Commentary Magazine


On the Soviet Departure from Egypt

It should have been obvious ever since the late 50′s, when the Soviet Union became the dominant power in the Arab world, that sooner or later its relationship with the Arabs would become fraught with tension, discord, and even open conflict. At the time, it is true, some Western observers regarded the Soviet breakthrough in the Middle East as a disaster for the West of unprecedented dimension; the Soviets for their part may have fondly harbored the same idea. But the illusion, if such it was, should have been dispelled once and for all by the events of this past year. The Russians are now much more likely to agree with George F. Kennan’s recent assessment: “Given the passionate, volatile, and intensely self-centered disposition of the Arabs, their friendship could be in many instances hardly less onerous than their hostility.”1

I do not mean to imply that 1972 has been a year of unmitigated catastrophe for the Russians in the Middle East. Twenty thousand of them had to leave Egypt, but the Soviet position elsewhere in the Arab world has become stronger. On the other hand, it is possible that the Russians will one day return to Egypt, while it is almost certain that trouble will eventually erupt with Iraq and Syria. What all this signifies is the necessity, which the Soviets must have recognized for some time, of establishing new priorities in their Middle Eastern policy; these new priorities deserve close scrutiny not only insofar as they concern Soviet ties with the Arab world but because they are bound to affect relations with the United States—as well, of course, as the Arab-Israeli conflict itself.

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At the end of September of this year, on the second anniversary of the death of Egypt’s President Nasser, a long article appeared in Pravda celebrating the memory of this great son of the Egyptian people. Though extravagant, the praise was not really misdirected, for it was under Nasser’s rule that the Soviet Union came to replace the Western countries as the dominant power in Egypt. Nasser’s regime—“fascist, bloody”—had been violently denounced at first by Communists both in Egypt and abroad, but within two years of his accession to power, the Soviet attitude had changed radically. Nasser was aiming high, he needed big-power support (which he was unlikely to get from the West) and, above all, he was willing to make a return on any assistance he received. True, Nasser was a nationalist and a practicing Moslem, but the Soviets assumed, correctly as it soon emerged, that these did not constitute insurmountable obstacles to cooperation. Given patience, tact, and persistence, the logic of events (and of his own ambitions) would compel Nasser to pursue a pro-Soviet line in foreign affairs and to carry out far-reaching (“progressive”) changes in domestic policy.

Nevertheless, neither the Soviet Union nor Nasser himself could have possibly imagined in 1955, when the first arms deal between the two countries was signed, how deeply both sides would eventually become involved in their common enterprise. That first medium-sized arms deal—of about $80 million—grew into a multi-billion dollar investment, and the small Soviet diplomatic colony in Cairo mushroomed into a force of some twenty-thousand military experts and advisers, not to mention their wives, children, dentists, hairdressers, and numerous other hangers-on. Permanent military bases were soon established on Egyptian soil, and the Soviet Union participated in several major industrial projects, most spectacular among them the Aswan dam. To be sure, in its initial years the Moscow-Cairo alliance had its ups and downs, and even its bitter quarrels, but these gradually ceased as Nasser came to be known as the Soviets’ most promising “national democrat.” He was certainly their most trustworthy client, and in many ways their most fortunate one too: Nkrumah, Sukarno, Ben Bella, and other heroes of national-liberation movements all disappeared, but Nasser, despite misfortunes and setbacks in the Arab world, stayed on, seemingly indestructible.

The Six-Day War marked a milestone in Soviet-Egyptian relations. It dramatically deepened Egypt’s dependency on the Soviet Union, because of the need to replace quickly all the military materiel which had been lost or destroyed, and it ultimately led to the far-reaching Soviet decision, taken in the early months of 1970, to participate directly in the Egyptian military effort. Late in 1969 Egypt had stepped up the war of attrition on the Suez Canal, and Israel had retaliated by bombing targets deep inside Egypt in January and February 1970. (Later there were second thoughts in Israel about the wisdom of these deep-penetration raids.) Upon Nasser’s urgent request, a massive missile defense system, consisting of SAM-2′s and SAM-3′s, was installed, manned by Soviet personnel. Soviet pilots flew advanced aircraft on combat missions from fifteen Soviet airfields inside Egypt.

