Nikitin A.I., Prof. - Middle East Conflict in a Global Context of Policies of Superpowers
Middle East and Juxtaposition of Superpowers
Middle East conflict roots deep back in history. And already half a century, since late 1940s and creation of state of Israel superpowers like USA and Soviet Union/Russia play significant, sometimes even decisive role in it. It is not often referred to now, but in 1948-1949 Stalin’s Soviet Union extended wide political, diplomatic and practical support to the creation of the state of Israel. While staying from the very beginning for the balanced parallel existence of Israel and Palestinian state, Moscow on early stages was in certain respects more concerned for the historic fate of Jews, being under culture shock of their starvation under Nazis crimes.
Only more than a decade later, in the late 1950s - early 1960s, the Cold War and outsplash of “national liberation movements” motivated Moscow and Washington to take opposite sides in the Middle East conflict. For several decades of Cold War an association or alignment of Middle East conflict parties to conflicting superpowers has occurred. Syria, Palestinian movements and Egypt clearly aligned with the Soviet Union, and start to receive significant economic, military and ideological support from Moscow. At the same period clear alignment of the United States with Israel embodied in strong economic and military ties, though the USA simultaneously continued a search for allies in the Arab world. And in the “grand geostrategic juxtaposition” between USA and USSR the Middle East has become not the central, but one of important peripheral theaters of contest.
Yet that was a symbiotic merging of two conflicts of different scale and nature: in a sense, global contest of superpowers was pragmatically used by Middle East conflict parties to get an external support from respective sides, while, in its turn, superpowers not less pragmatically used Arab-Israeli contradictions to create proxies and get access to the oil-reach region, to widen competing geostrategic empires.
Middle East knot of contradictions is multi-layer. If to look from inside the region, events in Israeli-Palestinian area, in Iraq or in Afghanistan are perceived as very different, rooted in different ethnic, historic and geostrategic contradictions. But if to perceive them in the context of relations of superpowers in the last half a century, then an inevitable political logic is clearly seen in interface between several “knots” and “generations” of conflicts:
- Israeli-Palestinian (or wider Israeli-Arab) conflict;
- Conflict between Iran and the combined “West” (with changing intensity since 1979 Islamic revolution till now);
- Conflict (and war in late 1980s) between Iran and Iraq;
- Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979-1989);
- American-led war in Afghanistan in 2002;
- Conflict between Iraq and combined West (since first Gulf War in 1991 till the end of Western military operation in 2004);
- Rhetorically denied but practically developed conflict between the West and Islam, which politically more correct could be presented as a conflict between terrorist non-state groups versus strong Western states.
And if in the beginning of this list Moscow and Washington found themselves on the opposite sides of every listed conflict, then in the end Russia appears as a member of Western–led “anti-terrorist coalition”, and, taking in consideration war in Chechnya, as a part of the same contradiction between non-state “liberation” groups and strong non-Islamic states.
Israeli-Arab conflict, which was a “seed (or root) conflict” for this whole bunch of contradictions, was influencing the process of “taking sides” in most of following conflicts. For example, in 1988 in course of Iran-Iraq war position of European powers and of the USA was cooked under logic of “root conflict”: Iran after Islamic revolution openly or secretly supported movements in Palestine and Syria, as a result USA and the West, though not openly, took a side of Iraq. They were willing to block growing movements, which looked “anti-Western”, with Saddam’s hands.
Changing Sides: Pragmatism Before Values
Superpowers, both the USA and the USSR, as well as great European powers, like UK, France and Germany, more than once changed sides of political, economic and military support in this bunch of interfaced Middle East and Central Asian conflicts.
USA (and Western European powers) supported Iraq in 1988 against Khomeini’s Iran, but start to conflict and war with Baghdad just three years after that in 1991 in course of the First Gulf War.
