Redrawing the Middle East map: Iran, Syria and the new Cold War

What originally brought Syria and Iran together was not the Shia sect, but Iraq – the common enemy both hated and feared

An Israeli attack on Iran would inevitably lead to a widening war, establishing a conflict-zone stretching from the Lebanese-Israeli border to US-occupied Afghanistan [Reuters]

As President Barak Obama resettles in the Oval Office and casts his gaze again beyond US politics, he may well be reminded that few eyes were on the ball when the Arab uprisings appeared to erupt suddenly in the spring of 2011, catching pundits and politicians by surprise, and re-positioning Washington’s Middle East policies. 

Today, we may be at risk of the same inattention again. If we take our eyes off the ball now, we may miss the next big shift: a redrawing of the Middle East map that is triggering a new Cold War with Syria and Iran at its heart. 

Under President Obama, the US has begun to pivot toward the South Pacific. Yet, the United States will inevitably stay in the Middle East. This is not just because of oil. Nor is it because of what Samuel Huntington called the “Clash of Civilisations” or what others might call terrorism, although events in Benghazi which led to the death of US Ambassador Chris Stevens serve to remind that social and cultural differences can still easily lead to tragedy. Though oil and terrorism are both important, the real reason is the Middle East’s potential to draw the US, Russia, the EU and China into a global conflict – a risk that is rising. 

Indeed, the Middle East lies on the world’s largest “shatterbelt” – an area described felicitously by American geographer Saul Cohen as the region of contact between the world’s great sea and land powers. In the past, this was fought over by the British Empire (the 19th century’s naval behemoth) and Romanov Russia (a land empire) in the form of the Great Game. The First Cold War followed, as Soviet Russia and the US (Britain’s maritime successor) contested for influence and power in the Middle East. 

What Cohen realised was that shatterbelts are not just flashpoints for great power conflict. Critically, and unlike in other areas, small states located inside them can significantly affect the course of conflict simply by changing sides, shifting the balance of power across a tipping point. Most recently, Iraq has been such a swing state, its Shia alliance with Iran shifting hands inside the Persian Gulf. 

At the heart of the old Middle East, where Ottoman Turkey, Arabia and the southern Mediterranean met, lies Syria – where rhetoric, fighters and arms from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Libya, Turkey and Iran, are currently converging, with their great power allies at their backs. 

However, today, another Middle East heart beats inside the shatterbelt, raising the pressure of conflict. As the First Cold War wound down with the demise of the Soviet Union, the Middle East expanded eastward. The war in Afghanistan set the course; the newly independent Central Asian states, many of them Muslim, continued the trend. In the process, Iran became another heart. Together with Syria, these two states straddling the centre of the Middle East shatterbelt are setting the stage for an emergent second Cold War. 

Where the Arab Spring and the Second Arab Cold War intersect

The reincarnation of the Arab Cold War is the first sign. Often called the Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy war, it is a sectarian confrontation that mirrors the First Arab Cold War, when Nasser’s secular Egypt led radical, pro-Soviet neighbours Syria and Iraq against a pro-US moderate front of religiously vested monarchies nominally headed by Saudi Arabia. 

Today, the second Arab Cold War has a different tinge. The Saudi-led moderates have changed little; the radicals however are now no longer secular, but Islamist, and primarily Shia, led by Iran’s anti-Western, anti-Israeli ideology. 

This rhetorically charged stand-off (abetted by the global powers behind them) is as strong a force affecting the region as the changes brought by the Arab uprisings, which infused its societies with hope – but likewise, instability. Spring 2011 began the messy job of democratisation, the separation of powers, the establishment of real rule of law and citizen rights. Regardless of whether given uprisings saw success or not, the Arab spring ushered in a new regional political culture. 

Where these two forces – the sectarian divisions of the Second Arab Cold War and the new political culture of the Arab Spring – intersect, lies Syria. 

If we keep our eye on the ball, we can already discern a new geostrategic map taking form. The region is akin to a turning kaleidoscope: same pieces, new designs. Relationships along the shatterbelt are rapidly being rearranged through the shifting and twisting of five intersecting crescents that are redefining the region. 

Five crescents: First, the Shia

The Shia crescent is the oldest and it is Iran’s game. Today, however, it is a more solid band of territory than when Jordan’s King Abdullah coined the phrase in 2004 to describe the link between Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. The war in Iraq, which to the horror of Saudi Arabia, handed power to the Shias, has solidified this first crescent. The civil war in Syria has strengthened it further. 

The power of the Shia crescent is, paradoxically, not due to its Shia religiosity, but to its shared anti-American and anti-Israeli ideology. To the devoutly mainstream Iranians, Syria’s Alawites are an extreme and heretical offshoot of Shia sect (indeed, Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez, had to officially force the ulema to recognise the sect as Muslim, in order to be recognised as a legitimate leader under the Syrian constitution).            

