Syria stalemate: Is Russia pushing Mideast into cold-war style conflict?

Russia is refusing to attend an Arab League-hosted meeting on Syria, and experts warn its stance could embolden Iran to stand firm against the West. The US meanwhile softened its stance on arming the opposition.

Murad Sezer/Reuters
Demonstrators in Istanbul, Turkey, last week protesting against Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad shout anti-Russia slogans, as one of them holds pictures of Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Russia’s decision not to attend a “friends of Syria” meeting in Tunisia later this week deepens the international community’s divide over Syria and raises prospects of a cold-war-style proxy war in the Middle East.

An extended and deteriorating conflict in Syria will in turn have almost certain repercussions in Iran, including increasing chances of an Iran-Israel military confrontation, regional experts say.   

With Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and a number of European foreign ministers set to attend the Arab League-hosted meeting in Tunis Friday, Russia’s and potentially China’s absence will make even more remote the possibility of any meaningful action on Syria in the Security Council.

Disunity at the international level will pave the way to more violence in Syria – and greater risks for the region, experts add.

“The standoff in the Security Council and Russia’s determination to stand by its last meaningful ally in the Middle East means greater chaos in Syria,” says James Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “Arab countries and some European countries are going to find ways to arm a disjointed opposition, and violence is going to ratchet up.”

A hardening East-West divide over Syria could also have repercussions for the Iranian crisis, given Iran’s close ties to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. With relations between Iran and the international community at a delicate moment as the two sides consider a return to talks on Iran’s nuclear program, an East-West split would very likely make a diplomatic breakthrough on Iran all the more difficult.

And Iran will take Russia standing by Assad as a green light to stand tough against the West, Mr. Phillips adds.

“Iran is likely to harden its position if it thinks it can depend on Russia,” he says. “Iran is likely to believe it can depend on Russia to help it fend off pressure from the West on the nuclear issue. And that,” he adds, “can’t help but increase the chances of an Iran-Israel war.”

Russia announced Tuesday it would not attend the “Friends of Syria” meeting organized by the Arab League because the Syrian government is not included. In Beijing, China said it had received an invitation but that the matter required “further studying.”        

Arab League countries say the Tunis meeting will focus on finding ways to meet the humanitarian needs of the Syrian people, who continue to come under attack from Syrian government forces. But the question of arming the Syrian opposition is also likely to come up, analysts say.

In the US, some members of Congress are calling on the Obama administration to work with other countries to find ways for Syrians under siege from their own government to acquire arms and defend themselves.

The administration has voiced opposition to arming the antigovernment groups, but coordinated statements Tuesday by both the White House and State Department, which cited “additional measures” if Syria does not relent in its crackdown, signaled that its opposition could be softening.

The Arab League meeting will take place even as Iran and a group of world powers consider restarting talks on Iran’s nuclear program. Russia, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, would be part of those talks, as would China.

But some experts believe that, just as Russia is standing by its ally Syria, Moscow is also likely to stand with Tehran – even if it increases the risks of a broader regional conflict.

Military strikes on Iran’s nuclear installations and retaliation by Iran “would send oil prices through the roof, and who does that benefit? Russia,” says Phillips, “whose principal export is oil.”

Russia is making moves suggesting it does not want to be seen as blocking the way to some resolution of the Syrian conflict. Moscow is calling for the Security Council to have the UN name a humanitarian envoy to Syria to work with all sides to find a way to stop the fighting and resolve the conflict.

But Phillips says that any action a bitterly divided council could agree on at this point is likely to be so “cosmetic” that it wouldn’t have much impact on the ground.

“We’ll see a slow-motion implosion of the Assad regime,” he says, as the country’s economy and political structures collapse, “but while that’s happening there will be more violence, and unfortunately more casualties.”

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