USA (and the West) supported or even “created” Osama bin Laden and a row of mojaheddin’s groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan when used them as proxies in a war against Soviet military in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989. But in the 1990s, and clearly after September of 2001 they announced former proxies to be “enemies number one”.
But Moscow also showed pragmatism in changing sides of support: forces of Northern Alliance in Afghanistan headed by Akhmad Shakh Masud were born as Western-supported mojaheddins in a war against Soviet Union, but after emergence of Talibes regime in Kabul Moscow tactically created an alignment with the Northern Alliance. In course of US-led operation in Afghanistan in 2002 the Northern Alliance has become a kind of “double proxy” – proxy of both former adversaries (Moscow and Washington). Military and technical assistance of Russia to the Northern Alliance in course of land operation against Talibes was estimated by many military analysts as more important for the success of the US-led campaign, than the role, for example, of the UK military assistance.
Moscow changed for almost 180 degrees its attitude towards Israel after the turn of the Soviet Union into the new independent Russia. That needs some study and clarification.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a conflict between Chechen separatists and Russian central authorities developed, among other conflicts, starting from 1992. But since 1992 till 2001 the Islamic “theme” in this conflict remained quite marginal. That period was characterized by “parade of separatisms”. Differently motivated quests for secession manifested itself in many parts of the former USSR: in Northern and Southern Ossetia, Abkhazia, Adjaria, Tatarstan, Transdnestria. At the initial stage Chechen separatism was colored not in Muslim colors, but rather was perceived by official Moscow and by population of Russia as inertia of dissolution of the Soviet Union.
But with years methods of terrorist acts and guerilla’s fight used by Chechen separatists for fight against central authorities coincided very much with methods of radical Palestinian groupings applied in their fight against Israeli authorities, and further after 2001 with methods used by non-state groups of Al-Quaeda type in anti-Western terrorist acts. Moscow start to see some similarity between methods of its own anti-terrorist activities and tasks of territory control in North Caucasus and methods and tasks of Israeli authorities applied in the Middle East. At the same time direct adversaries of Moscow authorities – Chechen separatists – established interaction and ties (including financial support and exchange of trained fighters) with groupings on the Middle East.
As a result, Moscow in mid-1990s established working interaction and “exchange of experience” with Israeli forces and special services and turned aside from Syria and Arab groupings and movements. That was a period of general re-orientation of the Russian foreign policy, “purging out” of former “Soviet values” from it after the collapse of the Soviet ideology and Communist rule. Culmination of this re-orientation was manifested in early 2000s, when Chairman of the Council of Federation (upper chamber of the Russian Parliament) arrived to the Middle East with the mission of mediation, but after listening to Israeli side refused to meet with Palestinians at all, claiming that was completely convinced by the position of Israelis.
Anti-terrorist campaign announced in international relations after 9/11 2001 brought much closer to each other positions of Moscow and Washington, as well as of Moscow and Tel Aviv, and undermined relations of Moscow with many Arab organizations. Moscow pragmatically exchanged it’s support to Western anti-terrorism campaign for the Western tolerance towards Moscow’s policy on Chechnya (which was re-coded from anti-separatism to anti-terrorism). Emphasis was moved from goals to methods of Chechen resistance – and thus a parallel was affirmed between Russian and Western policies.
But within Russian political elite and in minds of population remains a certain split of opinions and attitudes towards Middle East conflict and current Russian position in it. Firstly, for decades Soviet propaganda was raising support to Arab movements, praised slogans of “national liberation”, and several generations of Soviets “digested it with mother’s milk”. Secondly, decades of Cold War developed general suspicious (sometimes hostile) attitudes to the West among part of the population.
Thirdly, anti-Americanism (same way as “anti-Sovietism” in the West) “got into blood” of the part of the elite whose all previous carriers were devoted to military, or ideological, or economic competition with the USA.
All these groups united in pressure over Kremlin to change policy of “betrayal of Arab allies” and “alignment with former adversaries – America and the West”.
