Fault Lines of a New Cold War: The Struggle Over the Middle East

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The sun rises over the horizon in the Taklamakan Desert at the Tazhong Oilfield in China's far west Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in Central Asia. (Photo: AFP - Frederic J. Brown)

By: Hassan Khalil

Published Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Russian-Chinese veto over Syria in the UN Security Council suggests the return to a new kind of Cold War. This war is one in which the world is divided into two clearly different camps amid a power struggle reminiscent of what was prevalent before the First World War.

Retired General Leonid Ivashov, former member of the Russian Military Council, made a remarkable statement when asked about Russian military exercises around an Iran attack scenario. He said: “These maneuvers display Russia’s readiness to protect its national interests with the power of weapons and consolidate its political position through military force.”

The former general likened Syria to Iran, saying that they are Russia’s guaranteed allies. When asked which country, Syria or Iran, will be attacked first, he stressed that any strike against either is a blow to Russian interests. Thus, according to the general, when Russia defends Syria, it is defending its national interests and those of the free world against an increasingly dominant Hitler-like fascism.

To what extent can this statement be taken literally, and what is the nature of this pivotal struggle over Syria and Iran? Can the conscience of the West and some Arabs really no longer bear the scenes of killing in Syria? Is it true that Russia and China are concerned for the Syrian regime due to the geopolitical position of both Syria and Iran? Or is there a hidden agenda in the struggle between the “West”, which is no longer entirely Western, and an “East” that is not fully Eastern?

The Russian use of the two vetoes would not have had the same weight without the similar moves by the Chinese. China could have “distanced itself,” Lebanese-style, but its message was clear: “I, too, am involved in the struggle over Syria and Iran because it represents a direct threat to the Chinese economy.”

Thus, Chinese officials stated that their country will not stand idly by if Iran is hit with a military strike. This was the first time that China publicly declared such a position after it had distanced itself from politically controversial issues over the past 20 years to focus almost exclusively on economic growth.

The firm Russian and Chinese positions coincide with a global media war that has been the fiercest since the Western media campaign that preceded the invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Therefore, Russian officials began issuing some statements to balance out media spin on Iran by saying that the progress of the Iranian nuclear program is being blown out of proportion to scare moderate Arab countries and to shift attention away from central Arab causes.

The Truth of the Dispute

Al-Akhbar was the first Arab newspaper that pointed out the “dragon’s awakening” in January 2010, when it said that the size of China’s economy reached US$4.9 trillion, exceeding the size of the Japanese economy for the first time in history. Al-Akhbar noted that the number of doctorate degree holders in China was nearing the 50 million mark, while its middle class is projected to outgrow those of the United States and Europe.

With tensions mounting between East and West, the Syrian crisis emerged to reveal just how deep the level of mistrust between the two sides has become. No one can predict where these tensions will lead in the future. But the widening divide between the West and one Arab camp, on the one hand, and Russia, China, and the other Arab camp, on the other, raises a number questions, particularly as it relates to the Syrian crisis.

1. What is the nature of the dispute? Is it actually political and related to spheres of influence in the region or is it over the distribution and control of the region’s vital energy resources?

2. Consequently, is it true that a strategic deal was struck between the West and the Muslim Brotherhood, whereby Islamophobia is phased out and coexistence with moderate Islam becomes possible? Will this compromise also include hard-line groups like the Taliban and Hamas?

3. What is Turkey’s role in these matters? And why has the Turkish tone recently diminished after the Russian-Chinese escalation?

4. What is the extent of the Russian-Chinese side’s readiness to confront the global alliance against Syria and Iran? Is there a price that they are willing to accept to change their current position? Can Iran and Syria stand alone, economically and militarily, in the face of such an existential threat? And what is the seriousness of threats by some Arab states to boycott Russian and Chinese goods as punishment for their veto?

Hidden Agenda

Financial experts agree that it is not logical for the West to economically confront China and Russia – in addition to India – under any circumstance due to the interdependence of the global economy and the level of world debt. In addition, Russia has no significant exports to the Arab world other than weapons, with Syria being its primary customer after losing Libya.

The Arab threat to boycott Chinese products is like throwing a tiny pebble in a rough sea. According to Flynt Leverett, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, China lost its confidence in the US’s ability to manage conflicts in the Middle East, and is thus concerned about the security of its energy supply from the region.

While it is true that China’s annual exports to the Middle East, including Turkey, almost doubled – from US$28 billion in 2005 to US$59 billion in 2010 – its imports also increased to US$65 billion from US$34 billion over the same period. China’s export volume to the region, mostly by way of small operators, stands at only 7 percent of its total exports, but its imports from the area are crucial to its economy as they are primarily energy related.

China is the world’s largest Middle East oil importer, consuming about 23 percent of Iranian oil exports, which covers 11 percent of China’s needs. Washington imposes all sorts of conditions in exchange for the protection it provides for the Gulf Arab countries in particular. China and Russia, however, deal with the region without such preconditions.

It should also be noted that China is the US’s primary trade partner. China exports about US$240 billion and imports US$77 billion. Its trade volume with the US is 10 times that of trade with Iran. So will China choose between America and Iran? This question can also be posed to the Russians.

The answer is not simple and will not be decided by the volume of trade. Jon B. Alterman, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in London, says that China will not put itself in a position of having to choose and will maintain relations with both sides.

