Descending to a Summit: Understanding the New Arab Cold War

Descending to a Summit:
Understanding the New Arab Cold War
Weekly Briefing on Israeli and Middle Eastern Affairs
April 2, 2008

Dr. Eran Lerman
Director, Israel/Middle East Office
American Jewish Committee 

As Arab summits go, the recent one in Damascus surely rates as the lowest ever. In fact, despite the attendance of a few leaders from the Gulf States and the Maghreb, it could barely be dignified by the elevated term “summit,” given that the key figures in Arab affairs—President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah II of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, President Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan regional government in Iraq, and even the prime minister of what the Syrians condescendingly call “sisterly Lebanon”—made their absence conspicuously obvious. (External meddling has created the sad limbo in which there is no president of Lebanon at the present—which is precisely the reason why the host, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, is in the doghouse as far as the Saudis and the Egyptians are concerned.)

The Saudis—backed, as Syria loudly complained, by a firm American position—have gone so far as to express their anger in two distinctive ways:

  • They were represented at the summit by the lowest-ranking official they could send without avoiding the gathering altogether—their ambassador to the Arab League institutions in Cairo;
  • They scheduled a major speech by His Majesty for the very moment when other TV stations in the region carried live Bashar al-Assad’s opening statement.

To those familiar with the intricacies of the regional game, these were telling signs of conflict. There were others. This week, the Lebanese government under Fuad Siniora made open its allegations of Syrian complicity in the bitterly fought Fatah al-Islam insurgency in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon last year. The Arab media is rife with accusations of conspiracy and destabilization campaigns on both sides. Much of the U.S. vice president’s visit had to do with these escalating tensions; and so, too, does the recent outbreak of fighting in Basra, and the ongoing crisis in Gaza. A new cognitive map of the Middle East is emerging, which in some ways is entirely different and in other ways reminiscent of past rivalries.

For students of regional politics in the 1970s, Malcolm Kerr’s The Arab Cold War was an essential part of their education; written wisely and with a touch of refreshing irony, it chronicled the manner in which Gamal Abdel Nasser’s ambitions, and the fears of the monarchies and other regimes he sought to destabilize, gradually became intertwined with the broader global conflict of the time. Soon, the ironies made way for bitter tragedies, with the bloodthirsty coup in Iraq in 1958 being the harbinger of things to come.

By the 1990s, all this was history—as was the Soviet Union; but while many good people hoped that peace would now be made inevitable by the New World Order, other conflicts soon emerged to fill the void. Kerr himself, as Fouad Ajami touchingly tells us in The Dream Palace of the Arabs, fell to an assassin, as did several of the leading figures of his beloved American University of Beirut. (His son went on to become a star of American college basketball, far from the turmoil that claimed his father’s life.) A new breed of killers came on the scene, driven by a fanatical perversion of religion—modern revolutionary Islamist totalitarianism, somewhat ridiculously referred to as “fundamentalism”—making some of the iniquities of the Cold War era look trivial by comparison.

It took the rise of Iran as a focal point for these movements to turn the post-Cold War crisis in the region into something that closely resembles the dynamics of the old Cold War—but with Tehran and the ambitions of the Islamic Revolution now playing the role once reserved for the Soviets as the revisionist challenger of the existing order. Offering a vision of the future radically different from that of the West—regimented, released from the lusts and moral depravities of free societies, and with the “stain” of Israel expunged from the map—Iran and her allies are openly challenging not only the “Zionist entity” and the “Great Satan,” but the entire regional power structure; and would do so much more vehemently and dangerously would a nuclear umbrella be shielding them.

Now, as the Damascus fiasco surely shows, the existing order has decided to fight back—perhaps sending a signal to those in the West who seriously think about a “grand bargain” with the likes of Iran’s leader Ali Khamene’i (who stands over the head of President Mahmoud Ahamadinejad, who shows no interest in accommodating the opinions of the world). Such a “détente” bargain, if it is to include a historic concession by Iran on the nuclear front—and unless backed by a very robust alternative course of action, if Iran refuses to come to terms—would almost by necessity carry a terrible price tag: the abandonment of the Gulf regimes, and the Arab monarchies and pro-Western regimes, to their sad fate at the hands of Iran’s proxies. (Israel, too, would face bitter realities, but is better equipped to handle them.) This goes a long way toward explaining the decision of the Saudis, Jordanians, and belatedly, the Egyptians to take a sharp stand that would make the stark choices obvious to all—in Washington and beyond. In 1977, to thwart a U.S.-Soviet grand bargain (the Declaration of October 1, that year, which also riled the Israeli government and American Jewish opinion), Sadat came to Jerusalem. In 2008, to send a similar message, his successor did not come to Damascus.

Not everyone in the area reads from this sheet of music. There is growing suspicion that the smaller Gulf states are frightened enough to hedge their bets and make nice with Tehran. The Palestinians, torn right down the middle, are looking at both confrontation and reconciliation as viable options in an impossible situation. But overall, the dynamics of the new Arab Cold War are the dominant regional reality. This goes a long way toward explaining two strange, almost absurd, developments on the Palestinian front:

1.     The talks between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are picking up momentum and, indeed, are beginning to ignite internal tensions within Olmert’s coalition. There may be an air of futility about these talks—they are, at best, aimed at a “shelf” agreement that can only be implemented when Hamas no longer controls Gaza. And yet they are necessary (and so are the Israeli gestures, in terms of reduced security measures in the West Bank, which Defense Minister Ehud Barak approved in time for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit) as part of the overall alignment of forces on the anti-Iranian side of the new Cold War;

2.     Meanwhile, the reduction of violence on the Gaza front—utilizing the profound impact that recent Israeli operations have had on the local Hamas leadership—serves the short-term purposes of the anti-Iranian alliance. (While publicly defiant, and committed to being the ones to fire the last missile, Hamas leaders cannot ignore the effects that even a limited two-day, one-brigade IDF incursion had on their forces and their people.) But this development opens up dangerous long-term questions, insofar as it takes the Palestinian issue off the public boil just when Assad and the Iranians would have wanted it to dominate the Damascus discussions (and indeed, Iran’s proxy, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, did fire a large but luckily unsuccessful salvo on the summit.)

A tahdi’a or “calm” between Israel and Hamas has yet to be (indirectly) negotiated and agreed upon, and so also the fate of abducted soldier Gilad Shalit; but at least, given the Damascus framework, Egyptian efforts to obtain both of these goals may (now) be read in the context of their work to subvert Iran’s interests rather than as gestures of conciliatory intent toward Tehran and its local allies. 

Copyright 2014/2015 AJC