What originally brought Syria and Iran together was not the Shia sect, but Iraq – the common enemy both hated and feared. When Saddam launched the long Iran-Iraq war in 1980, Syria rallied to support the Persians. It was the only regional state to do so, forging a bond that has since served both states well. In the interim, both offered asylum to anti-Saddam Iraqi activists, among them, current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

With the removal of Saddam and subsequent Shia electoral gains in Iraq, the burr in the side of both Iran and Syria was replaced by a grateful ally in Baghdad, with the huge advantage that Iraq’s frontiers border both – Syria on the west and Iran on the east – offering a land and air bridge between them. This has significantly strengthened the Shia crescent, which now critically links Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Tehran along the spine of the shatterbelt. 

The second crescent: Sunni, with a Salafist tinge

This is Saudi Arabia’s game. The arc stretches from Mali through Libya, Egypt, Jordan, western Iraq, down the oil coast of the Persian Gulf, and into Saudi Arabia. The crest touches the southern borders of Syria, where Salafi and al-Qaeda fighters from Saudi, Libya and western Iraq are traversing into an increasingly sectarian conflict. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are supporting the Syrian Sunni opposition with guns and funds, some of which are now thought to be falling into extremist, al-Qaeda-affiliated hands.           

The Sunni crescent is closely allied with the US and the West, and early on its members attempted to provide leadership on Syria by re-galvanising the Arab League as a mediator. The Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), composed of the oil monarchies and sheikhdoms that provide the financial core of the Sunni crescent, and whose Peninsula Shield force snuffed out the uprisings in Bahrain, likewise tried to tighten regional Sunni linkages by inviting Morocco and Jordan to join as members.           

Losing Iraq to the Shia has been a significant irritant for the Sunni crescent, which hopes to balance the scales within the shatterbelt by encouraging a Sunni-dominated government in Damascus once Bashar al-Assad falls. This pits its members against Russia, Syria’s long-time supporter, and provider of arms and intelligence to Assad.           

As the Shia and Sunni crescents collide, with their great power supporters at their backs, their fulcrum is Syria. 

The East-Med crescent

This is Israel’s game. In the wake of the Arab Spring, Israel has become isolated. Newly energised populations across the region have made clear their disaffection for any warming toward Israel. Turkey’s past support is gone. Next-door Lebanon is restive in the shadow of Syria’s civil war. And Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has baldy stated that the Muslim Brotherhood’s successes in Egypt and Tunisia, Israel’s previous allies, are the politics of undemocratic extremism.     

At the same time, relations between the Israelis and Obama’s administration are chilly, not least because of the ongoing construction of settlements, many illegal, in the occupied territories. To take the focus off its domestic policies in Palestine, Israel has prioritised the Iranian nuclear issue, ratcheting up the war rhetoric, while decrying Iran’s support of Syria. Its well-publicised threat to invade Iran keeps the Shia crescent – and the rest of the world – in a constant state of alert.           

To offset this malaise, Israel is looking to Europe, where it feels more welcome than it has ever felt in the Middle East. The East-Med crescent, begins in Israel, goes through Cyprus and onto Greece, and is built on Mediterranean gas. Where France and Germany view Greece as the sacrificial lamb of the European debt crisis, Israel views it as an opportunity. Strapped for energy as a result of the sanctions on Iran, Greece is an ideal recipient of Israel’s new-found gas off its shores in the Mediterranean.

For Israel, this crescent is the gateway to Europe, a chance to tie the knot with a group of like-minded states through the export of a natural resource the Arab states have previously provided, and which Europe desperately needs. 

The fourth crescent: The new moderates

The hub of this crescent is located in Turkey and Egypt, with Jordan, Lebanon and far-off Tunisia and Morocco loosely attached. This is Egypt’s game. President Mohamed Morsi has risen like the phoenix from the ashes as an unexpected and pragmatic statesman for his country and the region. A son of the Muslim Brotherhood, he represents a party that is politically experienced in the role of opposition politics, a movement that enjoys widespread popular trust, has shown itself adaptable both inside and outside Egypt, and knows, probably better than any other, the nature of the Salafi threat. 

The question is, will the Brotherhood adopt an extremist approach now that they’re in power – as former presidents, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Tunisia’s Ben Ali, warned? So far, indications are that Morsi is pursuing a middle-of-the-road line, honouring the Camp David Accords with Israel, and balancing foreign policy relations with both the Sunni and Shia crescents. 

Indeed, Egypt is showing regional leadership by joining with Turkey to invite Iran and Saudi to find new solutions to the Syrian conflict. They are balancing the Sunni crescent’s and western powers’ exclusion of Iran, on the moderate premise that to include all engaged players has a higher chance of saving Syrian lives. 

In the past, the moderate crescent would have been led by Turkey, the nation credited with having the best Islamo-democratic model after the successes of the Arab Spring. But Turkey has lost its edge since Syria’s eruption. Its “Zero Problems with Neighbours” policy self-destructed once Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan denounced Bashar al-Assad, and more recently, called on NATO to put Patriot missile defences on the border. Its vibrant commercial relations with Tehran have dwindled in the face of Iran’s sanctions and support for Syria. 