By the time of Nasser’s death in September 1970, the Soviet Union had made a political, military, and economic investment in Egypt that was without parallel outside the Warsaw-Pact countries. From the Egyptian point of view, however, the balance sheet after fifteen years of Soviet aid must surely have appeared negative. Economically the country was heavily in debt. It was politically far less independent than it had been in 1955, and in addition had suffered a stunning military defeat, losing vast territories which—despite Soviet help—it was nowhere near recovering. The patent dissatisfaction of the Egyptians with the existing state of affairs should have been enough in itself to fill Soviet leaders with misgivings about the future course of their relations with Egypt, and Moscow’s longstanding inability to establish control over various levers of power in Egypt like the secret police, the army command, the Arab Socialist Union, and the propaganda apparatus, could only have buttressed these misgivings. Although a few Communists were in key positions, and there was even a “Russian party” in Cairo, its ideology and political orientation could not be relied upon. Basically the Soviets had been dependent on the presence of one man, Nasser.

The decisive political role during the period immediately after Nasser’s death was played by the men of Nasser’s inner circle, a group of officials linked to one another by ties of family or friendship, or mutually beholden in other ways. Leading members of this group were Ali Sabri (the head of the “Russian party”), Mohammed Fayek (Minister of Information), Sami Sharaf (Minister for Presidential Affairs), Mahmud Fawzi (Minister of Defense), Sharawi Guma (Minister of Interior), as well as several secret-service chiefs (Ahmad Kamel, Amin Huweidi, Fathi Deeb), and some officials of the state party including Abdel Muhsin Abul Nur. Since all the members of this group were subsequently arrested and brought to trial for plotting to overthrow the government, and since the proceedings of the trial have been published,2 it is possible to retrace fairly accurately the steps taken by them in the search for a front man to act as President in the early weeks after Nasser’s death. Right from the beginning, it appears, Anwar Sadat was the favored candidate: a “stupid” man, he was considered easily manipulable. Other names were discussed and dismissed. The group had great respect for Ali Sabri, but “he was hated by the masses.” They objected to Zakariya Mohieddin because “he was a strong personality and it would be very difficult to control him.” Hussein Shafei, Nasser’s old friend and comrade-in-arms, was thought to be not equal to the job. Finally, only Sadat remained, his election all the more convenient since he was already Vice President of the Republic.

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It took a mere six months for the Egyptian “Mafia,” as its critics called the inner circle, to discover that Sadat was not at all so easy to manipulate; on the contrary, he was “cagey, unpredictable, and wished to follow his own line in domestic matters and external policies.” The group’s brief against Sadat focused on two matters in particular: first, the proposed federation with Libya and Syria—which, the members insisted, had to gain the consent of the peoples concerned and which they maintained would be meaningless anyway without the participation of the Sudan. Secondly, according to the evidence given later by Ahmad Kamel, chief of intelligence, the group wanted to resume the war against Israel and to implicate the Soviet Union in the actual fighting: “they [the Russians] could not possibly abandon the Egyptians to their fate. Partial victory would confirm the group in power, defeat would be blamed on Sadat.” (These were not matters of principle as far as the conspirators were concerned; they would have been willing, if necessary, to take exactly the opposite line, for as Ahmad Kamel said, “the principal aim for them was to remain in control of authority. . . .”)

The subsequent course of the plot is fascinating material for the student of conspiracies, but of limited interest here. As is well known, it failed utterly, partly because too many persons and factions were involved and also because the conspirators disagreed among themselves on many issues. On May 13, 1971, the members of the group handed in their collective resignation; this was to be in preparation for a coup designed to remove Sadat, yet it was a curiously passive approach and one that involved many risks. The Voice of the Arabs, temporarily in the group’s hands, broadcast news of the resignations, and a few stage-managed demonstrations followed. But no public outcry was heard, no overwhelming demand that the men be restored to office. Sadat weathered the storm with surprising ease. The men were arrested, subsequently brought to trial, and sentenced to long prison terms. No one in Egypt, with the exception of a few of the “Mafia’s” fellow-travelers, was sad to see it go. A new government under Aziz Sidqi was appointed, and the Arab Socialist Union, which had been the conspirators’ main bulwark, underwent a massive purge.

The events of May 1971 left Sadat with far greater freedom of movement, but still insecure in his position. He had decapitated the old intelligence service and weakened other pillars of the regime, but had no new power base with which to replace them. He enjoyed the support of a few friends and well-wishers, and since the conspirators were so thoroughly disliked, he more or less automatically received some public credit for their ouster. But that was all.

