The Impact of the Cold War on the Middle East

If there is anything that 21st-century international relations have taught the world is that the Cold War did not just end after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. It indeed gave birth to another hybrid warfare with Cold War dynamics embracing modern-day conflicts of arms race and technology. The Middle East was one of the contested areas during the Cold War, and the latter's impact has been reflected in the different states' foreign policies. The region nowadays is known to have complex conflicts rooted in beliefs of either communism or capitalism, but more so in the religious element of Islam.

Therefore, it is imperative to note that the Cold War left a mark on who is dominant in the region through different allies aligned with either the US or the Russian Federation (the former USSR). What started as Cold War competition has morphed into a more complex war and contention, with scholars asking questions about who is dominant in the area and why. This paper will highlight how the proxy war between the US and Russia was deployed in the Middle East, with an interplay of countries such as Israel, Turkey, Syria, and Iran among others.

Figure 1: Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1986.

The Middle East has been described as the theatre of the Cold War (Keddie, 1992). The 1946 Iranian-Soviet agreement with Stalin, which delayed the removal of Soviet troops from Iran, brought pressure between the latter country and the US. To counter this, the US through the Truman doctrine signed an agreement with Turkey and Greece in 1947 (Satterthwaite, 1972). This strategic move of the US allowed them to establish allies in the Middle East before the Cold War became more intensified in the region (Weldes, 1999). The area started gaining momentum as the 1950s leaders Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Mohammed Mosaddeq of Iran were branded pro-Communists.

The US declared their unwavering support to Israel, while they also sought friendship with Saudi Arabia to be their guardian in the region (Keddie, 1992). The Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 cemented relationships, prompting the constitution of strong alliances such as that between Turkey and the United States. Turkey was eager to receive the IRBM Jupiter Missiles (Seydi, 2010) as a custodian of the US, while the US would 'bargain' the removal of Soviet Missiles from Cuba (Criss, 1997). While scholars are still grappling with the debate on why Turkey was enthusiastic to deploy Jupiter Missiles, it affected the Turkish domestic politics making it more polarized (Criss, 1997).

The Soviets resorted to backing other Arab states such as Syria and Iraq, many of whom were fostering Anti-Americanism (Rubin, 2002). The support divide of both the Soviet Union and the US polarized the region on the basis of alliances. The US allies, in fact, started receiving military aid in the 1970s. Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the presence that the United States had already established in the region facilitated their support to the Mujahideen groups fighting against the Soviets, through the so-called 'Operation Cyclone' (Lahey, 2013). The latter was among the most successful interventions of the United States in Afghanistan, used to mobilize Anti-communist Muslims (Hassan, 2013). The operation resulted in other US allies being involved in the war: for instance, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were prompted to supply weaponry to the Mujahideen.

The leader of Mujahideen Abdullah Azzam admitted receiving overwhelming financial, weaponry, and personnel support from the US and its allies (Hassan, 2013). Therefore, it is imperative to note that Afghanistan fell victim to a proxy war between the US and the Soviets. The Soviets retreated after 10 years and willingly withdrew from Afghanistan in what is described as 'death from a thousand cuts' (Jalali & Grau, 1999).

Figure 2: Israeli troops in the Sinai Desert during the Six Days War in 1967.

In 1967, the so-called 'the Six Days of War' between Israel and the Arab states (Egypt, Jordan, Syria) shaped interstate relations which affect the Middle East hitherto. Before The Six-Day War fully manifested in the region, in 1966, Israel carried out attacks on Al Samu village in the West Bank in retaliation for Palestinian guerilla groups who had increased attacks on Israel. In April 1967, six Syrian fighter jets were shot by Israel Air Forces, which intensified the conflict between Israel and Syria, as well as Jordan. Egypt under president Gamel Abdel Nasser, a pro-communist and an Arab socialist in the region, received sharp criticism for not supporting Jordan and Syria. Consequently, Nasser mobilized the Egyptian forces in Sinai to support Syria and later closed the Gulf of Aqaba (Suez Canal) creating a blockade for Israel ships. These acts prompted Israel to retaliate with airstrikes on Egypt and Syria, while simultaneously fighting Jordan. After six days into the war, Israel had captured the Suez Canal (East Bank), Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, and Eastern Jerusalem, and pushed Syrian forces out of Golan Heights.