But developments in Syria today and continued sanctions against Iran have prompted some observers to offer a different assessment. Russia and China are concerned by the near-total domination of the US military and its allies in the Middle East, particularly in the energy-producing states. Qatar hosts the largest US military base in the region. Bahrain is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet. A French base has recently been established in Abu Dhabi. There is also a joint US-British base in Oman.

Therefore, China in particular worries that such a Western military presence in the region gives them leverage over Beijing in any future confrontation. That is why China has doggedly backed the Russian position on Syria at the UN.

The Turkish Dilemma

Because Western powers cannot subdue Iran and Syria militarily, there are questions as to whether Damascus and Tehran are capable of withstanding a prolonged economic siege.

It already appears that major currencies, like the dollar, pound sterling, and euro, are hard to come by in these two targeted countries. The same goes for basic commodities or investments that the two countries need to develop their infrastructure or oil industry. To this day, there appears to be no serious effort on the part of Europe to implement its ban on Iranian oil imports. The threatened blockade seems to be just media hype and will not be implemented before July 2012.

Russian and Chinese officials also see the proposed US missile shield in Europe as threat to their national security. Add to that Russian and Chinese fears about the Islamic expansion of the Turkish model, which is linked to ethnic Turkmen and separatist movements, similar to those in Chechnya and eastern China.

It is true that Turkey is a key player, if not the major one, in helping the West to implement its agenda in the Middle East. But Turkey is also concerned about not aggravating matters to a point that they spin out of control. Ankara knows well that its economic growth in the past 10 years has been based on regional stability, after it gave up on Europe and turned its compass toward the Arab and Muslim East.

That is why Turkish leaders have recently toned down their harsh criticism of Syria and have been generally moderate on Iran. Ankara fears that any regional confrontation will undermine Turkish political stability.

Turkey knows that a showdown in the region would devastate its economy, which took years to build and depends on US$30 billion in trade with Iraq, not to mention its investments in Kurdistan. Turkey’s US$15 billion bilateral trade with Iran is set to reach US$40 billion in the next five years. Thus, there are certain boundaries that bind Turkey’s hands when it comes to participating in sanctions against Syria and Iran.

Where to Next?

Recent developments in the region have opened a strategic window of opportunity for Russia and China to gain a foothold in this area of the world, where previously they were only bystanders. There is already very little mutual trust between Russia and the US, and mistrust is growing in China due to Washington’s meddling in Beijing’s internal affairs, and more recently, the US eastward military expansion.

On the economic front, The Times of London recently reported that Iraqi oil reserves will soon become the largest in the world at 350 billion barrels, after previous numbers estimated them at 143 billion barrels. This makes Iraq the most strategic country among the oil states. If exploited, its production is expected to increase from 2 million barrels per day (bpd) to 6 million bpd in the next 10 years.

Iran, meanwhile, has been proven to have the world’s second largest gas reserves with 33 trillion cubic meters. According to the Iranian Center for Oil Studies, the country also has the world’s third largest oil reserves and is the second largest oil exporter. It produces about 4.2 million bpd, including 2.6 million in exports, with Iran’s Mehr News Agency reporting that oil and gas revenues could reach US$250 billion in the coming years.

These numbers are music to the ears of Russia and China, especially since American and European companies are now not allowed to operate in Iran. Also, both Iran and Iraq will spend US$100-500 billion in the coming years to develop their energy capabilities – amounts that are tempting to Chinese and Asian companies.

More importantly, China and Russia will not waste the opportunity – handed to them as a result of the West’s failed crisis management – to become partners in securing their economic interests. Militarily, both countries are concerned about US expansion, particularly Washington’s insistence on deploying its so-called missile defense system in Turkey and Central Europe, all the way to fringes of East Asia.

No one can predict where this will end up. But what is certain is that the current deterrence capabilities between the two camps is serious. Any adventure by either side to test the other could have disastrous effects that could threaten global stability. Inevitably, both sides must reach some sort of compromise. Otherwise, matters might reach a point similar to that of the 1961 Cuban missile crisis.

Thus, the world is slowly moving toward a new kind of Cold War, where open confrontation has yet to erupt. It is an insane world ruled by insolence and arrogance, with one clear paradox: One of the rivals in this conflict sees itself in a traditional confrontation, while the other sees itself in an existential one.

Has the world arrived at the conditions that preceded the world wars, where reason becomes a rare commodity?


The Ruble and Yuan Challenge

The are two critical questions, the answers to which remain unclear at the moment. Can the Russian ruble and Chinese yuan replace the US dollar as an alternative currency in Syria and Iran? Also, how far will Russia and China go to meet the needs of the two besieged countries?

Similar blockades implemented in past under different conditions did not prove successful. Sanctions against Libya failed despite the fact that it was not blessed with economic outlets like Syria and Iran are. Also, the siege of North Korea has largely failed, because its allies are the same two powers in the current crisis.

That is not to say that Iran and Syria are not feeling the tightening noose. There have been reports, which cannot be verified, that claim that Malaysia was forced to stop palm oil exports to Iran due to delays in payment that were caused by the lack of hard currency.

Reuters also reported that China stopped the import of US$2 billion worth of iron ore from Iran, and that India and the Ukraine can no longer meet Iran’s rice orders due to UN sanctions. China is Iran’s primary customer of iron.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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