As for the Soviets, they must have watched the course of events with growing dismay. Many Western commentators said at the time that the May purges were directed specifically against the leaders of the “Russian party,” but this was an exaggeration. In all probability, the plotters had acted on their own; there is no evidence of their having informed Moscow of their intentions beforehand, and it is unlikely that the Russians would have given their blessing to such an amateurish enterprise. The Egyptian Communists were certainly not involved; on the contrary, one of them was coopted into the government by Sadat after the coup failed. A leading Communist literary figure, Abder Rahman el Sharqawi, wrote that “they [the Mafia] had established a kingdom of vampires.” Even the Soviet press eventually condemned the conspirators.

Still, in the final analysis, though the Russians distrusted all Egyptians, they distrusted some more than others. The fact is they had established a working relationship with Nasser and his inner circle, whereas Sadat was unpredictable and the possibility even existed of his making a deal with the United States. President Podgorny was therefore dispatched to Cairo with unseemly haste within two weeks of the attempted coup. He returned to Moscow with Sadat’s signature on a fifteen-year “Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation.” The treaty, which was given much publicity at the time, pledged Soviet support for the UAR in its struggle to become a socialist society, and bound each of the two parties not to enter any alliance or take any action directed against the other party or to conclude any other international agreement at variance with the terms of the treaty.

Taken at face value, the treaty seemed to represent a grave setback for Egypt because its stipulations were so patently one-sided and appeared to reflect a growing dependence on the Soviet Union. No one in his right mind would have assumed that the Russians would ever consult Sadat on vital questions of foreign policy and defense. The only possible justification for the treaty from the Egyptian point of view was the secret military clauses, which (as Sadat said in his speech before the National Assembly on June 2, 1971) “added new guarantees which had not been defined previously.” Yet it is equally doubtful whether Sadat himself ever intended to live up to the conditions of the treaty. Egypt, after all, was not a member state of the Warsaw Pact, it had no common border with the Soviet Union or any of its allies, and the Brezhnev doctrine of intervention simply would not be made to apply to it. In fact, it was Sadat who in Moscow’s view was being the unreasonable one: he virtually expected the Soviet Union to declare war on Israel, and then, following victory over the Jewish state, to give up its bases in Egypt.

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Podgorny’s delegation left Cairo on May 8, 1971; less than two months later Soviet-Egyptian friendship was put to a severe test as a result of the Communist coup in the Sudan. In February the Sudanese dictator, General Gafaar al-Nimeiry, had announced his intention to “crush” the local Communists; they responded with acts of open defiance and he countered, in mid-March, by removing some sixty Communists from key positions in the army, the police, and the state apparatus. The Communists then staged a coup on July 19, but within three days Nimeiry was back in power. The military plotters, as well as many leading Communists, including the secretary-general of the party, were executed. Pravda denounced the “mass-scale bloody reign of terror” in the Sudan, while Nimeiry proceeded to expel the Bulgarian ambassador as well as a Soviet counselor and to describe relations with the Soviet Union as “extremely bad.” Subsequently it transpired that, as in Egypt, Soviet leaders had not been informed, let alone consulted, about the intended coup—perhaps because the conspirators feared they would veto it.

While Moscow was bitterly denouncing the repression in Sudan, Presidents Sadat of Egypt and Khadafi of Libya were doing their best to help Nimeiry in his campaign to stamp out Communist influence. In a speech delivered in Cairo on July 24, 1971, Sadat said that the newly formed Arab federation had been born with teeth “which in the Sudan were very sharp indeed.” Orders were given in Cairo for the immediate return of a Sudanese brigade from Suez to Khartoum to help Nimeiry in his counter-coup.

The next act in the unfolding tragicomedy opened during Sadat’s visit to Moscow in mid-October 1971. This was to be the first of three visits within seven months. Western observers noted at the time that Sadat had apparently moved closer to the Soviet line; in so many words he denounced anti-Communist moves in the Arab world as “prejudicing the peoples’ urge for liberation.” The Soviet Union on the other hand gave qualified support to the new federation of Egypt, Libya, and Syria, provided, of course, that it became “a bulwark of unity of all truly progressive forces.” According to the Moscow communiqué, Sadat’s talks with Brezhnev, Podgorny, and Kosygin were conducted in a spirt of “frankness and cordiality”—but in fact there was more double-talk than ever before. The Soviet leaders assumed, quite rightly, that they might as well give their blessing to the new federation since it was still-born anyway. Sadat, for his part, could safely issue a routine condemnation of anti-Sovietism since the pro-Communist forces at home and in the Sudan no longer constituted a danger. Soviet-Egyptian relations had turned into a meaningless, even farcical, exchange of declarations.

