The New Cold War in the Middle East
Because of its strategic location between the two twentieth-century centers of Arab power, Egypt and Iraq, Syria has been for many decades a bellwether of Arab politics, viewed widely in the region as the heartland of Arab nationalism. The fact that the first major pan-Arab nationalist party, the Baath, was established in Syria and the leading roleplayed by Syrian (including Lebanese) intellectuals and activists in making pan-Arab ideology popular contributed greatly to this perception.
Moreover, whichever ideological or political trend emerged victorious in Syria came to dominate, more often than not, the Arab political scene. This was true in the 1950s and 1960s during the time of a “cold war” between “revolutionary” military regimes espousing the cause of Arab nationalism and conservative monarchies determined to hold on to their power and privilege. According to one analyst, today’s regional politics are showing signs of a new cold war, “and, once again, that broader conflict is manifesting itself in a struggle for Syria.”
But this new cold war extends beyond the Arab world. Saudi Arabia is being challenged by non-Arab Iran. Also, the ideological lines of conflict are blurry. Arch-conservative Gulf monarchies, steadfastly opposed to democracy in their own countries, support democracy in Syria, along with non-Arab democratic Turkey. Meanwhile, the authoritarian Assad has the support of Iran, whose hybrid political system encompasses both clerical and representative institutions.