Saturday, 23 November 2013

Russia and Baathism

Russia's approach to the Middle East is marked by caution and pragmaticism. The absence of a clearly defined policy towards the Middle East is no doubt owing to the many disappointments experienced by Russia in her dealings with this region. Russia's three major disappointments in the Middle East were as follows:

(i) The Israeli Failure: The Soviet Union was supportive of the Zionist project and strongly favoured the creation of a binational state in which Arabs and Jews would enjoy equal rights. The procession towards a Middle Eastern homeland for the Jews had already been initiated by the British; so far as the Soviet Union was concerned, it was a matter of thwarting the British plans of creating a outpost of settlers subservient to Anglo-American interests in the midst of the Arabs. The leaders of the Soviet Union wished to oversee the creation of a binational state which would be sympathetic to their aims in the Middle East. Things did not turn out quite as Soviet Union had planned: not only was Israel intent on pursuing a foreign policy running counter to Soviet interests; the Zionist state was also hell-bent on bringing about an exodus of the Soviet Jews, which would result in the Soviet Union's being drained of some of its brightest minds. Golda Meir, an Ukrainian Jewess and Israel's ambassador to the Soviet Union, discarded every conceivable notion of diplomatic etiquette during her time in the Soviet Union. Well aware of the strong support for the state of Israel amongst the Soviet Jews, she took her lobbying on behalf of the Zionist state to extreme lengths by behaving like a celebrity rather than a diplomat. In her interactions with the Soviet Jews she made no secret of the fact that she wanted them to emigrate to the state of Israel. Being a Jewess of the ghetto, Golda Meir looked upon the assimilated Jews of the Soviet Union with contempt: to the Soviet intellectual Ilya Ehrenburg, who was an assimilated Jew fiercely proud of his motherland, Meir made it known that she "[did] not like [...] Jews who knew neither Hebrew nor Yiddish." Ehrenburg, infuriated by Meir's insolence, had a biting retort in store for the Jewess of the ghetto: "you, madam, are an American agent" (cf. Losurdo: 2012, p. 282). Stalin soon came to realise that Israel was on the verge of becoming an albatross around his neck: not only was Israel showing an increasing predilection for the Western powers; the Soviet Union was at risk of becoming alienated from the Arab world as well. A crackdown on Zionist sympathisers amongst the Soviet Jews took place; the extent of this crackdown is illustrated by the fact that Molotov's Jewish wife was sent to the gulag for greeting Meir too heartily at a Jewish gathering. The Soviet Union's decisive turn against Israel came about in 1956 when it sided with Nasser's Egypt against the Anglo-French-Israeli coalition during the Suez War. And in 1967 the Soviet Union reaffirmed its commitment to the Arab cause during the Six Day War.

(ii) The Iraqi Failure: The toppling of Abdul Karim Qassem's unabashedly leftist and pro-Soviet regime in Iraq by the Baathists taught the Soviet Union another important lesson: there was a limit to how far to the political left the Arabs would be willing to go. The Soviet Union came to realise that Baathism was the best they could hope for in Arab world. Pragmaticism was called for in regard to the Arabs; and the Baathists were certainly preferable to the Islamic fundamentalists. Henceforth, the Soviet policy would be to support secular-nationalist elements in the Arab world, and there was a clear red line which the Soviet would never cross: to side with Islamic-fundamentalist forces in the Arab world. The Soviet Union's decidedly anti-Islamist posture is in stark contrast to the policies of the Americans, which, according to Yevgeny Primakov, consisted in supporting "those who not only stood up for Muslim values but were willing to resort to terrorist methods to do so."

(iii) The Egyptian Failure: In 1976 Anwar Sadat cancelled the Soviet-Egyptian friendship treaty and expelled all Soviet military advisers from the country in his endeavours to placate the Americans and the Israelis. This political humiliation made the Soviet Union more circumspect than ever in relation to the Middle East.

In the light of the mentioned Soviet-Russian failures in the Middle East, it is only to be expected that the Russians will exercise extreme prudence in regard to Syria. Even so, the civil war in Syria matters to Russia, because the outcome to this conflict could potentially have repurcussions within Russia. Anything perceived as an Islamist victory could serve as an inspiration to sectarian forces in several former Soviet republics as well as within Russia proper. The fact that Islamist fighters from Kazakhstan and the Caucasus are present in Syria is a cause for great concern, and the return of these terrorists to their countries of origin must be prevented at all costs.

The Syrian civil war is dragging on not only because of structural contradictions that were long present within the society, viz., the Alawite minority's shameless propensity to self-aggrandisement; the interference of several foreign powers is a far more important reason as to why this conflict is as protracted as it is. Of foremost interest in this regard are the roles of Saudi Arabia and Iran:

Saudi Arabia: As far as Saudi Arabia is concerned, it is a matter of settling ideological scores with the Baathists, asserting one's leadership of the Arab world, and countering Iranian influence in Syria. A far more sinister aspect to the Saudi role is this nation's desire to export its Salafist brand of Islam to Syria with a view to undermining the latter's laudable commitment to secularism.

Iran: Iran is an enemy of the Arabs and Syria is Iran's main gateway to the Arab world. Iran's machinations in Syria are rooted in Iranian fears of the emergence of a cohesive political force amongst the Arabs, as such a force is likely to clash with Iran sooner or later, considering that Iran is currently in possession of territories to which the Arabs have repeatedly laid claim on ethno-historic grounds (cf. Khuzestan and Shatt al-Arab). Given these fears, Iran is more than pleased with a division of the Arab world along sectarian lines.

The key to ending the civil war in Syria is the curtailing of the influence of both the Saudis and the Iranians. The ideal way of concluding this civil war would be by means of preserving the Baathist rule while making significant political concessions to the Sunni majority of Syria at the same time. Such an objective can be attained by supporting Sunni elements within the Baath Party of Syria with a view to facilitating an internal coup. In such a scheme of things, Russia could play a decisive role. Baathism is still a horse worth betting on; Russia should get rid of the jockey and keep the horse.