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Sadat returned to Moscow in the first week of February 1972. Once more there were the ritual incantations—the meeting was an “outstanding success,” “an important turning point,” friendship between the two countries was “immortal”—yet according to all the evidence it was the worst conference so far. Sadat was now under great pressure at home; student riots in January had underlined the shakiness of his regime. The India-Pakistan war had caused apprehension in Cairo, partly because the Soviet Union had openly taken sides against a Moslem country, partly because of the temporary transfer of Soviet war materiel from Egypt to the subcontinent. If Sadat had hoped for a military-political escalation during the winter, the war in India clearly upset his timetable. Above all, his much vaunted “year of decision” with Israel had come and gone and had become the subject of many bitter jokes in Egypt and the other Arab countries.

What Sadat really wanted now were offensive weapons: medium- or long-range ground-to-ground missiles, and Mig-23′s, the most advanced Soviet plane. The Soviets ignored these requests for as long as they could, then finally told the Egyptians as diplomatically as possible that their army was simply not good enough to win a war against Israel, despite the fact that the Soviet Union had invested billions of dollars in Egypt’s rearmament. In these circumstances a few Fox-bats (the NATO designation for Mig-23′s) or missiles would not make much difference. In addition, quite apart from the military assessment of the situation, there were weighty political considerations behind Moscow’s coolness to the new Egyptian request: by February 1972 definite progress had been achieved in the talks with Washington, and no one in Moscow intended to see this progress undermined by a war in the Middle East.

All this should have been clear to the Egyptians long before; perhaps it was—but it became a topic of open discussion only after Sadat’s return from Moscow, when it was made the subject of a seminar held in Cairo in the late spring and also of a long feature article in Al Ahram written by Mohammed Hassanein Heykal.3 Heykal cited no fewer than ten reasons that underlay, as he believed, the mistaken Soviet policy (or, as he called it, the “crime”) of “no peace and no war,” and produced ten counter-arguments designed to show how the policy would be self-defeating from the Soviets’ own point of view, and inferior to a policy of outright warfare. Characteristically, he ignored the most basic question involved in his own position, namely, what would happen to Soviet interests in the Arab world after the expected victory over Israel had been achieved. Nor did he make it clear exactly what, in the event, the Egyptians really wanted from Moscow: a few more planes and missiles—or the active participation of Soviet divisions and units of the Soviet Mediterranean fleet?

The last stage before the July crisis was reached when Sadat invited himself to Moscow for yet a third time (April 1972). The situation as he saw it was more precarious than ever. President Nixon was due to meet soon with the Soviet leaders; as far as Cairo was concerned nothing good could possibly come from their talks. Mrs. Meir had been invited to Bucharest—another ill omen. And, lastly, Iraq, Egypt’s main rival and antagonist in the Arab world, was about to sign a treaty with Moscow. Sadat’s own speeches at home had meanwhile become progressively more violent. On the birthday of the Prophet, he solemnly announced another deadline for victory: “When we celebrate the birthday of Mohammed next, not only Sinai but Jerusalem too will be liberated, and the Israelis reduced to the abasement and submissiveness decreed for them.” In Moscow Sadat met twice with Brezhnev and received Soviet approval to go to war—if he really wanted to. This was a new departure for the Soviets, but was actually less momentous than it appeared. Egypt clearly was not ready for war. After his return Sadat admitted there had been some differences with the Russians, but what did it matter? Agreement had been reached on certain “important measures” to strengthen military cooperation.

During May and June news spread of a further deterioration in Soviet-Egyptian relations, but there is nothing to suggest that Sadat wanted a dramatic showdown with the Russians at this time. On the contrary, he went out of his way during a speech to denounce anti-Soviet elements inside Egypt. Marshal Grechko revisited Cairo in May, bringing with him a few Mig-23′s. According to a statement by Colonel Khadafi not published in Cairo, “Grechko left nothing behind but public optimism and falsely raised hopes.”

On the events of June and July there is a semi-official version as well as several others. Sadat himself says he finally lost all hope of effective Soviet support in late June as the Russians continued to ignore his demand for offensive weapons. On July 9, President Hafez al Asad of Syria arrived in Cairo quite unexpectedly in an attempt to mediate between Egypt and the Soviet Union. Sadat allegedly told him to mind his own business (Asad had just signed a military pact with the Russians). According to his version, Sadat was further irritated by Soviet statements, made in talks with Syrian Communist leaders in Moscow, that the Arabs would be well advised not to go to war with Israel since there could be few doubts about the outcome. On July 13, Prime Minister Aziz Sidqi and Foreign Minister Murad Ghaleb flew to Moscow. They were scheduled to stay for three days but returned after only one. Again the Soviets issued an official communiqué saying that the Arabs could use “all means at their disposal” to recover the lost territories. The day after Sidqi’s return the exodus of Soviet military personnel began. On July 18 Sadat delivered a speech making the expulsion order a matter of public record.

