Putin sees the Middle East as another region on his global chessboard that can serve as a spoiler of Western policy.
Policymakers and media analysts alike often invoke the term of the Cold War, declaring a Cold War II or Cold War Redux, when discussing the re-emergence of tensions between Moscow and the US-NATO alliance. It has been employed during the Russia-Georgia war of 2008, and during the recent conflict in Ukraine. This metaphor has been used for describing conflicts raging in the independent states of the former USSR, but recent events in the Middle East are beginning to resonate with the Cold War, as well.
While history does not repeat itself and does not determine the future, it does provide clarity for current events and helps to situate them within a greater historical context.
In the 1950s, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt forged an alliance with Nikita Khrushchev of the USSR, allowing the Soviet Union to project its power into the heart of the Arab Middle East. The agreement between Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin to deploy Russian forces to Syria essentially serves as a replay from the Cold War game book.
The Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), the”Baghdad Pact” was formed in 1955, modelled after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The alliance included Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan, which served as a northern tier of states to contain Soviet influence in the Middle East.
The Soviet invitation
The USSR perceived this alliance as a threat, and in a statement on April 16, 1955, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared:
“Striving for the development of peaceful cooperation among all countries, the Soviet government is prepared to support and develop cooperation with the countries of the Near and Middle East, in the interests of strengthening peace in this area.”
In 1955, Nasser would accept the Soviets’ invitation.
Nasser, the leader of Egypt after a military coup in 1952, had adopted a policy of “positive neutralism”, seeking to maximise Egypt’s position by playing off both the US and USSR to finance the Aswan High Dam, for example. Egypt was also an active player in the Non-Aligned Movement, consisting of states such as Indonesia, India, and Yugoslavia, which sought to avoid aligning with either superpower during the Cold War.
Today, the Russian arms shipments to Syria, along with the Russian advisers and military forces to accompany them, has similarly allowed Putin to leapfrog onto the Mediterranean.
However, the formation of the CENTO, in Nasser’s view, was an attempt to undermine the Egyptian leader’s pan-Arabist project, which sought to unify the Arabs against the ambitions of the UK and US in the region. Combined with the US’ refusal to finance the Aswan Dam, Nasser lurched towards the Soviet Union. In 1955, the same year as the formation of CENTO, the Soviets authorised a shipment of arms to Egypt.
Soviet arms would require its advisers to come to Egypt to train them on how to use and maintain the weapons, giving the USSR a foothold in the region. Nasser had allowed Khrushchev and the USSR to leapfrog over the northern tier states of CENTO, giving it a presence in the Mediterranean.
A win-win deal
It was a win-win deal for Egypt and the USSR. Today, the Russian arms shipments to Syria, along with the Russian advisers and military forces to accompany them, has similarly allowed Putin to leapfrog onto the Mediterranean.
In a statement to the Egyptian National Assembly in May 1967, Nasser declared: “I wish to tell you today that the Soviet Union is a friendly power and stands by us as a friend. In all our dealings with the Soviet Union … it has not made a single request of us. The USSR has never interfered with our policy or internal affairs … When I also asked for all kinds of arms, they gave them to us.”
Assad most likely thinks the same of the USSR’s successor, Russia. It does not interfere in its internal affairs and provides them with arms. Russia is, by his calculations, the “friend” that saved him in his moment of crisis.
Recent analyses of a move into Syria has generated debates about whether the aircraft and forces provided to Assad will have an impact on the military dynamics of the Syrian civil war, or how this deployment is a Russian way of influencing the transition of the civil war to a negotiated process in Syria.
Regardless of whether Russian military forces will turn the tide in the civil war or have an impact on the political negotiations ending the Syrian civil war, comparing the present with the historical precedent of Egypt in 1955, demonstrates that Russia has already won a tactical victory the same way the USSR won a tactical victory in establishing a foothold in Egypt.
A foothold in the region
By declaring solidarity with Egypt and providing it with weapons in an arms race against Israel, the Soviets had postured themselves as an ally of the Arabs, leading to arms agreements later with Syria, and Iraq, after officers there overthrew the monarchy in 1958 and withdrew from CENTO. The weapons the Soviets provided and the training of Egyptian, Syria, and even Iraqi militaries proved insufficient when countering Israel on the battlefield in 1967 and 1973, but regardless of the effectiveness of their military supplies, the Soviets could communicate to the US that they had gained a foothold in the region to counter America’s Middle East ambitions.
Eventually, Soviet influence began to wane in the Middle East, with Egypt expelling Soviet military advisers prior to the 1973 war and losing relevance once the USSR had collapsed. Russia, however, maintained arms sales to Middle Eastern states because its arms industry needed revenues, and it was Soviet-cum-Russian weapons that most Arab armies knew how to use. It even developed a robust arms trade with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Post-Cold War Russia had maintained a naval refuelling base in Tartous, Syria, even before the civil war erupted there. However, Putin’s recent moves have generated a lot more publicity and fears and consternation among policy elites in NATO. It has symbolically leapfrogged once again into the region. Russia has essentially jumped over NATO-member Turkey (which was also part of CENTO before it disbanded in 1979).
By positioning forces in Syria, Russia has demonstrated that it could project its power and presence to NATO and the US in a new arena beyond Ukraine. Moscow’s recent move is reminiscent of geopolitical posturing of the 1950s in the Middle East, bringing up the cliched image of various regional countries serving as a chessboard between the US and Russia, with Putin having declared “checkmate”.
Ibrahim al-Marashi is an assistant professor at the Department of History, California State University, San Marcos. He is the co-author of “Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History”.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.