Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

Russian Missiles in Syria Stoke New Cold War Fears

August 21, 2008 05:15 PM
by Josh Katz
With the U.S. putting missiles in Poland, Russia may be placing missiles in Syria, frightening Israel and its allies, and portending the opening of a new cold war.

Is the Middle East the Next Stage for a Cold War?

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was in Moscow this week discussing joint-cooperation agreements between the two countries. On Wednesday, August 20, Assad mentioned the possibility of housing Russian missiles in his country, raising fears in Israel and abroad about a potential resurgence of the Cold War.

Assad said the agreements were focused on enhancing Russian security and he told Russian newspapers, “I think Russia really has to think of the response it will make when it finds itself closed in a circle,” The Times of London reports. In addition, Russia might place a naval base in Syria, giving Russia its first Mediterranean base in about 20 years. Syria and the Soviet Union were good friends during the Cold War.

The move might be a response to American and Israeli support for Georgia in its conflict with Russia. Israel and Georgia also have close military connections, with Israel providing some of the Georgian forces with training.

Syria may be seeking closer relations with Moscow as a diplomatic alternative, The Times of London reports. Damascus has been ostracized on the world stage because of its connections to Iran, and Russia could prove a useful ally. According to the Times, “Some Israeli analysts even fear that it could encourage Syria to try to take back the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967, by force.”

“This isn’t against us, it’s part of a new global game,” Ra’anan Gissin, a strategic analyst and Ariel Sharon’s former spokesman said. “The aircraft carrier to Syria is supposed to show that Russia has allies, and that it wants access to the Mediterranean. Israel, as a Western state, is merely one player in this global realignment. Russia is signalling in the strongest possible way that it is willing to activate its old Soviet military alliances,” he said to the Jerusalem Post.

Gissin suggests Russia’s move to the Mediterranean is about more than Israeli and U.S. support for Georgia, as evidenced by the fact that Russia provided weapons to Syria prior to the tension over Israel’s military aid to Georgia, according to The Washington Times.

Israel is certainly concerned over Russia’s involvement with Syria; last weekend, it was debating whether to halt military shipments to Georgia to ease tensions with Moscow. Russia also has ties to Iran, and Israel fears that Moscow might ship S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran. This could be especially problematic if Israel opted to implement a preemptive air assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities, The Washington Times writes.

Bashar al-Assad has also been an enigma as of late. He visited France on Bastille Day and engaged in diplomatic talks with Iran and Turkey. He also spoke with Lebanon’s president, Michel Suleiman, on August 13 and 14, in talks that restored relations between the two countries. He appears to be forging the path to peace with the West through diplomacy. As the Economist writes, Assad “has been on a diplomatic roll.”

But at the same time, “Syria’s critics maintain that Mr. Assad’s means of getting this message across has entailed combining the role of arsonist and firefighter—creating problems such as the prolonged constitutional crisis in Lebanon and then using its influence to engineer solutions, for which it is happy to claim credit.”

Background: Georgia, Russia, Poland and the missile shield

The conflict in the Caucasus has taken center stage, however, and it is the reason analysts are referring to the possibility of a new cold war.

Polish support for the U.S. missile shield in the country surged
as a result of the Russian military action against Georgia. As a former Soviet entity, Poland appears to take Russia’s steps against another former satellite as a threat.

On Wednesday, Poland formally signed the missile agreement with the United States, despite Russia’s objections. According to The New York Times, “the deal says that the United States will also contribute a Patriot missile battery that will be operated by American troops for the time being, binding Poland and the United States in a way that increases both the risk and the cost of confrontation with a newly emboldened Russia.”

Russia has opposed the U.S. missile shields in eastern European countries like Poland and the Czech Republic from the start on the grounds that they could be used against Russia. Although the U.S. has denied such accusations, Russia has demonstrated its concern with the increasing Western influence on its borders.

Opinion & Analysis: Edging toward another cold war?

Rosa Brooks, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, jokes that the whole situation feels like a game. “Wouldn’t it be great to go ‘back to the future,’ as in the 1980s hit movie?” she asks. “The Cold War was, as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates mused in 2007, ‘a less complex time’ for which he was ‘almost nostalgic.’”

In the Financial Times, Kishmore Mahbubani, the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, contends that the conflict in Georgia is not the start of “any new cold war.” Instead, he says, it’s “the return of history.” He claims that the West has been caught in a bubble, blaming Russia for its aggression while the rest of the world sees matters differently. “America would not tolerate Russia intruding into its geopolitical sphere in Latin America,” he says. “The gap between the western narrative and the rest of the world could not be greater.”

When it comes to Russia’s greater influence in the Middle East, an op-ed from the Asia Times asserts that America’s increasingly hostile relationship with Russia does not bode well for Israel. “If America turns Russia into a strategic adversary, the probability of Israel’s survival will drop by a big notch.”

But an editorial from the Middle East Times says it is the other Middle Eastern nations who should be wary of the Russian relationship. “Any rallying to the ‘Russian side’ at this juncture would only result in a stiff penalty for the Arab world in dividing itself along pro- and anti-West, taking us back to the worst years of the Cold War where the Arab world stagnated economically, forever indebted to the Soviets for arms and munitions that were always a step or two behind those of the West.”

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