Is a cold war reprise coming in the Middle East?

The vacuum threatened by an apparent change in US policy could return the Middle East to the old alliances – if not the antagonism – of the Cold War

Nick Gray
On 29 October 2013 23:39

America is taking its diplomatic paws off the Middle East. Alliances are changing, “friendships” are being broken and made; the acrid fluidity of diplomacy since the Arab Spring (some spring!) is making for some interesting bedfellows.

But the vacuum threatened by an apparent change in US policy could return the Middle East to the old alliances – if not the antagonism – of the Cold War.

The withdrawal of US aid from Egypt was a shock; the whole Middle East (the rational part, that is), knew full well the implications of a Muslim Brotherhood president in such an influential nation, yet the mighty US punished Egypt’s military for removing him and attempting to restore some semblance of order to the country.

In Syria, President Assad unleashes one of the worst weapons created by man. The world tweets for a couple of weeks before effectively letting him off the hook with a (Russian-inspired) solution that probably allowed the Syrians to hide as many of their chemical shells as they wanted to. Russia 1 – 0 USA .

New Iranian president Rouhani smiles pleasantly at the world and opens talks with the Americans. This is such a shock that the world immediately thinks about slackening sanctions; maybe even before all the centrifuges spin down. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan… and Israel – all look on aghast at the apparent naiveté of the West.

“The West” has never really understood that part of the Eastern worldview that respects strength. This is partly why the Middle East has historically had so many despotic strong-men: Gadaffi, Saddam, Assad, Mubarrak. Unfortunately, when the Egyptian military showed strength and authority to protect its own nation from extremism, America let it down instead of supporting a brave stand by General Sisi.

When Syria’s Assad needed to be shown some stiff authority as punishment, he got a weak response that wasn’t really even a slap on the wrist. And Iran? Iran has discovered that it can start the process of easing sanctions by smiling sweetly – and still keep the centrifuges running.

The perceived weakness of America in recent months is the opposite of what is perceived of Russia. And President Putin is not being slow to pick up the slack. His solution to the Syrian chemical attacks debacle did not provide any long-term resolution to the civil war. But his “street-cred” among certain other leaders in the region shot up.

An insightful article in this week’s Sunday Times revealed that Russia is already stepping into strategic space left by the US with offers of support for Egypt and Iraq. Russia was already a supporter of Syria’s Assad but the possibility of more warm-water ports in the Mediterranean or even the Persian Gulf is something Putin will not pass up.

Now think back to the Cold War. Who were Russia’s clients in the Mediterranean? Syria, Egypt, Libya. Well, getting two out of three back isn’t bad (keep an eye on chaotic Libya). And if America continues to withdraw from the Middle East in strategic terms, Russia will have many more friends there in the not too far distant future.

Perhaps the biggest danger is Russia’s relationship with Iran. With the West showing weakness in nuclear talks, what will stop Russia supporting Tehran’s nuclear programme?

The most strategically independent state in the region is tiny Israel. She is independent because she knows that when the chips are down she will stand alone and must not place her trust in Western allies more than necessary. This understanding of her position has shown itself in the refusal of Israeli peace negotiators to yield to US pressure to allow an international force to protect her eastern border with Jordan. Her presence in the Jordan valley gives essential strategic and tactical depth as well as preventing a flood of terrorist weapons entering the West Bank.

Whenever Israel has been asked to rely on international peace-keepers, she has been let down. Think Sinai in 1967 (UN force), Gaza’s border with Egypt in 2005 (EU border control), and South Lebanon in 2006 (UN again). Every time international forces have “helped to protect” Israel’s borders they have proved themselves weak and ineffective.

Israel only has to lose one war to cease to exist. She must remain strong and “prickly” to the outside world if she is to survive.

And this is why Israel is so sensitive to the changing moods of international diplomacy; changes that are leaving the country more threatened, not more reassured of American support when it might be needed in the future.

If Iran finds a way to keep refining nuclear material and Russia continues to replace America as strategic “top gun” in the Middle East, listen out for the F16s warming up and heading eastwards – a long way eastwards.

Nick Gray is Director, Christian Middle East Watch, a British organisation dedicated to objective and factual discussion of Middle Eastern issues, especially of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Nick blogs at

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