Additional motivation was the following: as any large geopolitical player, Russia wants to have influence onto both sides of the Middle East conflict. Russian influence onto Israel, even after “appeasement” with it, is still by definition lower than American influence which is supported by huge investments and interface of American and Israeli capital. By breaking former ties to Arab side, and not getting any serious influence onto Israel, Moscow lost any significant role in Middle East settlement, and in the 1990s was marginalized and almost pushed at all out from the Middle East region.
This marginalization of Russia in the Middle East coincided with general weakening of Russian international political and economic positions in the 1990s (inevitable after split of the Soviet Union). Russian attention was diverted onto internal conflicts mushrooming on its own territory. On the top of that Russian foreign policy in the period of Yeltsin’s administration was dominated by the line for conversion of Russia from global superpower into regional power with limited international interests (former global obligations of the Soviet Union were considered too expensive while ideologically useless). As a result, by the end of the 1990s the influence and presence of Russia in the Middle East region dropped down to a minimum.
New administration of President V. Putin who came to power in 2000, took a different tactics and political line in foreign policy, though not from the very beginning, but rather in stages. Russia started to return to the role of global power with yet limited but still global interests. Moscow decided to promote (and suggest to the UN and to the West) it’s own unique role as a role of mediator, missing “chain”, interlink in relations with non-loyal states (“rogue states” in American lexicon) and forces, onto which Russia may have “residual influence” since times when they were closely connected to the Soviet Union.
Exactly such a mediatory role Russia tries to play in relations of the international community with the North Korea. V. Putin reestablished relations with Kim Jong Il, arranged month-long visit of North Korean leader to Russia, V. Putin himself visited Pyongyang for first (after Stalin) Russian-North Korean summit. In a six-party talks over North Korean nuclear claims Kremlin unofficially seems to prefer not the formula “5 : 1” (when five powers, including USA and Russia negotiate as a team with “mis-behaving” PDRK), but rather formula “3 : 3” , when PDRK, China (possessing serious influence onto Pyongyang) and Russia (less seriously, but yet sometimes influencing onto North Korea) could be perceived as one group, while, USA, South Korea and Japan – as the other negotiating group.
A comparable role Moscow was trying to play in the former Yugoslavia in course of crisis and use of force in 1999. Former Russian Prime Minister V. Chernomyrdin was sent to negotiate with S. Milosevic as a mediator to benefit from their previous positive personal and political relations rooted in Soviet times. During the UN-mandated peace-keeping and peace-enforcement operations in Bosnia and Kosovo Russia (while officially proclaiming neutrality) tended to support of Serbs, while USA and the West as a whole (while officially as well proclaiming neutrality) tended to support of Muslim Bosnians and Kosovar Albanians.
Developing the foreign policy line for mediation and more balanced position in major international conflicts, Moscow joined in 2003 Organization “Arab Conference” (OAC), thus promoting it’s own better and closer relations with Arab and Muslim world. That step was on the political surface motivated by the existence of Muslim minority in Russian population, but on a deeper level was rooted in Kremlin’s willingness to re-establish ties and influence in the outside Muslim world and balance pro-Western line in foreign policy.
Policy of Russia in this respect in a decade-long perspective was somewhat paradoxical. In the period between 1991 and 2000 Russia cut the ties to former friends, proxies and allies of the Soviet Union (Cuba, PDRK, Lybia, Iran, former Communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, etc.). That was done with the aim to prove to the West that Moscow really broke with former ideology and geopolitical claims, and that Russia is not a reborn Soviet Union. General political purpose was to bring Russia into the club of strongest and most influential states of the world (convert G7 into G8) and to assure recognition of Russia in a status of “normal”, not anymore “dangerous” or “imperial-minding” Eurasian power.
