New Cold War could exacerbate Gulf conflicts

New Cold War could exacerbate Gulf conflicts

Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak speaks to reporters. (Reuters/File)

In another sign that Cold War II is upon us, Poland’s Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak on Friday announced that the US and Warsaw had agreed to set up six locations to house additional US troops in Poland, and that a seventh is being discussed. A joint declaration to that effect was scheduled for this week, when US President Donald Trump was expected to travel to Poland and sign it during the marking of the 80th anniversary of the German invasion of Poland and the start of the Second World War on Sept. 1, 1939. However, Trump postponed his trip to deal with Hurricane Dorian approaching the US.

Despite the close personal relationship between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, there is little doubt that a new arms race is underway. Earlier this year, the two countries tore up the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which goes back to 1987 and was a key instrument in controlling the missile race during the Cold War. Each side is now accelerating its missile program to match the other.

For the past five years, tensions have been rising between the two powers, and between Russia and Europe, sparked in part by Russia’s seizure of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. That move worried NATO and several European countries near the Russian border, leading to requests for additional US troops in that region.

The first Cold War did not only affect Russia, the US and Europe, but involved many other countries. Proxy wars were waged throughout the world as each side tried to expand its influence and contain the other’s. In response to that bipolar US-Russia world, most countries tried to stay neutral, even establishing the Non-Aligned Movement. But, as hard as they tried, most countries were pulled to one side or the other. Very few remained truly neutral.

The Middle East was no exception. The Arab-Israeli conflict fell victim to the Cold War, as the US abandoned the pretense of even-handedness and sided completely with Israel — a situation that has made the conflict difficult to resolve. Southern Yemen, as a Soviet satellite, tried to destabilize its neighbors by fomenting rebellions in Oman and (North) Yemen. The list continues.

The question now is how to prevent Cold War II from spreading. This region needs unity among the main players in the international community and cannot afford to alienate any major power. In particular it needs to preserve the unity of the UN Security Council Permanent Five (P5) to help it regain its security and stability and deal with its raging crises.

The first Cold War did not only affect Russia, the US and Europe, but involved many other countries.

Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

The onset of the new Cold War should motivate the players to try to resolve their differences quickly. Time is not guaranteed to be on anyone’s side and stalemates are not useful for either side in any of the regional conflicts: Yemen, Somalia or the conflict between Iran and its neighbors. In Yemen, only warlords and profiteers are benefiting from the stalemate. The slow progress of the campaign conducted by the internationally recognized government to dislodge the Houthis has emboldened the latter to continue to stonewall and frustrate UN-mediated talks. The recent events in Aden are another distraction that is prolonging the war and distracting from the main goal of ending the Houthi rebellion and restoring state institutions.

Until now, the P5 have been united on the resolution of the Yemen crisis, as demonstrated by several Security Council resolutions and statements. Still it has been difficult to move forward. Imagine if they weren’t, if Yemen became embroiled in the new Cold War, as it was in the previous one. The devastation would be greater.

Similarly, the new Cold War could have a crippling effect on efforts to resolve Iran’s conflict with its neighbors. That conflict is being prolonged by Iran’s refusal to answer calls for talks on its ballistic missile program, support for terrorism and sectarianism, and other issues that concern its neighbors. There is an opportunity to resolve the Iran crisis peacefully before it is too late. The Gulf Cooperation Council proposed a plan for Iran a while ago, based on the UN Charter and international rules for state conduct. This includes respect for national borders, political independence and territorial integrity, and refraining from the use or threat of force.

If the Iran crisis becomes part of the new Cold War, its resolution would be even more difficult. European countries, which are now trying to persuade Iran to deal seriously with the international community’s concerns, could easily abandon Iran, especially as its economic significance has declined remarkably over the decades.

Friday’s announcement in Poland about troop buildup on the Russian border with Eastern Europe is a stark reminder that the second Cold War is here to stay. If we are not careful, it will only be a matter of time before it extends to our region and makes our already difficult conflicts even harder to resolve.

• Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs and Negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1

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