President Assad Wants a Cold War

Despite his efforts, it is unlikely that Assad can get the Cold War revival that he seeks. First and foremost, Russia of 2008 is far more different than Russia of 1988. Its economy is far more intertwined and dependent on Western capital and trade. This was demonstrated recently when foreign investors pulled their money out of Russia in the wake of the Georgia conflict at the fastest rate since the 1998 ruble crisis. According to the Financial Times, Russian foreign currency reserves dropped by $16.4 billion in the fist week of the conflict with Georgia. This was one of the largest absolute weekly drops in ten years, which put pressure on the ruble and on foreign confidence in the Russian economy.

These days, thanks to trade with the West and high energy prices, Russians are used to the good life. "If the Georgians were smart, instead of attacking South Ossetia, all they needed to do was to threaten to bomb the Gucci shop in Moscow," quipped a Russian businessman I know, who travels regularly between Israel and Russia. "Russians would have agreed to their annexation of South Ossetia in no time."

Joking aside, Russia's leadership is all too aware that economic misery could cost them votes and popularity at home. This is why they will not allow their relations with the EU and the U.S. to deteriorate too drastically by entering into another Cold War.

Unfortunately for Assad, the same goes for Russia's relations with Israel. Level of trade and diplomatic relations between Russia and Israel, compared to the days of the USSR, have increased astronomically. Russia now hosts hundreds of thousands of its citizens who lived in Israel, have Israeli passports, and are now back living in their land of birth. Many more of its citizens live in Israel. Israeli companies have offices and have invested in the Russian economy,. They have also been instrumental in the high tech and jewelery industry. Today, Russians visit Israel in record numbers. The level of bilateral trade between them is estimated to stand at more than $2 billion -- and is rising. Russia would have very little to gain by supporting Syria, at the cost of making Israel into its enemy. Furthermore, with the emergence of China as a superpower, maintaining relations with as many sides as possible is considered crucial to Moscow's foreign policy.

Russia's cold shoulder to Syria's hopes for a new Cold War should not worry Iran too much. Its case is different than that of Damascus. Tehran has much larger gas and oil reserves. For now, its economic situations is not dire as Syria's is. Furthermore, China supports Russia's stance in the UN vis a vis the Iranian nuclear program. This means that Russia does not have to make any dramatic changes in its relations with Tehran. Even though they would prefer it, Iran's leadership can live comfortably without a Cold War between Russia and the West. For Syria's leader, it will be much more difficult.