After the year 2000 though, when these goals were (mostly) reached, and Russia revitalized itself after the shock of split of the former country onto 15 parts, Moscow took a new tactics:
a) Re-establishment of Russia’s role as of not only regional, but truly global power, especially in the matters of international security and “grand strategy”;
b) Re-establishment of balance in broken and undermined relations with former allies and friends (starting with neighboring former Soviet republics, continuing with formerly friendly regimes elsewhere);
c) Conversion of its residual connections with former allies of the USSR into a political “capital” and utilizing it as a unique function of Russia for which it is useful to G8 and United Nations Security Council.
Could such a policy be waged together with continuation of “brotherhood-in-arms” between Russia and the USA, demonstrated in Afghanistan in 2001-2002, remains under a serious question mark. Already in case of campaign in Iraq in 2003-2004 the so called “anti-terrorist coalition” demonstrated a serious crack.
Changing Formulas of Great Powers Intervention into Regional Conflicts
As mentioned above, the most significant practical role in international military campaigns of today Russia played in 2001-2002 in course of operation against Talibes regime by providing serious military support (armaments, instructors) to Northern Alliance of Afghanistan and by cooperating with the US military (reconnaissance data, air-corridors, etc.) in the framework of anti-terrorist coalition. But it should be clearly understood that short “brotherhood-in-arms” between Russia and USA regarding overthrowing Talibes was rather tactical than strategic. It was not (or at least not only) caused and cemented by commonality of values and principles of international interference, but rather by coincidence of geostrategic pragmatic interests of two powers regarding rogue regime in Afghanistan. Russia and CIS states were seriously concerned about endless insurgence of armed groupings, arms and drugs from Afghanistan to Central Asia, and had own pragmatic reasons to support US actions. Such a unanimity was not repeated in actions against Iraq and would be even much more difficult to repeat in cases of potential forceful actions by the USA against Iran, Syria or Libya.
In contrast to Cold War times, when for both the USA and Soviet Union their interests and position in Third World conflicts were of strategic character, caused by projection into the region of their greater strategic conflict, now an alliance (in Afghanistan campaign) between the USA and Russia, or absence of such an alliance (in Iraqi campaign) were caused rather by tactical reasons.
With the end of Cold War many national states changed formulations in their national security and military doctrines. Instead of naming external threats and other states as major challenges to their survival and security they referred to internal and/or non-state threats and challenges. Reference to internal threats (instability, separatism, unauthorized armed groupings, etc.) is more characteristic to weaker new independent states (20 states born from remnants of former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia). Reference to non-state threats (still mostly external) is more characteristic for stable traditional societies, like Western and Northern European countries. The Middle East conflict in this sense remains a combination between traditional state-to-state contradictions (Syria-Israel, Egypt-Israel, etc) and clash of the state (Israel) with non-state actors (Arab movements in-the-move towards creation of full-functioned Palestinian state). Attention to non-state actors in the American threat perceptions raised dramatically after 9/11 events, when after the strike there was “no state to retaliate against”.
But whole dilemma of state vs. non-state threats is characteristic mostly for Euro-Atlantic “corner” of the world. Perception and definition of threats and challenges in the Middle East, in South Asia and other Third world areas is different. Many security and survival challenges are non-political at all (like seasonal shortages of water in many Asian and African countries). And some security actors there are on the margin between state and non-state (say, Palestinian political movements and forces, semi-recognized as a Palestinian state).
Some forces undertaking political and security actions (like some Islamic movements in Iran, Pakistan) are perceived in Europe in terms of state policy and state size, while in fact their internal “cement” and method of organization is similar to non-state actors.
In a sense, Talibes in Afghanistan were also a non-state, or not fully a state actor, as far as regime of Taliban was not internationally recognized and de facto didn’t control all territory of Afghanistan. Northern Alliance in Afghanistan which waged field operations against Talibes with Russian military assistance was also a non-state actor. So the whole operation in Afghanistan was an interaction between super-state actor (Western coalition) in alignment with one non-state actor (Northern Alliance) against another non-state actor (Taliban).