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That Sadat had for some time been feeling more than a little frustrated is beyond doubt. By his bombast and his foolish promises and timetables he had maneuvered himself into an impossible position. To survive politically he needed a more or less convincing explanation for the fact that 1971 had not been the “year of decision” he had promised—and that 1972 was not likely to be either. The most obvious explanation lay at hand: the Russians had let him down. But this is only part of the story. There is reason to believe he was egged on in his decision by Colonel Khadafi, who had never made a secret of his feelings about the Russians. Khadafi, a manic-depressive, had just survived an attempt by some of his fellow officers to remove him from the political scene, and was now at his most aggressive. Above all, Sadat seems to have been confronted by an ultimatum from his leading army officers, who for some time had wanted to limit Soviet interference in Egyptian military affairs. (The fact that the Russians had asked for the removal of War Minister Sadeq had not exactly disposed Sadeq in their favor.4) A great many stories were circulating in Cairo concerning the arrogant behavior of the Soviet advisers toward the Egyptian military; there was even a report, perhaps apocryphal, that Sadat himself no longer had access to Soviet bases on Egyptian soil. The stories may well have been exaggerated, but what mattered was that the Russians were thoroughly disliked, and that the dislike was mutual. The army command, in brief, had reasons of its own for wanting to get rid of the Russians.5

It must be said that the Russians reacted with utter calm to the sudden ouster demand. Their behavior in fact seemed to bear out what Sadat had told Cyrus Sulzberger the winter before: that the Soviets were not at all interested in staying in Egypt, that they had repeatedly expressed the wish to leave, and that they remained only because Sadat insisted. But this, to put it mildly, was not the whole truth; the Soviets undoubtedly were not eager to man the Suez defense line against Israel, but the naval bases and the airfields were another matter altogether. Still, they had no alternative but to react calmly. A military takeover of Egypt was out of the question, and even a propaganda campaign of recrimination must have seemed rather pointless. The Soviet press quite sensibly described the troop withdrawals as the natural end of a mission which had been successfully completed: the rebuilding of the Egyptian army. In his speech of July 18, Sadat asserted that the expulsion would in no way affect Soviet-Egyptian friendship and he thanked the Russians for all their help. Mohammed Heykal performed his usual tightrope act, exhorting Sadat to safeguard friendship with the Soviets, “for which there is no substitute,” while at the same time disclosing that five planes flown by Soviet pilots had been shot down the previous winter by the Israelis in less than a minute’s time. Heykal, and others, asked that serious talks be initiated with Moscow to put the relationship between the two countries on a new basis. But this was about the last thing the Russians wanted—certainly not in public.

During the following weeks there were hints of peace meetings, notes were exchanged, ambassadors were withdrawn and then restored, and a new cabinet was appointed in Cairo. In a speech in mid-August Sadat complained that he had been exposed to Soviet pressure to capitulate to Israel, and that the Soviets had imposed a virtual arms embargo, intended to drive Egypt to despair. A letter from Brezhnev he had received was totally unacceptable in both form and content. But (Inshallah) Egypt would receive the arms it needed for the blow against Israel. By late September, following additional exchanges and the efforts of half a dozen mediators from various countries, Sadat said that he felt a little happier about relations between the two countries. As a result, it was decided to dispatch the Egyptian prime minister for further talks in Moscow. The Russians, not surprisingly, made their continued support dependent on the satisfaction of some rather tough demands, and Sadat, after all the blustering of the hot summer months, acquiesced without a struggle: Sadeq, his war minister, was out, and so were the commander of the Egyptian navy and other high-ranking officers. Soon thereafter, several hundred Soviet military advisers returned to Egypt to man the air defenses along the Suez Canal and around Cairo.

President Sadat’s position is now weaker than it has ever been before; the military men who had backed him are gone and it is by no means certain he can trust their successors. His eventual fall from power now seems only a question of time. The Russians would surely prefer someone more trustworthy, and as for the military, sooner or later a high-ranking officer will come along enterprising (and foolish) enough to aspire to Sadat’s succession.

