Syria and Russia – a new cold war?

Relations have been growing steadily closer between Syria and Russia, with Medvedev recently visiting Damascus along with a platoon of Russian businessmen apparently keen to invest; along with Syria’s efforts to build links with Turkey and Iran, could this be the beginning of a new cold war in the Middle East?

On the one hand, we have the deterioration of American relations with Syria – the recent reimposition of sanctions, the continuing lack of an ambassador to Damascus, and the general mutual incomprehension and mistrust. The Obama administration seems not to understand, or care about, the imbalance of power between Syria and Israel and Syria’s attachment to the Golan Heights, which are rarely mentioned in American discourse. Recent accusations of missile transfers from Syria to Hizbollah have only worsened tensions. And with American accommodation of Netanyahu showing no signs of letting up, Syria is growing impatient. ‘With congressional electioneering in full swing and the presidential election not far behind, all signs are that Obama is feeling compelled to patch up frayed relations with Israel. This will be done at Syria’s expense.’

In this case, turning to Russia is one option for Syria. The hope is that Russia will help Syria build up its strength to redress the imbalance of power, giving it more bargaining room over issues such as the Golan Heights and better defending it against Israel. It has been a while since Russia was involved directly in the Middle East, but this looks like it is changing, with Russia now ‘seeking to beef up its role in the region’. As Russia strengthens its diplomatic hand in the region, other Arab states are realising which way the wind is blowing – both Saudi Arabia and Jordan, traditionally staunch American allies, have also been reaching out to Russia. So what does this mean for US policy? Does the Middle East’s shifting balance of alliances herald the beginning of a new cold war?

As long as placating Israel remains America’s priority, it will isolate itself in the region. That being so, Russia can step in. The failure of the US to engage with Iran and Syria means it will have to get used to a new balance of power.

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