Syria and the New Cold War
Image Credit: Wikicommons / The Egyptian Liberal

Syria and the New Cold War


The Syrian crisis is no longer a purely Syrian affair. Its wider dimension was highlighted on February 4, when Russia and China cast their veto at the U.N. Security Council, thereby aborting a Western-backed Arab resolution that had called on President Bashar al-Assad to step down. At a stroke, the debate was no longer simply about Syria’s internal power struggle. Instead, with their vetoes, Moscow and Beijing were saying that they too had interests in the Middle East that they were determined to protect. The region was no longer an exclusive Western preserve under the hegemony of the United States and its allies.

Russia has decades-old interests in the Middle East, and in Syria in particular. As a major customer of Iranian oil, China doesn’t approve of Western sanctions against Tehran. Nor does it take kindly to U.S. attempts to contain its influence in the Asia-Pacific region. There’s a hint in the air of a revived Cold War.

The Syrian crisis has, in fact, been a two-stage affair from the very beginning – internal as well as international. On the internal level, the uprising has aimed to topple the regime based on the model of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. In this increasingly ugly struggle, both sides – government and opposition – have made serious mistakes. The government’s mistake was to use live rounds against street protesters who were – at first at least – demonstrating peacefully. The crisis could perhaps have been defused with the implementation of immediate reforms. Instead, mounting casualties have created enormous bitterness among the population, reducing the chance of a negotiated settlement.

The opposition’s mistake has been to resort to arms – to become militarised – largely in the form of the Free Syrian Army, a motley force of defectors from the armed services, as well as freelance fighters and hard-line Islamists. It has been conducting hit-and-run attacks on regime targets and regime loyalists. The exiled opposition leadership is composed of a number of disparate, often squabbling, groupings, of which the best known is the Syrian National Council. Inside the SNC, the Muslim Brotherhood is the best organised and funded element of the opposition. Outlawed since its terrorist campaign from 1977 to1982 to overthrow the regime of Hafez al-Assad – an attempt crushed in blood at Hama – it is driven by a thirst for revenge.

No regime, whatever its political colouring, can tolerate an armed uprising without responding with full force. Indeed, the rise of an armed opposition has provided the Syrian regime with the justification it needed to seek to crush it with ever bloodier repression.

Casualties over the last eleven months have been heavy – estimated at some 5,000 to 6,000 members of the opposition, both armed and unarmed, and perhaps 1,500 members of the army and security forces. There’s necessarily an element of guesswork in these figures – as in all wars the manipulation of information has been much in evidence.

As a result of all this, inside Syria, the situation is today one of increased violence by both sides, of sectarian polarisation, and of a dangerous stalemate, slipping each day closer to a full-blown sectarian civil war.

The second level of the contest is being played out in the international arena, where Russia and China, with some support from other emerging powers such as India and Brazil, are challenging America’s supremacy in the Middle East. Washington’s outrage at the challenge was evident when U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton angrily dismissed the Russian and Chinese veto as a “travesty.” Escalating the crisis, she called for an international coalition to support the Syrian opposition against what she described as the “brutal regime” in Damascus. She has encouraged the creation of a “Friends of Syria” group, with the apparent aim of channelling funds and weapons to Assad’s enemies.


[...] Seale, Patrick; Syria and the New Cold War; 2012, February; retrieved from [...]

February 26, 2012 at 16:56

It is interesting to read comments that imply that some states act morally. Most people would define themselves as being on the side of right no matter their behaviour. When the ‘coalition of the willing’ moved on Iraq there was a similar divide: America became the ‘great satan,’ the ‘imperial aggressor’ on one side and the French became ‘traitors’ and ‘selfish’ on the other. The time-honoured tradition of demonising the other, the ‘enemy’ or ‘opposition’ came into play there, just as it has here. In my opinion, there is no moral high ground for the US or Russia or China over Syria (or any other country) because self-preservation is totally entwined with the ideological principles that people are pushing out as their justifications. For within each nation state’s foreign policy there is hypocrisy, compromise, exeptions to the ‘rule’ and so on.

Now, if we were to deal with the problems of egoic self-preservation with egoless community action, such as rolypolying through the streets of damascus then we might be able to claim ‘morality’ but when this occurs there is no ego to claim moral superiority.

Steven H
February 15, 2012 at 05:40

This is a poorly written piece that fails to deliver on its title. Jockeying for strategic high ground in the Middle East is about large powers advancing national interests in an economically integrated international environment. One of the defining facets of the Cold War was an utter lack of economic interaction between the rival superpowers.