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Before Nasser’s death I wrote: “Only the future will show whether the trend to Nasser’s policy, the ever-growing dependence on the Soviet Union, is reversible. It is probably premature to speak about a ‘point of no return.’ It still depends in the last resort on the scale of priorities of Egypt’s leaders. Those to whom the heavy burden of succession will one day pass are not to be envied.”6 Three years later there is still a question as to the priorities of Egypt’s leaders, but Soviet priorities—which are the more decisive in the situation—seem to have undergone a significant shift. Egypt under Nasser, despite the many setbacks it suffered, was the leading country in the Arab world; it figured highly in Soviet planning as a springboard to the Middle East and North Africa and ultimately as a gate to the Indian Ocean. Egypt under Sadat, however, has been another affair altogether; no longer the leading country in the Arab world, it no longer warrants preferential treatment by Moscow. In fact, the Soviet Union had decided to diversify its investments in the Arab world well before the summer of 1972; the exodus from Egypt, permanent or not, has from that point of view only hastened a process that might otherwise have taken a little longer but that was inexorable.

While Egypt seems to have been downgraded in the scale of Soviet priorities, relations with Syria and Iraq now figure very prominently. Iraq has been ruled for the last five years by more or less the same people, the Ba’ath party. This was originally a group of army officers closely knit by family ties and common origin. More recently, owing to the initiative of Hussein Sadham al Takriti, Iraq’s strong man who is both deputy president of the party and head of the Revolutionary Command Council, the military leadership has been infiltrated and partly outmaneuvered by a civilian group. It remains to be seen whether this development will have lasting results; it certainly has not led to greater freedom for the Iraqis. The Ba’ath reign of terror in Iraq is unrivaled in the Arab world (with the possible exception of South Yemen); Sadat’s Egypt is a haven of democracy by comparison. Yet the fact that the regime is hated and feared inside Iraq, and despised and isolated in the Arab world, has worked in Russia’s favor; for the Iraqi Ba’ath, more than any other group of Arab leaders, needs the protection of a great power. As in Syria, two Communists are members of the government, but the Communists control neither the secret police nor the army, and these are, of course, the real levers of power.

The Soviet Union signed a treaty of friendship with Iraq in April 1972 and has concluded several other specific military and political agreements. The advantages of gaining a firm foothold in Iraq are immense. A well-informed author wrote even before the break with Egypt:

The agreement may well mark a significant shift of emphasis in Russian policy, away from an exclusive concern with and heavy dependence upon Egypt, in the hope of gaining a new center of power and influence in the Middle East that is less closely involved with the more or less permanent dangers and entanglements of the Arab-Israeli confrontation. . . . What the Kremlin has gained is a secure foothold in the Gulf from which to make her naval presence felt—if necessary on a continuous basis.7

Iraq’s geographical position has much to recommend it; it flanks Turkey and Iran, and borders on Syria, Jordan, and the Arabian peninsula. It is a springboard for the oil-rich Persian Gulf area, including the various tiny sheikhdoms and emirates which possess a substantial part of the world’s oil reserves. In the future, the Soviet Union will be much better placed to extend aid to the “Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Occupied Arab Gulf,” and to combat Chinese influence among these rebels as well as in South Yemen. Above all, Iraq means oil; the North Rumaila oilfields which are now exploited by a Soviet consortium will produce twenty-million tons by 1975—a modest figure by present-day standards but one which promises to grow in time.

The new alliance with Iraq does involve certain dangers for the Soviet Union, but they do not outweigh the gains. One is the immense unpopularity of Iraq in the Arab world, another the state of sub-acute warfare between that country and Iran. In the past the Soviet Union has pursued a more or less even-handed policy as between Iran and Iraq; this will become more and more difficult to maintain. The Iraqi Kurds, persecuted by the Baghdad government, looked in the past to Moscow as a potential protector, but they too will be unlikely to receive much sympathy from the Soviet Union in the future. Lastly, the Iraqi economy is in sad shape; despite substantial oil revenues, successive governments have shown greater than average administrative incompetence and economic development has hardly been spectacular—much in contrast to Iran. The Soviet Union, having already invested some $300 million in economic aid, and more in arms supplies, will have to subsidize the Iraqi economy for some time to come. But since the country is much less populous than Egypt and potentially much richer, the investment is incomparably smaller.