And source of conflict was in not exactly clear connection between yet other non-state actors (Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden) with regime of Talibes. This is very illustrative for modern type of conflicts, and complicates very much application of traditional international law (designed for state-to-state interaction) for such situations.
In both Afghanistan and Iraq actions of the USA and Western coalition were not directly caused by any aggression or clear cut act of the state authorities of either Kabul or Baghdad. Rather in both cases this was a “preemptive strike” led by the USA. The very notion of “preemptive strike” was in passed decades widely used and debated in nuclear doctrines and policy. But in that context preemption had much more clear-cut sense. Nuclear massive strike, or mechanical preparations for such a strike are clearly located in space and in time, and could be clearly attributed to somebody’s state policy and state decisions. If now preemption is “replanted” to general political strategy of use of conventional force against growing external threat, then international community deals with much more amorphous situation of “strike against growing tendency” rather then “strike against clear-cut dangerous actions”. And tendency is always hard to estimate, there is a lot of space for subjectivity and hidden side-interests of great powers.
If wars against Taliban in 2002 and Hussein in 2003 were preemptive actions aimed at regime change, then the issue raises: in which format proofs should be collected and produced to the international community regarding “guiltiness” of a certain political regime? In principle such proofs should be in time and in all clearness presented to the international community embodied by the UN and its Security Council, but still that would mean a decision “behind closed doors”, the decision subjected to various lobbying and attached side-interests of powers, especially of “big Five”.
A more democratic procedure would require governments, parliaments and, preferably, public of major (if not all) states to get acquainted with information which qualifies “death penalty” for certain political regime and for significant part of population with it.
Even in case of a war against Taliban that was not done. Revealing of limited information regarding (by that time not fully clear) connections between terrorist attacks in the USA and political regime in Afghanistan to heads of states of big powers (including the Russian President) was done by US authorities “under big secret”, behind closed doors. It was done without the intention to make information a subject to debates in parliaments and in the very last moment before already prepared and inevitable US military action. This cannot be considered the appropriate way of legitimization of “death penalty”.
Mechanism of decision regarding Iraq (through IAEA international inspections with further presentation of findings to the UN SC, which was not after all followed by the UN resolution) started as much more formally appropriate. But the lack of consensus on the stage of UN SC decision allows to qualify the overthrowing of Iraqi regime in absence of UN SC resolution as illegitimate action from the point of view of the international law. This point of view is shared by most fractions of Russian political elite.
At the same time there are voices in the Russian (as well as American and Western European) politico-academic community that a UN mandate to interfere into regional conflicts is in most cases very initial and very formal. The UN resolution fixes temporal (sometimes tactical) consensus of major powers at certain concrete moment of international crisis, while the very political situation and situation at war theatre changes constantly. And it is not occasional, that in the early XXIst century great powers, Russia as well as the United States, are not ready to rely only onto the UN mechanisms of settlement regarding Middle East and other Asian conflicts and undertake unilateral and multilateral maneuvers and steps. And if before Soviet Union and United States almost always maneuvered on the opposite sides, now the question arises, under which circumstances strategy or tactics may bring them into alliance or at least understanding regarding the paths of Middle East peaceful settlement.
1. Taking sides in Middle East conflict by the superpowers or great powers doesn’t have a character of “civilizations clash”. It is not pre-determined once and forever, but quite often has a character of tactical pragmatic geopolitical alliances.
2. Interconnection between Soviet socialist (or Communist) ideology, from one side, and ideologies of Arab countries and Arab non-state forces in the Middle East conflict, from the other side, was not deep, unbreakable or essential. USSR had many allies among developing countries and forces in Africa, Asia, Latin America, which mimicked into the form of ideological alliances (alliances by values, goals, civilizational orientations). In fact, most of them were very tactical political by-passing. This is why a break between new Russia and Arab movements in the mid-1990s (after the change of ideology and foreign policy of Moscow) occurred relatively easy and even inevitably.
