Remember the Cold War?

 
And the crises focused on Berlin and missiles in Cuba?
 
Could we be on the cusp of a comparable crisis focused on Syria?
 
Among the unanswered questions is the relative weight of Israel in the thinking and threatening being done by the US and Russia.
 
This, too, is not new. Israel figured in American and Russian thinking about the other great power in 1956 and 1973.
 
Both Israel and the US have urged Russia not to supply advanced weapons to Syria. 
 
Last week Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu flew to Moscow, spent several hours speaking with Russian President Vladimir Putin, after which both said they agreed about the need for quiet in the Middle East. A day later the Russian Foreign Minister said that Russia was obligated under existing agreements to supply advanced weaponry to Syria.
 
One wouldn''t expect either Czars or Commissars to be especially concerned about formal agreements. Putin is not a Czar or a Communist Commissar, but the Russian judicial system has yet to acquire a reputation for blind adherence to law. It appears that Russia is continuing with the arms supplies because it wants to.
 
Some of that threatens Israel, especially if it feels the need for another attack against munitions being supplied to Hezbollah.
 
Some of the Russian munitions threaten the US, should the US seek to intervene in Syria. US efforts to persuade Russia not to supply advanced weapons to Syria have been no more successful than Israeli efforts.
 
Assessments are that Russia is intent on protecting the Assad regime from outside intervention, and that weapons usable against aircraft and ships are meant to do just that.
 
It''s one thing for Israel to attack Syria or Lebanon for the purpose of stopping the shipment of advanced munitions from Iran to Hezbollah, but another thing to attack a shipment of Russia munitions, especially while they are on a Russian ship, or off loaded and at the port.  . An Israeli attack on a munitions depot somewhere else in Syria may not offend Russia.
 
Israel does not want to get on the bad side of Russia
 
Neither does the United States. Antagonism, verbal dueling in the United Nations, occasional low level nastiness, the arrest of one another''s spies and backing different sides in a peripheral conflict is on one side of a behavioral frontier. Getting anywhere close to a head to head clash like those over Cuba or Berlin threatens much more.
 
So what does this mean for Syria?
 
Most likely a standoff, letting the Syrians continue to bleed one another with others supplying money and material to one side or the other, but without direct military intervention by a great power.
 
The rebels'' ugliness is contributing to the great power standoff. Lots of governments have condemned Assad, but none have shown signs of positioning themselves on the side of cannibals. The Obama Administration has made clear its disinclination to get involved, and no European government is likely to move on its own. There is not the oil that attracted a European strike against Qaddafi, and the outcome of that adventure is not likely to induce anything like it in Syria.
 
And what does it mean for Israeli attacks against the transfer of munitions to Hezbollah? That depends on whatever the Israeli military has up its sleeves to be used against the Russian weaponry, or whatever risks of losses or a wider conflict Israeli leaders are willing to accept.
 
Calculations about Iran''s nuclear program are somewhere in the mix of considerations. There, too, are Russian as well as Chinese reservations against anything Israel or the United States might be inclined to do. 


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Among the possibilities is that an Israeli attack someplace in Lebanon to deal with the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah would not unleash a Russian or Syria response.


But it might unleash a Hezbollah response, which in turn would produce an Israeli response, with who knows what coming next.
 
What is now more threatening is the most recent expressions of Russian support for its Middle Eastern allies, which at least raises the possibility of a much wider and catastrophic conflict growing out of anything the US or Israel might do.
 
Whoever said the Cold War pitting the US against the USSR ended in the 1980s was not thinking ahead to US vs Russia, with Israel in the foreground over Syria and Iran in 2013.
 
Nothing is certain in any of this. 
 
Against all the dismal prospects, it is appropriate to remember some lessons from the Cold War that petered out in the 1990''s. The Soviet Union and the US (or NATO or other Western alliances) did not come to direct blows against one another, and nuclear weapons remained in their bunkers. There were costly wars involving the great powers with adversaries armed and financed by the other great power. Korea and Vietnam were prominent in causing significant losses to the US and its allies, and the Soviet experience in Afghanistan was similar from its perspective.
 
Is Syria likely to be in the same league as Korea or Vietnam among US and its allies'' experiences or Afghanistan in the Russian experience?
 
There are several reasons to be cautious about proclaiming anything dramatic.


Both Russia and the US, along with Israel, have learned how to say "No" to temptation, and seem inclined to avoid anything like their bad experiences. No longer in the air are the great ideological issues of "Communism" vs "Freedom." or "Free enterprise." Islamic radicalism is widely perceived as a threat, even among Muslims. Its appearance among the Syria rebels--although perhaps not yet dominant among them--may be enough to dampen any outsider''s enthusiasm for defeating Assad and his regime. 


Until recently, Israeli officials were assiduous in avoiding any preferences about the outcome of the Syrian civil war. Now there is a report about a "senior Israeli official" who has said that a continuation of the Assad regime would be preferable to the chaos likely if Islamic extremists come to power.


Even if a direct great power cataclysm appears unlikely, the competition associated with the Cold War is with us, more prominently now than during the first years after the collapse of the Soviet Union when Russians were coping with a collapse of their regime and its economy. The world is too complex to speak about a balance of power. China is its own master. The European Union and its own more prominent members are not always singing in Washington''s chorus. With nuclear weapons in the hands of problematic regimes in North Korea and Pakistan, as well as India and--it is said--Israel, and maybe before long Iran, there will be enough work for policymakers,  commentators, and prognosticators to keep us all on our toes until the end of our capacity to ponder.


 

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