Scholars in History, Political Science and International relations have debated whether there was any direct involvement of the Soviet Union in the Six Days War. According to Bar-Noi (n.d), Brehznev's report indicates that Moscow's involvement in the escalation of the conflict was not through the incitement of Egypt and Syria. However, it appears that the Kremlin underestimated the Israeli military's capability to fight the war on two fronts, i.e. Egypt and Syria. Israel had support from the US and Western European Powers to attack Syria and Egypt (Ibidem). The report distances Moscow's encouragement to both Egypt and Syria to engage in a conflict with Israel: however, it claims that Moscow's military support to its Arab allies in the region was intended to prevent colonialism and enhance the Arab states' protection from Western imperialism. A similar statement, deeply rooted in the Cold War discourses, highlights the ideological and justificatory capacity of the superpowers' entanglement in the Middle East's regional dynamics, thus reflecting the poignancy of the system of polarized alliances.

Figure 3: Billout, G. (2009). Figurative Image of table divided and labelled with different countries in the Middle East with empty chairs (Illustration) The New Yorker

Harrison (2018) claims that almost three decades after the end of the Cold War the Middle East is yet to recover from the shift in the balance of power in the region. The study notices a tripartite power struggle in the Middle East between Turkish nationalities, Iranians, and Arabs. Most allies of Russia in the Middle East have had a rough time in the post-Cold War period. For instance, Libya lost its economic aid from the Soviets and tried to embrace a private sector-oriented economy, but failed as a result of the US and NATO invasion in 2011 that rendered it in shambles (Harrison, 2018). Such events followed the 2010 Arab Spring, which fostered a change of regimes in the region. It is no coincidence that most states that were swept by this wave were Russia's allied states.

This phenomenon was further evident in South Yemen and Syria. Yemen, which was divided into North and South with different leaders, was unified in 1990. USSR was sustaining the South, but after the unification the Soviets retrieved their support, making South Yemen lose its socialist identity. Syria, on the other side, witnessed an economic transition from the public to the private sector since they lost the Soviet economic aid. Such transformation contributed to the country's economic avalanche, plunging it into civil war in 2011 (Harrison, 2018).

Figure 4: Sadiq, M. (2020). Middle East states with soldiers illustrations in each state [Photo]. Medium.

Even after the end of the Cold War, the rise of militia groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine intensified the tension between the US and Russia in the region. For instance, the Hamas group received an invitation and support from Russia's President Putin in 2006, after the Palestine Legislative election. This sent a message to Washington on Russia's foreign policy in the area (Nizameddin, 2008). It has been noted that Putin exercised his leverage on these militia groups to grow his influence by sustaining their act of defiance of the West (Ibidem.)

Moreover, the declaration of ‘War on Terror’ by the Bush administration in 2001 after the 9/11 attack, labelling countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Iran as ‘The Axis of Evil’, facilitated Russia's intention to approach these countries as its allies. Nizameddin (2008) further points out that Western powers (US, Britain, France, Germany) acknowledged Iran and Syria as strategic partners in the Middle East. However, following the 2001 US military invasion in Iraq and Afghanistan, they grew closer to Israel as their regional strategic partner. Countries such as Iran pushed back the pressure they were getting from the US. Additionally, some countries like Turkey, despite their alliance with the US, embraced a neutrality policy on conflicts citing ‘zero problems with neighbours’ on the matter of Syria (Harrison, 2018).

Figure 5: Halbergman (2010). Bullets pointing toward the Middle East region on a map [photo]. Istock by Getty Images.

Forsberg (2016) uses the concept of ‘vertical contagion’ to illustrate the conflict experienced in the Middle East. He explains that the conflict spread vertically among the regional powers as opposed to horizontally across borders. Therefore, depending on which state aligned with either the US or Russia, the Cold War dynamic becomes more intensified between these two at the top compared to states among themselves in the region. The US and Russia are thus at the top and focus on how to strengthen their foreign policy in the region. The major power brokers in the area are tripartite frontiers, with the inclusion of Israel by extension.

However, the ‘vertical contagion’ argument does not mean that the neighbouring states do not feel the impact of the conflict, as they are affected economically and socially through aspects such as refugee and humanitarian crises. The crisis dates back to the history of the Cold War, which manifests today with its regional power imbalance, political instability, and conflicts. Through the ongoing civil wars, it is hard to experience a modicum of peace since there is no balance of power (Lynch, 2017).

2015 marked full-fledged support of Russia to Syria, which later saw the 2017 Trump administration withdraw its aid towards the Syrian rebel forces. Further, the US abdicating the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) strengthened Russia and China in the region (Ross, 2016). Consequently, the foreign policy implications in the area have been felt with a paradigm shift. The perspective of both Russia and the US changed with such events, impacting the Middle East regional power balance (Ross, 2016).

