Some within and outside of the Obama administration who were flummoxed by the Syria crisis and repeatedly used phrases like, “too complicated” and “no easy answers,” seem to now be on board with the call for a “robust response” to Putin’s moves in Crimea and the Ukrainian mainland. While many analysts and advisors were not sure if US interests were at stake in Syria, they now seem certain that US and NATO interests are being challenged in Europe. The Ukraine and Syria dilemmas are both complicated, and there are no easy answers in either case. Nevertheless, American and Western national interests are involved in both of these theaters, and the linkage between these two cases has to do with geopolitics, the global power balance, and the strong possibility of a return to Cold War power dynamics.
In a paper published last summer in the Middle East Policy journal, I argued that the Arab Cold War was back, due to the various uprisings and ensuing turmoil in the region, and that the main fronts would be the Arab monarchies (GCC + 2) on the one hand, and Shia non-state actors (backed by Iran) on the other. Iraq, at the time, was still trying to follow a balanced policy between the two camps, but Prime Minister Maliki has now shown us his cards. His armed intervention on the Iraq-Syria border, though it targeted internal enemies primarily, demonstrated a siding with the Assad regime against its opponents, secular, moderate, and extremist alike. The fact that Russia backs the Assad/Iran alliance is no coincidence, and as his allies get the upper hand in Syria, the Levant and the Gulf region after that, Putin’s geopolitical ambitions become evermore apparent. This is even more significant as he pursues his own aggressive policies in the Ukraine.
The Syria crisis has never been solely about Syria. For the Syrian people, it was about joining the ranks of others in the region who rose against dictatorship in 2011. For Iran and Hezbollah, though initially dismayed by Bashar’s reckless crackdown on unarmed demonstrators during the first six months of the crisis, the fight soon turned into a critical struggle for the survival of their alliance as well as their access to the strategic depth that Syria provides for any regional struggle for power or for any possible full-scale confrontation with Israel.