Syria is also ruled by the Ba’ath party, although the Syrian Ba’athists loathe their Iraqi comrades, and vice versa; relations between the two countries are if anything more strained now than they were in the days of the Hashemites. Syria has maintained fairly close relations with the Soviet Union for a long time. In 1966 the Soviets lent the Syrian government $150 million for building the Euphrates dam, and Marshal Grechko has visited Damascus almost as often as Cairo. About one thousand Soviet military advisers were stationed in Syria between 1967-71; their number is now said to be higher. Soviet warships have frequently called at the ports of Latakia and Tartus and on occasion stayed there for weeks. (These ports have not however become full-fledged Soviet bases, if only because their harbors are small and do not possess the essential facilities needed to be of real help to the Soviet fleet. The submarine base near Ras Shamra may be more important in the future.)

Hafez al Asad, Syria’s present leader, came to power in a coup that ousted those of his colleagues who had gone far in their pro-Soviet enthusiasm. Though Syria has been averse to signing a formal pact with the Soviet Union similar to those signed by Egypt and Iraq, since the beginning of 1972, for reasons that are not entirely clear, Moscow and Damascus have drawn much closer together. Perhaps, following Egypt’s eclipse, the Syrians saw a real chance to strengthen their position in Arab politics and to assume as well the role of main champion of the Palestinian cause; perhaps they were frightened by a series of Israeli airstrikes on their territory. In August and September 1972 the Soviet Union ostentatiously made major arms deliveries to Syria, including SAM-3 missiles. The Russians may wish to use Syrian airfields to a greater extent than in the past, and perhaps they also envisage the construction of oil pipelines from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean—especially if their designs on Persian Gulf oil are as far-reaching as many experts believe.

Syrians distrust all foreigners, and it will be interesting from that viewpoint to see how the Russians fare in Damascus. On the other hand, the Syrians are politically much less sophisticated than the Egyptians and therefore perhaps less aware of the dangers of superpower patronage. For the Russians, a military presence in Syria means of course further involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict—and in a geographical area where there is no prospect for peaceful compromise: whereas a territorial agreement might eventually be struck between Egypt and Israel, no such solution seems possible with Damascus since Israel has repeatedly stressed that it will under no circumstances give up the Golan Heights. Unlike the Egyptians, however, the Syrians have never been so rash as to proclaim a deadline for the coming war against Israel and this fact alone may make life somewhat easier for their Soviet patrons.

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Although Iraq and Syria are now the main pillars of Soviet power in the Middle East, a couple of other minor clients also deserve consideration. One is South Yemen, the most openly terroristic regime in the Arab world. South Yemen is a political backwater, existing on alms from Russia and China, but it is potentially of some importance as a bridge to the horn of Africa, where the Soviet Union now has distinct interests. It is also a counterweight to North Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Chinese influence has receded somewhat in this area following the stoppage of military aid to the rebels in Eritrea and Dhofar, and Soviet prospects now seem better than in years past.

Lastly the Palestinians. Yassir Arafat has visited Moscow at least four times since 1968 and other Palestinian leaders have been to the Soviet Union as well. On the whole, although Moscow still maintains a certain reserve, the relationship has become warmer, and the terrorist organizations have recently received some Soviet arms. They hardly need them, since they get all the weapons they can possibly use from the Arab states, and sufficient money from Libya and Kuwait, but the Soviet gesture is politically significant. Basically the Palestinians can trust none of the Arab governments, and the day may come when the Soviet Union will turn out to be the mainstay of their support. The Russians meanwhile may find the Palestinians of some use in torpedoing any potential rapprochement between the Arab states and the West, or even a peace settlement with Israel. They may also want to be in a position to counteract any possible pro-Chinese sympathies among the Palestinians.

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A new pattern of Soviet strategy in the Middle East has thus emerged during the last year. It is somewhat obfuscated by the “scatteration” of Soviet efforts, inevitable perhaps in the circumstances, but essentially it consists of a new concentration on the area of the Persian Gulf rather than on Sinai, let alone North Africa. This is not to say that the Soviet Union would be slow to seize opportunities wherever they might arise, from Pakistan to Morocco. But the stress seems now to be on the Gulf, which is to say on oil.

Though the Soviet Union apparently has immense oil reserves at home, most of them are situated in distant parts of the country and in climates which make extraction and transport prohibitively expensive. At present, Soviet oil production is increasing by 6-7 per cent yearly, considerably more slowly than consumption. (Production in 1970 was 352 million tons, in 1971 378 million, and in 1972 it will be about 400 million.) Yet, according to plan, the Soviet Union wants to cover not only its own growing needs but also by the end of the decade to supply 100 million tons yearly to the other Come-con countries, 50 million to Western Europe, the same to Japan, and perhaps also something to the United States. There is only one possible source for this oil: the Persian Gulf.

