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.