Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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The New Arab Cold War

by Steven A. Cook
August 29, 2014

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) talks with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal (R) after arriving at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah June 27, 2014 (POOL New/Courtesy Reuters).


This article was originally published here on on Thursday, August 28, 2014.

A bitter proxy war is being waged in the Middle East. It stretches from Iraq to Lebanon and reaches into North Africa, taking lives in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt’s Western Desert, and now Libya. Although the nihilism of the Islamic State and the threat of other extremist groups have garnered virtually all the attention of the media and governments, this violence is the result of a nasty fight between regional powers over who will lead the Middle East. It is a blood-soaked mess that will be left to the United States to clean up.

The popular conception of the Middle East is one of a region divided along sectarian lines pitting Sunni against Shiite, but another simultaneous struggle is underway among predominantly Sunni powers. The recent Egyptian and Emirati airstrikes on Libyan Islamist militias is just one manifestation of this fight for leadership among Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). All these countries have waded into conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, and now Libya in order to establish themselves as regional leaders.

Yet these regional contenders for power have rarely achieved their goals. Instead, they have fueled violence, political conflict, and polarization, deepening the endemic problems in the countries they have sought to influence. And if the United States doesn’t step in, the chaos will only get worse.

President Barack Obama’s attempt to disentangle the United States from the Middle East’s many conflicts has only intensified these rivalries.

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Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Tyler P. Harwell

    Understood. Therefore let us now assess what the Indispensable Party is planning to do and forecast what that will lead to.

    It is hard. But this is a fair summary of the United States perspective on events in the Middle East as seen through the eyes of President Obama, and thus its present disposition toward action in Syria:

    We are not sure what we want to see happen here, other than for this problem to go away and leave us alone. We are tired of feeling responsible for what goes on in this part of the world. And so we have no foreign policy agenda for the Middle East, no objectives which we seek to achieve -other than a nuclear disarmament treaty with Iran, which hopefully this mess will not complicate.

    [continuing] This being the case we have no strategy for coping with the unpleasant realities of war that have arisen to confront us in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the region.

    We are working on that. In the mean time, we can say this. We have asked our top generals and advisers to review our options for achieving such goals as we may come up with at a later time. We have sent our Secretary of State to the region to enlist support for whatever it is we may or may not decide to do. We have told our Congress to stand by. And we have issued some pretty stern warnings and words of condemnation.

    But while I am on the subject, let me say this about that. What ever we decide to do about this problem, we are not going to do alone. We are going to insist on have partners. And one thing I can tell you right now. We are not going to start bombing anyone in Syria, unless, per adventure, it suits us. Because we just may.

    That pretty well sums it up. Let us now consider what will most likely happen in the event that the Obama administration sticks to this policy of no policy, and does nothing more than occasionally check ISIS advances in Iraq.

    Despite Iranian and Russian support, the Assad regime continues to weaken. ISIS will prevail and take Damascus and Aleppo and Homs. On the eve of that, in desperation, Iran and Russia will throw everything they have got behind Hezbollah which will remain as the only fighting force willing and able to stand up to ISIS.

    Then the contest for Syria will truly begin, and all of Lebanon, together with what is left of Syrian forces will get behind Hezbollah in a fight for survival.

    At this point, Iran will probably send in its own brigades of Revolutionary Guards, making their way west however they may. There will be one great battle of annihilation all along a front from the Golan Heights to Turkey.

    Seeing this take shape, Gulf state and Saudi patrons of the Syrian rebel cause will panic and get behind ISIS, hoping that their support will cause it to soften its methods. They will fear most a victory by Hezbollah in alliance with Iran, with the remnants of ISIS then turning on their faint-hearted masters. All the other Arab states and Turkey will then run for cover. Their differences will not matter much. Lebanon under Hezbollah, in alliance with Iran, will then become the dominant power in the Middle East. Jordan will be upended. And eventually, there will be war with Israel. Egypt will invade Libya. And Saudi Arabia will either go to war with Iran, or crumble like Syria. Russia will have lost one client, but gained another in Egypt – plus Lebanon and Iran. And it moves in to the Caucasus.

    This is the do-nothing policy agenda for the Indispensable Party. Let us now wait and see if it can come up with something better, and how long it will take.

    R/s TPH

  • Posted by Matt

    All Obama can do is sandbag it, if he takes too much initiative against ISIS, Iran will take advantage. So you have to act as not benefit Assad or Iran. Iran kept al-Maliki till the end, political solution they shoot up a Sunni Mosque. If you want help they link to the nuclear program and sanction. They direct ISIS to Kurdistan to protect Baghdad, if the Kurds do not hold that opens up Turkey, then Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia. Baghdad may fall away. Also you have a civil war coming in Afghanistan the Tailban may join ISIS they want the same thing.

  • Posted by Tyler P. Harwell

    Exactly. And this is why for a year, I have called for a naval blockade of Syria and Lebanon, as part of an arms embargo.

    To stop a war, stop the supply of guns and munitions.

    The Assad regime can not survive without Russian shipments, which arrive by naval ships twice a month. Stop those shipments, and the Assads will take flight, clearing the way for a government in Damascus that the US can support. Similarly we can strangle ISIS and have a lot of help. Iran will wring its hands, and Hezbollah will die on the vine.

    So there you have it: a “strategy”. How odd, that the Obama administration as yet to figure this out. Could it be that it does not want to see this war end ? Or is it afraid to spoil our good relations with Iran and Russia ?

    The cat wants to eat the fish; but it does not want to get its paw wet.


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