Several arguments have been advanced to show the unlikelihood of the Russians’ buying a substantial part of Middle Eastern oil production. First of all, oil producers greatly prefer to sell to the West or Japan because these customers pay in hard currency, whereas the Russians base their purchases almost entirely on barter. Secondly, there is the distinct danger, of which the producers are perfectly aware, that the Soviets will try to resell Middle Eastern oil at cut-rate prices in other countries. And lastly, it is contended that the Russians cannot compete as oil distributors because they lack the experience and the facilities of the Western oil companies.

These are weighty arguments but they are purely economic in nature. The Arabs regard oil as a political weapon, and there is no reason to assume that the Russians, if the occasion arises, will not do the same. At present a small country like Libya, with enormous amounts of foreign currency or gold reserves at its disposal, can stop the flow of oil for a year or perhaps even longer without difficulty. But it remains to be seen whether ten or fifteen years hence a country like Iraq, let alone the small emirates and sheikhdoms, will still be in a position to decide on the direction of the flow of oil and the conditions of sale. It should not be beyond the resources of the Soviet Union, if circumstances warrant, to engineer a coup in Dubai or Abu Dhabi; in view of the stakes involved the temptation may well be irresistible. If this stage were in fact reached the Russians would hardly need a fleet of tankers or a network of oil refineries or filling stations to dispose of their new-found oil; Western countries would be only too eager to cooperate. The decisive question obviously is not that of distribution, but of the control of production.

_____________

 

With or without Egypt, then, the Soviet Union will maintain its position in the Middle East. The strength of that position will depend on the willingness of the various Arab countries to provide a foothold and, on the other hand, on the credibility of the American presence in the area. In view of the many rifts inside the Arab world and the fierce competition for patronage, the overall Soviet position seems fairly secure. But there is another factor—the United States—which figures centrally in Soviet thinking and may in the end prove to be decisive. Continued American support for Israel, even to the point of defying the expressed wishes of both the Soviets and the Arabs, has had the paradoxical consequence of an improvement in relations between the U.S. and the Arab countries, and a weakening of the Soviet position. As Bernard Lewis has remarked:

The Egyptians have drawn their inference—that the Israelis have a good patron, while they themselves have had a bad one. Israel’s patron is trustworthy and reliable, and provides what the protégé wants; Egypt’s patron on the other hand has failed her in almost every respect, and has left her significantly worse off than she was before. . . .8

So the Soviet Union will continue its balancing act in the Middle East on many different levels at once, working for an atmosphere of controlled tension by helping various Arab countries to make ready for war against Israel and then restraining them at the last minute from actually going into battle, playing one Arab nation against another, and all the Arab nations against the U.S. and China; until, in the end, like a juggler with too many balls in the air, it will miss one or two, and the whole performance will have to begin again from the beginning.

_____________

 


Footnotes

1 “After the Cold War: American Foreign Policy in the 1970's,” Foreign Affairs, October 1972.

2 The testimony was published in the Beirut daily, Al Nahar, in September 1971; it has been summarized and analyzed in a valuable article by P.J. Vatikiotis, “Egypt's Politics of Conspiracy,” in Survey, Spring 1972, pp. 83-99.

3 Heykal, adviser and confidant to Nasser, has been suspected by the Russians (wrongly it would appear) of being a mainstay of the pro-Western party in Cairo. His reputation as the most accomplished journalist in the Arab world seems equally undeserved. Basically, Heykal has published the same three or four articles over and over again for the last twenty years, countless (and often endless) variations on the same theme. What distinguishes Heykal is his apparent ability to move slightly beyond the accepted limits of what can be said without offending the censors—hence, the impression he gives of originality and outspokenness. Heykal has been a fairly accurate barometer of the political climate in Cairo, not an original or consistent political thinker; as a historical source, his “revelations” have to be read with the greatest of care.

4 The Russians reportedly also requested the removal of Said Marei, the Secretary General of the Socialist Union, who had been instrumental in purging the pro-Soviet elements in the state party.

5 Officially there were no Soviet bases, only “facilities,” including the major airfields at Mansura, Jiyanklis, Inchas, Cairo West, Beni Suef, Aswan, and some others, and the naval bases at Mersa Matruh, Alexandria, and Port Said.

6 The Struggle for the Middle East (1969), p. 84.

7 M. Burrell, The Persian Gulf, Washington Papers, No. 1, 1972, p. 77.

8 The London Times, September 20, 1972.

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