Figure 6: Soldatov, A. (2021). Background of Middle East region with binoculars reflecting USSR flag [Illustration]. The Daily Beast

In conclusion, the Middle East's conquest by the dominant superpower in the 21st century points out the effects of the Cold War in the region. The area, which was mainly contested because of its natural resource of gas and oil (Stevens, 2008), is still a hotbed of conflict and terror today. Overall, it has been clear through the history of the Cold War that conflict and proxy war of superpowers is a major legacy in the Middle East, with severe implications at the regional and national levels.

The question of whether the Middle East will ever experience peace remains uncertain: this is because the events of the Cold War profoundly shaped the state-state relations in the area, prompting an impact that keeps morphing with time. For instance, the rise of militia and terrorism groups in the region, politics of power dominance, and the competing interest of the US and Russia as well as China in the 21st century, are all phenomena that display the Middle East as a tumultuous point of convergence of a complex network of international influence.

Bibliographical references

Bar-Noi, U. (n.d). The Soviet Union and the Six-Day War. Revelations from the Polish Archives. Wilson Center.

Bowen, J. (2003). Six Days War. How the 1967 War Shaped the Middle East. Simon and Schuster.

Criss, B. N. (1997). Strategic nuclear missiles in Turkey: The Jupiter affair, 1959–1963, Journal of Strategic Studies, 20:3, 97-122, DOI: 10.1080/01402399708437689

Hassan, M. H. (2013). Mobilization of Muslims for Jihad: Insights from the Past and their Relevance Today. Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses, 5(8), 10–15.

Jalali, A. A., Grau, W. L. (1999). The other side of the Mountain: Mujahideen Tactics in the Soviet-Afghan War. U.S. Marine Corps, Studies and Analysis Division.

Forsberg, E. (2016). “Transnational Dimensions of Civil Wars: Clustering, Contagion, and Connectedness” in T. David Mason and Sara McLaughlin Mitchell (eds), What Do We Know About Civil Wars?. Rowman & Littlefield: New York, Kindle Version location 1805

Glickman, G. (2017). 1967/ How Naser's vendetta against America led to the Six-Day War. Fathom.

Harrison, R. (2018). Shift in the Middle East Balance of Power. An Historical Perspective. Aljazeera Center for Studies.

Keddie, N. R. (1992). The End of the Cold War and the Middle East. Diplomatic History, 16(1), 95–103.

Lahey, D. J. (2013) The Thatcher government's response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, 1979–1980, Cold War History, 13:1, 21-42, DOI: 10.1080/14682745.2012.721355

Lynch, M. (2017). The New Arab Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East. Public Affairs: New York

Nizameddin, T. (2008). Squaring the Middle East Triangle in Lebanon: Russia and the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah Nexus. The Slavonic and East European Review, 86(3), 475–500.

Ross, D. (2016). Why Middle Eastern Leaders are Talking to Putin, not Obama. Politico Magazine.

Rubin, B. (2002). The Real Roots of Arab Anti-Americanism. Foreign Affairs, 81(6), 73–85. Retrieved from:

Satterthwaite, J. C. (1972). The Truman Doctrine: Turkey. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 401(1), 74–84.

Seydi, S. (2010). Turkish–American Relations and the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1957–63, Middle Eastern Studies, 46:3, 433-455. DOI: 10.1080/00263201003666035

Stevens, P. (2008). National oil companies and international oil companies in the Middle East: Under the shadow of government and the resource nationalism cycle, The Journal of World Energy Law & Business, Vol. 1(1) 5–30.

Weldes, J. (1999). Constructing National Interests: The United States and the Cuban Missile Crisis (NED-New edition, Vol. 12). University of Minnesota Press.

Image References

Cover picture: Chinaworth, M. (2020). Image Illustration of fighter jets causing destruction as people run for safety. [Illustration]. Retrieved from:

Figure 1: Habarov, V. (1986). Soviet troops haul equipment on the outskirts of Kabul in October 1986 during the Soviet-Afghan war. [Photography]. Retrieved from:

Figure 2: Freed, L. (1967). Israeli troops pass through a battlefield. Sinai Desert. [Photography]. Retrieved from:

Figure 3: Billout, G. (2009). Figurative Image of table divided and labelled with different countries in the Middle East with empty chairs. [Illustration]. Retrieved from:

Figure 4: Sadiq, M. (2020). Middle East states with soldiers illustrations in each state. [Photography]. Retrieved from:

Figure 5: Halbergman (2010). Bullets pointing toward the Middle East region on a map. [Photography]. Retrieved from:

Figure 6: Soldatov, A. (2021). Background of Middle East region with binoculars reflecting USSR flag .[Photography]. Retrieved from:

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Emmanuel Mamadi

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