Today’s Arabic Cold War (Part I)

English: Map of Arabic-speaking countries.

English: Map of Arabic-speaking countries. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The current crisis in Syria poses a complex global issue. It is one the U.S. is opting to stand by and watch unfold; it is choosing to rely on international organizations to protect our own internal interests.

While this Hamiltonian view of foreign policy may have served George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton well, and “well” may be open for debate, now is not the time for the United States to sit on the sidelines hoping for someone else to step up as either the peace broker or warmonger. It will be interesting to see if the issue of Syria comes up in the Presidential debates, and I will be listening to both candidate’s response.

The humanitarian crisis in Syria goes beyond that of the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. The players involved in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt were, for the most part, Tunisians, Libyans and Egyptians attempting to establish democratic changes over authoritarian regimes. Responding to the surprise overthrow of President Zine El-‘Abidine Ben ‘Ali in Tunisia, then Russian President Medvedev said, “I think that what happened in Tunisia was a big lesson for governments all around the world. Governments should not sit on their laurels and settle back in comfy chairs, but need to grow and develop together with society, regardless of where they are: in Europe, Africa, or Latin America” (

Syria presents a completely new wrinkle in what has been dubbed the Arab Cold War.

The initial Arab Cold War of the 1950s and 60s was one primarily of ideology in the midst of two superpowers fighting for supremacy. An ideological fight simmered between “conservative” monarchies like Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and the more “radical” socialist regimes of Egypt and Syria. At debate was whether “Arab” constituted a common language, culture, history, and identity. This nationalism, it was believed by the radicals, should therefore be the basis of a Pan-Arabian identity that superseded the artificial boundaries that the West had imposed on the Middle East. It was important for the leaders of Arab nations to attempt to monopolize the power and interests of all Arabs; these leaders would take to the airwaves and either promote Pan-Arabian interest, as in the case of Egypt’s Gamel Abdel Nassar, or attempt to subdue the rise of radicals within their borders as in the case of Saudi Arabia.

According to Curtis Ryan in “The New Arab Cold War and the Struggle for Syria” the Arab Cold War of the 50s

Many of the same elements — power struggles, ideological and identity conflicts, and proxy wars — are present today. The main difference is that the 2012 version of the Arab cold war does not array revolutionary republics on one side. Over time, the radical republics of the 1950s and 1960s became deep-seated authoritarian states, neither revolutionary nor particularly republican…. On the other hand, the greatest similarity to the earlier cold war is the mobilization of conservative monarchies attempting to block another wave of change across the Arab regional system.

The ideological and identity conflicts rising in the Middle East, and Syria specifically, are the rekindling of tensions between Sunni and Shi’i Muslims. In Syria, the rebels are backed by Riyadh and the new Pan-Arabian power of Doha. Recently, forty-eight Iranians were captured in Damascus. Their presence, Tehran confirmed, was for military support. According to Iran, “What is happening in Syria is not an internal issue but a conflict between the axis of resistance on one hand and regional and global enemies of this axis on the other.”

The better part of the analysis on Syria’s conflict has focused on the conflict be a sectarian Pan-Arabian issue, and this is one possible reason that the Obama administration has remained an outside observer; passively allowing international organizations to attempt peace. However, the crisis in Syria poses an even great threat to international affair, and the players involved could push the crisis into a whole new Cold War.

Tomorrow, I will conclude by looking at the specific players in the new Arabic Cold War.


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