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Sat. February 04, 2023
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Around the World, Across the Political Spectrum

Cold War Tactics in the Syrian Crisis


The Syrian civil war started in the first quarter of 2011. The conflict has had local, regional, and international effects. One of the consequences of the Syrian crisis is attributed to the fact that the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad has chemical weapons. In August 2012, US President Barack Obama addressed the issue of Syria’s arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. He said the United States has been very clear to the Al-Assad regime, and also to other players on the ground, that a red line for America is when seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized, and that would change the calculus and equation of US role. Around a year after that, when conclusive evidence was available that chemical weapons were actually used by the Al-Assad forces, observers expected that the words of Obama would be translated into a military strike on Syria. They predicted a limited operation, but they could not explain why the President unexpectedly decided to seek an unneeded congressional approval for a military strike, and while hearings and debates were underway, the Obama administration executed a deal with Al-Assad’s major ally, Russia, to disarm Syria from its chemical stockpile. The measure was sent to the United Nations Security Council UNSC. The United States and other Western powers on the Security Council pulled back many of their initial demands. They did so to get Resolution 2118 pass on September 27, 2013. It passed with the language Russia wanted. Some scholars think that Obama’s shy response on the use of chemical weapons in Syria was actually a plan to avoid another war in the Middle East after Iraq. I disagree with that type of analysis, because I look at the consequences of what Obama did, regardless of the fact whether his reaction was planned for or not. I maintain that Obama should not have set a red line from the beginning if he had no interest in intervening in Syria, because Syrian people have been dying with or without chemical weapons, and by accepting the deal with Russia, he gave Moscow the chance to achieve what it was looking for. What Russian President Vladimir Putin has done in Syria is an indication of determination and a show of muscles to a number of regional players however, Obama has downplayed the aggressive elements of Moscow, explaining that Russia and the US actually cooperate on counterterrorism issues and this is not the Cold War any more. Nevertheless, I argue that in the Middle East, Russia has had two Cold War pressing tactics against the US during the Syrian crisis: 1 Nuclear Power, and 2 Replacing America. Nuclear Power Iran’s nuclear technology is Russian-based, and Russia’s cooperative behavior with other members of the international community regarding this thorny issue does not come from an intention to solve it, but rather, from strategic planning to gain leverage in Moscow’s relations with Washington. I argue that over the past two decades, Russia used the Iranian nuclear program to practice influence on the United States. In terms of Iran’s nuclear program, Moscow has behaved in two ways: either freezing or boosting cooperation with Tehran. For example, in 1995, when good relations with Washington were a major Russian objective, Moscow signed the Gore–Chernomyrdin agreement, and Russia accepted the subsequent commitment of not exporting military supplies to the Islamic Republic of Iran. However, when tensions recolored the relations between Washington and Moscow in the mid-2000s, the Russian–Iranian relations warmed up consequently. Between 2006 and 2008, Moscow expanded military cooperation with Tehran, and actually tried to make up for any perceived damage to that relation caused by the Gore–Chernomyrdin agreement. So, the rules that define how Russia uses the Iranian nuclear program are simple. While preventing any US-led international action against Tehran, Moscow would be flexible and ready to discuss Iran’s nuclear program, if the United States adopts an approach that complies with Russian foreign policy on a number issues. Syria is now one of them. For instance, in early August 2013, when American threats to attack Syria were at the peak, Moscow and Tehran announced that they would soon sign an agreement to construct a new nuclear reactor in Iran. When the United States slowed the pace of attacking Syria, Iran started sending positive signs about its foreign policy. For example, the quarterly report of the International Atomic Energy Agency IAEA, issued in November 2013, shows that Iran has put brakes on its centrifuges, and subsequently, the production of enriched uranium since late August. The Obama administration understands that. National Security Adviser Susan Rice believes that the president has been fixed mainly on concluding an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program and solving