In regards to the Sino-Russian veto of U.N. Security Council sanctions against Syria, I’d point the author to a good op-ed recently published in the New York Times by Minxin Pei (Why Beijing Votes with Moscow). Pei’s main point: “The two countries seem to have reached a strategic understanding: they will act to defy the West together, so that neither might look isolated. China will defer to Russia on matters more critical to Moscow (such as Syria) while Russia will do the same on issues China cares about (such as Zimbabwe or Burma).” China has very few interests in Syria, while’s Russia’s are enormous. There is nothing in this arrangement reminiscent of the Cold War, three decades of which involved open hostility between Beijing and Moscow.

The argument is a little less specious regarding the Middle East but misses some main points, notably the tension in U.S./Israeli relations that the situation in Iran has created. The tone of the piece suggests that Israel is nothing short of a military proxy for the U.S. in the Middle East, acting hand-in-hand with Washington on every major security issue. Nonsense! Also, the article fails to address the fact that Russia really doesn’t want to see a nuclear armed Iran as this would strengthen Tehran’s hand in Central Asia.

February 13, 2012 at 08:00

Liberty and justice will go long way than blame shifting and falt finding. It is time that the world condamns and banishes kakistocracy.

February 12, 2012 at 01:41

This is a war against theocracy and fascism. Khamenei and Assad have to be brought down – and soon.

Mike Larlham
February 11, 2012 at 00:09

I’m sorry …did I miss something? Has not the Iranian government not vowed to wipe Israel off the map? I must have missed when Israel ever attempted to assasinate an entire country. Well then , why on Earth not let Iran have nuclear weapons? While we’re at it , let’s let Cuba and Venezuela have a couple too. They would never use them anyway .Hell , North Korea ( another ally of the friendly Chinese and Russians ), only threaten to obliterate South Korea about every couple months or so . These are definately the world powers I want in control .
Who wrote this garbage article?.. Can you say :middle eastern extreamest bias?”
People is the thing ..There are those that want to kill on the basis of power .Those who believe that might makes right .Those who want to subjegate entire countries , hiding behind either religios zealoutry , or archaic autocratic political sanctom that have never worked and never will work.
The world has two choices free or die .The United States offers the first.. ..Communism , repression of free individualism and expression , and liberty offer you the latter .

February 9, 2012 at 10:04

“….ultimately unless it becomes part of the Greater Persian Empire encompassing Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan”

Not if India has any say regarding the last two.

February 9, 2012 at 03:30

What will we do when there is no order after the regime change. Nothing like we did in Lybia and Egypt.

February 9, 2012 at 02:06

The United States should uregently rethink it’s policy in The Middle East. It is not a welcome presence in the region and if this country would simply make a firm decision to become energy independent (we have loads of everything you could possibly ever need to power our economy for years and years to come) as quickly as possible. It is a shame that we cannot drill in Alaska, run the Keystone Pipeline, use fracking technology and other means to get to our vast reserves. . .

This country subsidizes a billion dollars a day for the Gulf Monarchies (everyday the price of oil is at or around $100 The Gulf Countries make one billion a day) while at the same time subsidizes the Iranian Nuclear Program beacuse every day that the price is above $80 this is profit for Tehran to use towards this program. This subsidy is only possible due to the presence of The US 5th Fleet in Bahrain which also subsidizes the eventual replacement of The US Dollar as Reserve Currency by providing the means for The Straits to stay open allowing for Iranian oil to go to India where the transaction is not conducted in dollars. If we were serious about using our Energy we could pull every troop, from every base in The Gulf and watch the results on TV without any of it being our concern. And why not? Does not the people of the region blame The United States for Israel, creating Taliban and Al Qaeda, the palestinians, dictatorships, Egypt, Mubarak, Iraq, needless slaughter of civilians throughout the region, among many other countless grievances? If this is so would it not be better for everyone involved if we left? The best thing for the region is for us to leave and once we do so the problems of the region should be immediately solved according to conventional opinion throughout the region and the world. It is not in our strategic interest to be involved in this part of the world. The sooner we recognize it the better. And the best step is to start producing our own energy, now. . .

Jamal Hyder
February 9, 2012 at 00:31

The Washington bully together with its NATO goons, has been stirring up trouble for too many people for too long. At long last, Moscow and Beijing decides to act before that Washington bully control the entire planet.

Syria and Iran are the red line which Washington cannot cross unless they seek a world war and a nuclear one at that. It looks like Syria’s people have become the American football which the Washington”giants” have been knocking down everyone and their hands in their face until Moscow and Beijing finally decided to step up to the plate.

The interest of the Syrian people is now second place. As a battleground for the American-EU Axis versus the Russia-China Axis, Syria no longer has any say but a hostage to the two Axis’ war. It may be partitioned into North and South Syria ultimately unless it becomes part of the Greater Persian Empire encompassing Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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