways to break the stubborn impasse in negotiations.

It will host the first Syrian-Israeli public online dialogue of its kind – a remarkable step for two countries which have been in a state of war for more than 60 years. The border between them – a UN-monitored ceasefire line on the heavily fortified Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967 – is closed. Nationals from each country are banned from visiting the other; there are no direct communications. But the authorities in Damascus have tolerated previous ad hoc internet exchanges and are thought to be happy with the launch of this permanent platform.

“It is the first time there’s been an organised effort on a specific issue between two enemies, and not only between Syria and Israel,” said Camille Otrakji, a Canadian-Syrian who is helping run the website. “This is an experiment. We hope it will take things a step further.”

Yoav Stern, an Israeli organiser of the site, sparked intense interest in both Syria and Israel when he reported on Syrian blogging in Ha’aretz, Israel’s leading liberal Hebrew-language daily. “We are used to looking at each other in demonic terms,” he said. “This is different.”

For the last year, academics, political analysts, journalists, businesspeople and consultants from both sides have been debating the issues in a private online forum. They produced a list of all possible objections to peace from both sides and voted for the 20 most commonly encountered in Syrian and Israeli societies. The group then produced effective counter-arguments to each of them.

Despite the emnity between the neighbours, negotiations between them have come tantalisingly close to a deal three times during the last 20 years before obstacles emerged to scuttle the process. Syrian officials say that 85% of the problems, including crucial security arrangements, were solved in negotiations with four Israeli leaders from Yitzhak Rabin to Ehud Barak. Turkey mediated four more rounds of inconclusive talks in 2008.

Still, many analysts believe Syria would never sign a peace agreement with Israel even if it secured the total return of the Golan Heights — unless it was part of a comprehensive peace settlement that included the Palestinian issue.

Syria is nervous about unofficial peace initiatives, such as one involving a retired Israeli diplomat and an American-Syrian businessman who proposed turning the Golan into a nature reserve. “We are making sure that these are not negotiations,” insisted Otrakji. “This is a communications exercise.” The organisers want to avoid the experience of Syria Comment,

a respected US-based specialist website that has been targeted by pro-Israeli bloggers seeking to pressure the Obama administration not to continue its cautious dialogue with President Bashar al-Assad.

The next step is for to invite experts and opinion formers from both countries to discuss the peace process and to submit constructive feedback for publication on the site.Israeli media reported yesterday that Assad had turned down an offer from the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, under which Israel would return the Golan if Syria severed its ties with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.