A new intra-Arab cold war?

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Almost three years into the post-Arab uprisings, and not one country has settled into a predictable path of peaceful political development. Previous paradigms were shaken, but new models have proven to be immature at best, or simply inadequate. First there was rhetoric of rapid democratization, which assumed the end of the authoritarian bargain and the irreversible nature of the transitions. Then the narrative became that of Islamization of Arab regimes and the implications in terms of rights and foreign policies this might have.

We can now discard these two narratives, and are left with a regional narrative: a “new Arab cold war”, which might be there to stay. A cold war manifesting itself most notably in the Syrian conflict, which has become the epitome of proxy war with major consequences especially for neighboring Lebanon, both in terms of the refugee influx of more than 700,000 and internal political instability. The Syria conflict has also become a training camp for various jihadist forces, most of which are radicalized Sunni groups loosely affiliated with Al-Qaeda. Some of these groups have crossed the border with Iraq and have claimed Fallujah, dealing an unprecedented blow to the Al-Maliki government.

In this context, scholars and observers have been talking about a new Arab cold war, after the mostly ideological one between Saudi Arabia and Egypt in the 1950s-1960s. There are three distinct versions of this general framework. A first interpretation refers to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a catalyst for regional disorder and specifically of the 2006 Lebanon war. The Israeli-Palestinian dispute has historically been used as an excuse by Arab authoritarian governments for their policies of domestic repression. A second interpretation points at the increasing sectarian antagonism between Saudi Arabia and Iran and its spillovers. A third view also underlines the power struggle between these two countries but argues that it has little to do with the Sunni-Shia divide.

In the first interpretation of the new Arab cold war narrative, the 2006 Lebanon war is regarded as the symptom of a much wider trend: the US administration juxtaposed “violent radicals” (Hamas and Hezbollah) to the governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, described instead as “moderate reformists”. The pro-Western foreign policy alignment of authoritarian regimes was identified as an indication of their domestic moderation, disguising the reality of repressive and purely pro-status quo regimes. This reading identified Islamist extremism as the region’s core trouble and the main source of endemic instability, also beyond its borders. Under the banner of “fight terrorism”, several Arab regimes have for years justified severe limitations of citizens’ freedoms and arbitrary arrests, with international impunity.

In this reading, revisionist Sunni and Shia non-state actors such as Hamas and Hezbollah have embodied radical Islam and attempted to discredit Western-friendly regimes by pointing at their hypocritical stance on the Palestinian issue. During the brief tenure of Mohamed Morsi as Egyptian President, Hamas received significant economic and political support from Egypt, in addition to that of Syria, Turkey and Qatar. With the deterioration of the Syrian conflict, however, Hamas has dissociated itself from Syria, leaving Hezbollah as the main non-state actor defending the Assad regime. According to some, for the first time in decades the main geopolitical cleavage has ceased to be the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

A second interpretation of the new cold war narrative, espoused among others by Vali Nasr, distinguishes between an “old Middle East” whose main trademark was pan-Arab nationalism and a “new Middle East” revolving around rising sectarian tensions within Islam. The “old Middle East” is articulated around Arab nationalism and pan-Arab norms. In the new Middle East sectarian logics rather than pan-Arab ideology are the main fault lines and the region takes shape around the Sunni-Shia axis.

A third interpretation points to a more realist account of Egyptian and Saudi intransigence vis-à-vis Hezbollah and Iran, which far from being tied to sectarian dynamics could be best summed up as power politics: a revisionist state (Iran) possessing strategic depth, thanks to the alliance with Syria and Hezbollah, is challenging the existing status quo represented by the Sunni axis and Saudi Arabia in particular. Especially since the 2011 revolts, the Sunni Gulf monarchies have deployed a multidimensional foreign policy in the region, aimed at maximizing their leverage in North Africa while at the same time attempting at destabilizing the so-called Shia Crescent (through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon). They have also resisted the prospect for a normalization of relations between the US (and the international community) and Iran, which has become a less remote possibility after the six months interim deal Iran and the P5+1 signed last November.

Be it as it may, this new Arab cold war manifests itself in the multipolar nature of regional conflicts, as shown by the war in Syria, the terrorist attacks within an increasing Sunni-Hezbollah divide in Lebanon, the continuing fragility of the Iraqi state and the inroads made by terrorist groups, the division even within the Gulf Cooperation Council over the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (with the country becoming an arena for an additional power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Qatar). In all of these scenarios, most regional players are involved, creating rifts where alliance logics are multiple and often hard to predict.

In the background, an even wider regional cold war (Syria, Iran, Hezbollah on the one hand versus Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey on the other) is sucking in various global actors, potentially turning into a much broader political confrontation (so far, Russia and China supporting the Shia challengers versus the US and its allies).

While the Western powers seem unable to exert any leverage when they do not closely coordinate among themselves (as they did with the Libya war and the Iran negotiations), the Gulf countries are intent on creating a new balance of power which does not aim at solving crises (Syria) or finding multilateral solutions (the Arab League has played a limited role in the past few years) but at gradually moving the center of gravity away from the Maghreb and the Levant to the Gulf. Meanwhile, inter-monarchical rivalries play out in proxy contexts (Syria, but also Egypt and Tunisia), in an effort to pick and choose interlocutors and winners according to ideological and political similarities. With all due difference, the most similar term of comparison for this dynamic remains the 1950s-1960s Arab cold war, something which does not bode well for the peaceful development of the region.