Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

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  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

What Moscow Wants in Syria

There is a general consensus among Russian watchers that in many ways the Putin regime is a watered-down version of the Soviet regime. Here is Nikita Khrushchev's gread-granddaughter making just such a comparison about the show trials in Putin's Russia and those in the Soviet era of her ancestor. It allows for elections, but the electronic media that ordinary people use to evaluate the candidates and parties remain firmly in the hands of the ruling party. The regime is basically staffed by the siluviki --those from an intelligence services or Soviet Communist Party background during the Soviet era. But what about Russian foreign policy?

During the Soviet period the Soviet Union was one large ideological empire with three different levels. First, was the core--the old Russian Empire minus Finland and Poland and the Baltic States rechristened the Soviet Union in 1922. In 1939-40 with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 1939 the Soviet Union reabsorbed the Baltic States (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) and part of eastern Finland and eastern Poland. Second, in 1944-45 as a result of the victory over Nazi Germany the Soviet Union reabsorbed the Baltic States (lost in 1941) and took over what eventually became the Warsaw Pact: Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania. The third level consisted of all of those overseas ideological allies that were deemed to be Communist or merely socialist or even just anti-Western.

As a result of the end of the Cold War, which the Soviet Union decisively lost, the Russians lost all of the second level in eastern Europe and much of the first level in the old Russian Empire such as Central Asia (the stans), Ukraine, and part of the Caucuses such as Georgia. During the 1990s the allied regimes in the Third World either were replaced by pro-American regimes or they made their peace with Washington. There were a few notable exceptions: Castro's Cuba, Hugo Chavez's government in Venezuela, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and Iran. 

Russian foreign policy under Putin has largely consisted of trying to claw back control of neighboring countries in the "Near Abroad"--the countries of the old Soviet Union that gained freedom in 1990-92, and to ally Russia with any anti-Western regimes abroad.  Here is an article by Julia Ioffe of The New Republic that discusses this tendency as it plays out in regard to Syria. Here is another by Brenda Shaffer of Haifa University on Moscow's concrete interests in Syria, which it views as part of the Mediterranean rather than as part of the Middle East. She ties it to the centuries old problem of finding warm-weather ports for the Russian fleet that would not freeze up in winter. In the 1960s when the Soviets began investing heavily in Egypt and Syria it was largely in order to have ports for its navy so that it could keep track of American SSBNs with their ballistic missiles. Thus, Alexandria and Tartus were part of the global nuclear balance and this was especially crucial in the 1960s when American SLBMs had limited range. As the Polaris was gradually replaced by the Poseiden and then the Trident missile these ports became less crucial. And so I am inclined to believe that Ioffe's explanation is more pertinent than Shaffer's.

Henry Kissinger's genius lay partly in knowing how to get around Soviet obstructionism by playing to Soviet vanity and its desire for legitimizing approval by its Western counterpart in Washington. Kissinger built detente with the Soviets around arms control while winning in the competition for influence in the Middle East by co-sponsoring the Geneva Conference as an empty forum while the real action took place in shuttle diplomacy between Israel and its neighbors by Kissinger. He later attempted to duplicate this feat in Southern Africa in 1976. It didn't work out then but was the start of a peace process that did pay dividends in early 1980 in Zimbabwe and in 1989 in Namibia. Moscow is now itching for a Syrian peace conference. Washington does not need one as it has no vital interests in Syria unlike Moscow, which has the port of Tartus and the Assad regime. If Moscow wants a peace conference make it pay dearly for one. Otherwise we should ignore it. The Syrian civil war between Sunni Islamists and Shi'ite Hezbollah and Alawite Ba'athists is like the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s all over again. Too bad both sides cannot lose. But we should continue to allow both sides to bleed.

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