A boy flashes a victory sign during a demonstration against Syrian President Al Assad in Kafranbel, near Idlib. Image Credit: Reuters

The winds of a second Cold War are blowing across the Middle East, more than two decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the ensuing unravelling of the Soviet Union. This time Moscow is looking to reassert its role and influence in a Middle East that is polarised along new geopolitical divides, initially created as a result of direct US military intervention in Iraq eight years ago and deepening later following the tumultuous Arab Spring in 2011.

The battleground for the new confrontation between Russia and the United States is Syria, which has been embroiled in a popular anti-regime uprising for more than a year. Moscow has adopted a tough line in support of its old and last ally in the Arab world. It has stood with the Damascus regime diplomatically and militarily. It vetoed, along with China, a draft Security Council resolution calling on President Bashar Al Assad to step down. It continues to denounce calls to arm the rebels or issue ultimatums to Damascus.

There are unsubstantiated reports that since the break out of the uprising Moscow has supplied its Syrian ally with more weapons. It has boosted its military presence in its naval base in Tartus. And while it supports UN-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan, it has refused to link it to a timetable.

Russia's recalcitrant stance has stalled its relations with Washington and Europe. It has mired ties with most Gulf countries including Saudi Arabia, which is leading an Arab diplomatic offensive against the Damascus regime. Riyadh continues to support calls to arm the Syrian Free Army. Along with Qatar and Turkey, it has become a key player in the Syrian conflict. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Russia have worsened since Moscow used its veto in January.

Waning US influence

Moscow and Beijing have expressed anger and disappointment over the way Nato had acted in Libya. Both believed the use of military force there was beyond the legal mandate of resolution 1973. President Dmitry Medvedev opposed the use of force in Libya and he is determined not to allow that to happen in Syria.

But there is more to the Russian position that meets the eye. America's intervention in Iraq has changed the dynamics of Middle East politics. America's influence in Iraq is waning and under Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki Baghdad has maintained a special rapport with Iran. A new anti-US, Shiite axis is forming which extends from Tehran through Baghdad and all the way to Damascus and even to Beirut. It is an alliance that Moscow is interested in, for now. Russia's influence in the region has declined since the demise of the Soviet Union. Still Moscow was able to keep a close relationship with the Islamic Republic, helping Tehran to build its nuclear reactor and providing much needed military assistance. But as a result of closer ties between US President Barack Obama and Medvedev, Moscow has stopped the delivery of S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran.

In the old Cold War, Moscow nurtured alliances with Iraq, Syria, Libya and Algeria. Most were ruled by anti-western regimes which were opposed to Washington's efforts to conclude peace between the Arabs and Israel. But these countries were also at odds with moderate Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. For the US, maintaining the flow of oil from the Gulf states and protecting Israel remain the bulwark of its policy in the region.

The Arab Spring has secluded Moscow from the region even further. New regimes in Libya and Egypt are now closer to the West than any time before. Syria would be the wall where the march of the Arab Spring would stop.

But Moscow's tough stand on Syria goes beyond the future of the region. With President-elect Vladimir Putin returning to the Kremlin in May, observers believe relations with Washington will be affected. In the view of Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, Putin holds "a less benign view of the United States". Writing an op-ed recently in The New York Times, Grant said that Putin "sees US hegemony as a bigger problem than the rise of Chinese power".

There is much at stake; the missile defence shield in Europe, Turkey and, more recently, the Gulf states, America's growing influence in Central Asia and Washington's threats against Tehran over the latter's nuclear ambitions.

Grant and others believe that under Putin, Russia's objections to foreign interventions, in Syria and Iran, among others, will grow. Moscow is seeking to re-establish its presence in world affairs, particularly in the Middle East. Growing fears of a Saudi-Iran or Sunni-Shiite standoff in the region will further complicate issues. The clouds of a regional Cold War along sectarian lines are also forming. Russia's position on Syria appears to be fundamental and in a US presidential election year it is highly improbable that Moscow and Washington will want to escalate tensions.


Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.