the crisis in Syria. How Rice sets priorities and correlate them explain that she knows the way to Damascus passes through Tehran. There is no conspiracy or speculation in that. US-Iranian talks on Tehran’s nuclear program and US-Russian talks on Geneva II i.e., the international peace conference on Syria moved simultaneously, and Geneva II will occur after the deal on Iran’s nuclear program was achieved. However, the sad reality is that Russia’s nuclear cooperation with Middle Eastern countries will not stop at Iran. It is expanding to include major allies of the United States. Russian State Nuclear Energy Corporation, Rosatom, will build and operate Jordan’s first nuclear plant, and Russia will provide 49% of the funding required for constructing the Jordanian nuclear reactor. This will put further pressures on US foreign policy in the region in the very near future. Replacing America Now, the revived Cold War between Russia and America in the Middle East is spilling over into other countries in addition to Syria. Russia is going after the United States everywhere in the region. In October 2013, Obama decided to freeze about a third of this year’s $1.6 billion aid package to Egypt. This was America’s reaction to the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood MB organization from power in July 2013. The decision has angered most Egyptians, especially that the Obama administration had not only helped Morsi and the MB gain power, but also rewarded them with increased assistance even as they were attempting to create an Islamist political monopoly during Morsi’s year-long period in office. In contrast, Putin has been very outspoken defending Morsi’s removal. It is out of question that many in Egypt, including the country’s immensely popular new leader, General Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, have already threatened to trade the almost four decades of alliance with America for a new one with Russia. Putin, playing Cold War tactics, seized the opportunity. Egypt is now considering the spending of up to $4 billion on weaponry from Russia. Moscow has offered Cairo a historic deal giving Egypt an option to buy the most advanced arms without any restrictions, but Egypt has serious financial problems, so who is going to pay for those weapons? The answer is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have recently been very skeptical and upset regarding US policies in the Middle East to the point that they appointed Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the US from 1983 to 2005, as the head of the Saudi intelligence. In other words, they appointed the Saudi man who best knows America and its security as the head of the Saudi intelligence. They are very scared that America is not on their side any more. They are seriously concerned that they may pay the cost of any US-Iranian deal. To repair the damage, Obama delegated his Secretary of State, John Kerry, to Saudi Arabia. Kerry met the Saudi King in November 2013. Kerry assured King Abdullah that America will defend its allies in the Middle East, but it seems that the attempt did not work out. Less than a week after that, Putin called the Saudi King. They discussed Syria, Iran, and two big arm deals, the one for Egypt and another one for Saudi Arabia itself. In other words, Saudi Arabia, one of the major Middle Eastern allies of the US before, throughout, and after the Cold War, is now discussing the issues of the region with a former KGB officer and in the process of buying weapons from the former Soviet Union. All this echoes the forgotten rivalry of the Cold War, but this time there are different frames, and it doesn’t seem that the US is winning in the story of the Middle East, which is ongoing and its stakes are high. After Egypt switched sides from Russia to the US following the Yom Kippur war with Israel in 1973, the United States was able to establish a sort of Pax Americana in the region, but now, as Egypt, Jordan, and Gulf countries are possibly breaking towards Moscow, either entirely or partially, while Iran is just like Syria, an ally of Russia, and both of them attempt to gain time by keeping Washington busy with “grand bargains” about weapons of mass destruction, whatever that might be, the old order of the Middle East may change to Pax Russiana. Mohammed Al-Azdee is an assistant professor of mass communication at the University of Bridgeport–Bridgeport, CT. Born and raised in Iraq, he earned his PhD and MA in mass communication from the Indiana University IU School of Journalism–Bloomington. His area of interest is the intersection between media, politics, and religion. Dr. Al-Azdee has been published in scholarly journals and in US and Iraqi media outlets. His research has been presented at varied academic conferences in the United States, receiving awards from the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication AEJMC, the International Communication Association ICA, the Center for the Study of the Middle East CSME, and US Department of State.

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