3. But on a similar way there is no any strong and deep value-motivated anti-terrorist coalition between Russia and the West either. The goals of Russia and the West tactically coincided in Afghanistan (caused by fear of radical regime of Talibes), and the alliance was cemented by exchange of positions regarding Chechnya. So first after-9/11 campaign demonstrated unusual Russian-Western unanimity. But already before Iraq coalition gave a crack: Russia joined the “alternative opinion” of Germany and France against political line of the USA and UK. Currently one may observe erosion of anti-terrorist coalition. Residual manifestation of such a coalition could be seen only in low-intensity cooperation between homeland security ministries and forces of Russia and the USA, Russia and Israel. But on “grand strategy” level Russia seems seeking for a new policy and new role in global conflicts of Middle East type. Kremlin doesn’t want just to follow in the “tail” of Western policies. And doesn’t want to have a “clash of civilizations” with Islamic world.
4. Russian political elite has not yet elaborated any comprehensive policy towards Islamic world and Islamic political forces. Many Russian politicians underestimate the fact, that 10 years of Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979-1989) and another decade of Russian war in Chechnya (1992-2002) not less influenced perception of Russia in the Islamic world, than First and Second Gulf Wars influenced the attitudes of Islamic states and forces towards the USA. When looking from the “South”, approach of the USA, of Western European powers and of Russia towards Islamic world seem more or less similar, at least comparable, and chances of Russia to elaborate and manifest a “special alternative position” of mediator, to revitalize it’s residual influence in the Arab world, are minimal.
5. For Russia in the Middle East settlement (as well as in the region of former Yugoslavia) an Olympic slogan “Participation is even more important, than a Victory” is ironically vital. In other words, Russia has no any specific, clear, well thought-through, coordinated solution, neither for Middle East, nor for the former Yugoslavia. Unlike in the Soviet times, when Moscow’s stand was in fact alternative to the Western, now Russia does not propagate any really specific solution. But the main task for Russia currently is to participate in the settlement, not to be pushed out from the process of negotiations. This is because by participation in negotiations on such a “global” conflicts as Middle Eastern, Iraqi, Northern Korean, etc. Russia affirms its (not yet obvious) role of renewed and reborn global player, equal great power in the G8.
6. At the same time this “undecidedness”, “amorphousness” of stand of Russia in major global conflicts, split between support to the West and search for “specific alternative own stand and role” creates some window of opportunities. Arab countries, Islamic world really can give a new start to relations with Russia, change mutual attitudes. And this creates a field for active purposeful interaction with Russia.
7. Middle East conflict belongs to such conflicts where “win-loose” solution (victory of one side at the expense of the loosing other) is not a solution. What is needed here, is a “win-win” outcome, a series of compromises, and after reaching them – decades of endless and constant efforts aimed at preserving and advancement of such compromises, gradual overcoming of mass rooted psychology of conflict sides, change of generations.
And lessons of collapse of the Soviet Union and creation of new independent states from its parts prove that such solutions are possible. It would be wrong to consider that with the collapse of the Soviet Union the West “won” a Cold War, and Russians or “Soviets” lost in it. Yes, Soviet political elite lost power (but was not physically destroyed and found new, sometimes very prosperous places in a new social structure). And people, population after a decade of uneasy transformation also benefited or “won”: won a democracy, security from danger of global nuclear war, end of heavy arms race with the West, etc.
In the conflict of global political East and political West there were no losers: it has been overcome from inside. The same may be true regarding Middle East conflict. For “win-win” outcome great powers must not take fully “one side” or “alternative side”. They must work in direction of internal transformation of interests and stands of Israelis and Palestinians, all forces involved into the conflict. They should find and support forces and groupings oriented for compromise. And in search for such solutions reasonable politicians in Pakistan and in Russia could stand on the same ground.