In the process, Egypt has revived its previous role as a regional leader, putting not only Istanbul, but Riyadh on notice that Cairo is back and better positioned to represent the Arab Street than they, not least because it is playing a moderate game both at home and with the great powers. 

The fifth crescent: Greater Kurdistan

Stretching from eastern Syria through northern Iraq, southern Turkey and western Iran, the fifth crescent has its hub in Erbil. This is Iraqi Kurdistan’s game. It is also the location of a real inter-state border war between Turkey and Iraq, with 500 lives being lost every month (Turkey’s own statistics). 

With Damascus focused elsewhere, Syrian Kurdistan has gained a new autonomy, opening the way for its disaffected people to link up with their Iraqi Kurdish brethren. The American-supported Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil has responded by offering training, organisational advice and funding. This has inspired renewed activity by Turkey’s own alienated Kurdish Worker’s Party, the PKK, which for years has agitated for official linguistic and cultural recognition inside Turkey. The PKK’s emboldened stance has led to harsh retaliation from Istanbul, which in turn has sent armed PKK fighters to seek cover across the mountainous Iraqi border. 

This is having four significant impacts. First, is a breakdown in the Iraqi Kurdish relationship with Baghdad. The KRG is exercising increasing independence within the loose federalist structure of the new Iraq, not least by striking its own oil deals with multinational companies in direct repudiation of Baghdad’s rules. 

Second, the border conflict and the complex, if close relationship between Erbil and Istanbul, are seriously straining relations between Turkey and Iraq. Relations between the two states hit a low in early autumn when Turkey’s foreign minister undertook a visit to Kirkuk without informing Baghdad. 

Third, pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki from the increasingly independent and fractious Kurdish north is contributing to a global breakdown in Iraq, and the poisoning of relationships between Shia and Sunni. Even as Maliki acquires institutional powers disconcertingly reminiscent of his predecessor, Saddam Hussein, his hold on the western region of Iraq is slipping and his outlook hardening, as attested by his condemnation of his own Sunni vice-premier, to hang. 

“The increasingly painful waiting game is escalating global tension, and linking the Middle East into a single, multi-dimensional crisis.”

Fourth, al-Qaeda activity in Iraq and Syria is on the rise, with a spike in suicide bombings in both states. 

The emerging Second Cold War

As the five crescents turn, intersecting through Syria and Iran, they are setting the Great Powers against each other. 

The result is international standoff and Security Council gridlock. The recent record shows that the five permanent Security Council members are unable to agree on a plan for either Iran’s nuclear programme or Syria’s civil war. 

The inability of the US and the rest of the West on one side, Russia and China on the other, to compromise, led master-mediator Kofi Annan to resign. Now, Lakhdar Brahimi, previously special representative for Afghanistan and Iraq, is tasked to bring the Syrian opposition and the Bashar al-Assad government to the negotiating table. In fact, his job is equally urgently to forge common ground among the Great Powers, and to ensure that none becomes militarily involved on the ground. 

Currently, stasis prevails because Syria is so much less welcoming of outside intervention than was Libya. Assad’s army is five times the size of Gaddafi’s, its opposition forces are deeply divided despite the agreement in Doha to paper over their differences, and its location deep inside the Levant makes establishing no-fly zones considerably more dangerous than in the open ranges of desert-bound Libya on shores much further west. What is more, to Russia, Syria is its near-abroad, and decades-long relations with the old Soviet Union built up a sizeable Russian community inside Syria. 

As shells rain down on the border with Turkey, Istanbul’s appeals to its NATO allies are so far garnering rhetorical, rather than actual support. Instead, the US is concentrating on boosting its naval power in the Persian Gulf to offset any Iranian retaliation should Israel strike or sanctions become too suffocating. Heavy arms are being funnelled from Washington into the Emirates, even as light arms are being run both from Doha and Tehran into the Syrian theatre. 

An Israeli attack on Iran would inevitably lead to a widening war, establishing a conflict-zone stretching from the Lebanese-Israeli border to US-occupied Afghanistan. It would also give Iran public justification to build a nuclear bomb. Yet even without such an Israeli move, the tension inside the Security Council is rising as the unblinking stare between Iran and the US turns into a waiting game. There is little sign that China or Russia are responding to US pressure to compromise, each being more powerful now than they were when the US attained unipolar power after the 1990 Gulf War.

The increasingly painful waiting game is escalating global tension, and linking the Middle East into a single, multi-dimensional crisis. 

This crisis is a turning kaleidoscope of five crescents, surrounded by a new Arab Cold War, intersecting with the Arab Spring, in the context of the shatterbelt, within an emerging, second global Cold War. Lucky the American election is over, for it’s time to keep all eyes on the Middle East ball. 

Roxane Farmanfarmaian is a Senior Research Fellow at the Global Policy Institute, an Affiliated Lecturer for the International Relations of the Modern Middle East at the University of Cambridge, and a Visiting Scholar at the Middle East Center at the University of Utah.