Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Syria: The Latest Theater of the New Middle Eastern Cold War

By Sanat ValechaPublished November 8, 2013

This piece discusses the idea of the Middle Eastern Cold War, contested largely between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and uses it to explain what is happening in Syria today. In essence, Syria's regression into a warring, domestically weak state has created a conflict that acts as a proxy in which Saudi Arabia and Iran further their rivalry, Sanat argues.
By Sanat Valecha, Published 11/8/13

The frustratingly complex situation on the ground in Syria today can be conceptualized or understood from numerous different standpoints. Western policymakers, journalists, and analysts have framed the Syria issue in a variety of these, attempting to explain and respond to the brutal civil war that has engulfed the Middle Eastern state. One framework, or lens of sorts, which has not been given significant attention outside the region, places the conflict in context of the international relations of the Middle East. It looks to the new Middle Eastern Cold War, contested largely between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and uses it to explain what is happening in Syria today. In essence, Syria's regression into a warring, domestically weak state has created a conflict that acts as a proxy in which Saudi Arabia and Iran further their rivalry. A significant understanding this lens points to is that foreign intervention is already occurring in Syria. Further analyses and international responses to the Syrian Civil War need to recognize and negotiate the realities that arise from the conflict's role in the larger Middle Eastern Cold War.

Relations amongst states in the Middle East have often been tenuous ever since their boundaries were somewhat arbitrarily formed after World Wars I and II. These surprisingly resilient and nationalistic lines have seen numerous conflicts over the course of the century, including revolutionary wars, civil wars, foreign interventions, and terrorism. In the 1950s, the rise of Pan-Arabism saw the first Arab Cold War, pitting conservative Arab monarchies against the then-newly formed nationalist military republics. The new Middle Eastern Cold War, which in some ways started when the Islamic Republic of Iran was formed, is being fought by Iran on one side, and Saudi Arabia, as representative of the conservative Sunni Arab monarchies, on the other. This cold war has been fought out in the domestic politics of states that are domestically weak, in that they do not have a monopoly on violence within the state and are extremely susceptible to foreign intervention. Since the Iran-Iraq War, in which the Sunni Arab monarchies used Iraq as a buffer against Iran, the new Middle Eastern Cold War has been fought with local proxies, money, guns, and propaganda rather than with conventional military forces. The governments in the states this took place did not have a monopoly on violence within their borders, making it relatively simple for Iran and Saudi Arabia to intervene and employ their own agents and insurgents in the states. This was done in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, and now, Syria.

Iran has largely had the upper hand in aforementioned manifestations of the new Middle Eastern Cold War. In Lebanon, with its series of domestic conflicts in the past forty years, Saudi Arabia largely lost out to Iran, allowing Hezbollah, a key sub-state ally for Iran, to gain a significant measure of influence in that country. In 2003 the American-led invasion of Iraq, and the protracted war to which it led, was also an Iranian success. Saddam Hussein's demise saw Saudi Arabia lose a formidable buffer. Meanwhile, Iran won the competition for domestic political influence in the state, with the weak, Shia-dominated regime set up in Iraq serving as a boon for Iran and its interests in the region. After suffering these losses, now Saudi Arabia is finally finding itself on the offensive in the latest setting for its cold war with Iran, Syria.

Today, Iran is extremely involved in Syria, which was the Islamic Republic of Iran's only Arab ally for much of its history. Perhaps a common revolutionary heritage, with Iran having had an Islamic revolution and Syria being the last bastion of revolutionary, socialist Ba'athism, or a Shia bond made the two governments such staunch allies. When the anti-authoritarian protests in Syria degenerated into a brutal civil war that began to threaten Bashar al-Assad's sovereign government, Iran sent troops, including its elite Revolutionary Guard, weapons, and aid to support its ally. It also supported Hezbollah's mobilization to prop up the Assad regime. Iran is heavily invested in defending Syria's authoritarian yet sovereign, Shia regime.

Saudi Arabia only supports the revolutions associated with the Arab Spring in Syria. Money, arms, and men flow from the Gulf States to Syria constantly to fight Assad and his Iranian backers. Arabian money supports numerous rebel groups in Syria, some of whom, like the al-Nusra Front, have ties to al-Qaeda and other extremist takfiri terrorist organizations. Saudi Arabia sees the Syrian war as an opportunity to finally get on the front foot in the Middle Eastern Cold War and harm Iran and its regional interests. It can counter Iran's material involvement in the country through the various proxy groups it finances. It can paint Iran as supportive of a ruthless dictator already accused of numerous atrocities against his own people. As the conflict further destabilizes Syria and the countries surrounding it, there will be further chance for Saudi Arabia, and its deep-pocketed Gulf allies, to menace Iran, perhaps by disrupting its logistical pathway through Iraq or sowing unrest in Iran itself. No matter the course the war in Syria takes, its key role in the Middle Eastern Cold War is evident.

Interpreting the conflict in Syria through its role in the larger Middle Eastern Cold War between Iran and Saudi Arabia is a useful lens by which to conclude on the potential policy responses the war merits. The ever-looming question of international intervention must be answered with consideration as to how Syria fits into the new Middle Eastern Cold War. Actions taken by the two major players in this cold war, Saudi Arabia and Iran, affect the interests and goals of the UN, NATO, and other international actors who have designs on Syria. These designs must acknowledge and accommodate the realities the proxy war between the two Middle Eastern powers has created, perhaps above all that the Syrian conflict is already witnessing and being manipulated by foreign intervention. Before taking further intervening action in Syria, the international community should consider how its actions will influence and be influenced by the new Middle Eastern Cold War.