By Jonathan Power*
The war in Syria has dropped out of the news, like almost everything else, in a time when the Coronavirus seems to dominate all discourse and reporting. But the regime of Bashar al-Assad continues to strangle its own country. The Russians continue to bomb on his behalf, terrifying civilians and hospitals. The Americans work semi-clandestinely to undermine both the regime and its Russian backers.
There is no sign in the US-Soviet relationship of what was called in the 1970s and 80s détente. The big powers, Russia, the US, the UK and France appear intent on maintaining their interests in the Middle East. Russia has long been a friend of Syria and has had its single foreign base there since Soviet days. For even longer the US, France and the UK have been a friend of Saudi Arabia and today provide weapons for the Saudi air force so it can support Yemen’s government in its attack on the Houthi rebels, resulting in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Finding a pathway to big power détente in the Middle East seems to be eternally tricky. For those who want to shed some light on how it all works, I refer them to an excellent analysis in the current issue of Harvard University’s International Security by Professor Galen Jackson of Williams College. Reading this one understands how US Middle East policy in the era of presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and their national security advisor Henry Kissinger became Machiavellian after Nixon’s resignation.
It raises the question about how Machiavellian it is today. Is the US engaged in undermining Russia so that it can ensure its dominance in the Middle East? Has it been about trying to give Russia a bloody nose in Syria via the firepower of its local allies, which it and some of its NATO allies have provided?
In the 1970s and 1980s, many Western politicians, academics and media argued that détente was failing because the Soviet Union refused to pursue a non-idealogical and restrained foreign policy. But this in no small measure was wrong, certainly so in the Middle East. We now know from opened Soviet archives and Western scholars. They have deeply researched the matter that Moscow was eager to cooperate with the US on several vital issues, particularly on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.
“Its ideas for how the dispute should be settled essentially mirrored those of the US. The US, however, although tempted to respond favourably to the Kremlin’s initiatives, instead tried to expel the Soviet Union from the region”, writes Jackson.
The Soviets backed the Palestinians in their quest for statehood, following the Arab defeat in the June 1967 war. Yet they were anxious not to break their close links with Israel nor to open another front of a dispute with the US.
On the American side, Nixon wanted to be equidistant from the Palestinians and Israelis. Nixon thought that in the short run Israel’s position was “unassailable”, but in the long run, it was going to be “disastrous”. Kissinger, a Jew himself, felt that that the Israelis were pursuing “a diplomacy which leads to suicide”. The US was acutely aware after the October 1973 war and the imposition of the Arab oil embargo against the US of the linkage between oil and the Palestine/Israel issue. It did not want to upset the Arabs more than necessary. Nixon seemed obsessed with the possibility that the Arab-Israeli dispute could drag the superpowers into war. If the Israelis felt threatened – as they had in 1967 – they might feel the need to attack pre-emptively which would leave the US “looking down the barrels with the Soviet Union again”.
Moscow, for its part, was also fearful of being drawn into a war which might lead to the “nightmare scenario” of a direct conflict with the US. President Leonid Brezhnev emphasised that the situation could lead to “unpredictable consequences”. Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko wrote in January 1967, “We should, while supporting the Arab countries in their struggle against Israel’s expansionist policy, flexibly dampen the extremist trends in the policy of certain Arab states, for example, Syria”.
The Kremlin had good reason to believe that Israel was contemplating an attack against Syria. At one point in a speech, Brezhnev warned the Arabs that their “belligerent statements could become inflammatory material”. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was told that the USSR would never support the destruction of Israel.
Frustrated with Moscow’s stance, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt decided in July 1972 to expel the Soviet military stationed in Egypt. Kissinger observed, “You know that the Russians showed restraint in the Middle East. That is why Sadat kicked them out.” Just before the Israel/Arab war which began on October 6, 1974, KGB chairman Yuri Andropov noted that Soviet policy has been “directed at the prevention of the unleashing of military conflict”.
Moscow and Washington had good reason to cooperate – they sought an overall détente in foreign relations, and they sought a solution to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Nixon is recorded as saying, “Any settlement will have to be imposed by both the US and the Soviet Union”. Yet, as he had told the Russian ambassador to Washington, “I don’t want to anger the American Jews who hold important positions in the press, radio and television”. The Jewish lobby has an enormous influence on Congress.
Nixon wanted to wait until he had won his reelection and concluded the withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam, and then he could face down the Jewish lobby. Later he told the ambassador, “I will deliver the Israelis”. In one of his final acts in office, he ordered a complete cutoff of assistance to Israel. It was not to be. Watergate consumed his presidency. With his resignation in August 1974, all hope for a settlement disappeared. Kissinger’s influence became paramount.
Despite what had seemed like years of détente with the Soviet Union over Middle East affairs Henry Kissinger, who went on to serve Gerald Ford who took over as president from Nixon, laid out a truly Machiavellian path. Kissinger was not interested in cooperating with the Soviets to reach an agreement. Kissinger told Chinese leaders, “The US will move matters towards a settlement in the Middle East, but we also want to demonstrate that it was not done by Soviet pressure”. The US strategy, he argued, was to resist whenever Moscow pressed for progress. Only after the Soviet Union had been “defeated” was Kissinger prepared to alter his approach.
The US needed the Soviet Union more than ever, but Kissinger and Ford refused to reach out to Moscow. The most important thing for them, it seemed, was to reduce Soviet influence in the Middle East. In a moment of honesty, Kissinger was recorded as saying, “The US-Soviet conflict had been “mostly our fault. What have they done that’s so bad”? Moscow, he said, had “got nothing” out of détente…..Brezhnev’s colleagues can say he was taken to the cleaners”. Despite these frank thoughts he didn’t want to give Moscow any points in the game of Realpolitik.
Pro-détente people in the Kremlin were undercut. Not just on Middle East policy but in the overall East-West dialogue which the Middle East diplomacy affected. Kissinger had humiliated the Soviets – which Nixon had been careful not to do. If Kissinger had not fashioned such a Middle East policy under Ford, then perhaps the Cold War would have ended sooner or at least been ameliorated.
The Russians remember these games. Today they wonder what the US’s real goals in the Middle East are. President Donald Trump says he wants to pull the US out, but much of the American foreign policy establishment doesn’t want a total withdrawal. Many Republicans in Congress would like to see Iran invaded, and everyone knows how hostile Trump is to Tehran. It all makes it difficult for Russia to find a way to détente over Syria.
If the two countries could come together on Syria and the way to peace, peace would come rather quickly. But Moscow once had its fingers burnt, and the US wants, as it did before, to be the one who calls the shots. Peace will not happen until the US becomes seriously accommodating to Russian interests. If Trump wants it, the war can end, Israel and Palestine’s collective future secured and the US can emerge with its head held high. But to achieve this, it has to work with Moscow, not against it.
*Copyright Jonathan Power. Website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com. The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune.