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The USSR and the Arabs: A chance for Arab Unity thrown away

The notion of a unified Arab state has been one of the defining political questions of the 20th century. It first arose during the First World War when T. E. Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia)’ famous assisted The Arab Revolt against their Ottoman Turk overlords on the basis that Britain would aid the Arabs to create a unified Arab state upon victory.

This promise was broken before it had the opportunity to be kept, as the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 between France and Britain split the Arab lands into incongruous new states whose borders continue to cause problems to this day.

Shortly after the October Revolution, Russia’s new Bolshevik government became the first country to expose this secret deal to the world. This would not be the first time that the Soviets would expose Western betrayals in the Middle East.

After 1945, when young Arab states begun to assert their independence, the second great attempt at Arab unity came about in the form of Egyptian President Gamal Nasser programme of Arab nationalism.

Nasser had a cohesive, modern, secular and socialist model for reforming his native Egypt and for uniting the Arab world. Curiously Nasser was also responsible for the single biggest example of US/Soviet cooperation in the history of the Cold War as both superpowers instructed Britain, France and Israel to halt their invasion of Egypt in 1956.

This was in many ways an odd moment in Cold War history. Because of his diplomatic manoeuvring Nasser was able to bring the US and USSR together in a kind of bidding war for influence over Egypt. Nasser was no doubted aided by the fact that the US’s then Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, was perhaps the most anti-British figure in any modern American government.

Yet this brief moment of US/Soviet cooperation in the Middle East did not last, and soon it became clear that the Middle East would be divided between monarchies loyal to the capitalist powers and secular Presidential republics which tended to ally themselves to the USSR.

From the 1960s until the end of the Cold War the story of Pan-Arab unity on a broadly Nasserist model is the story of Soviet loyalty to the Arabs, in spite of no Arab government ever adopting a Marxist-Leninist constitution, and in spite of Syrian chauvinism several times thwarting attempts to create Arab unity. 

It is also the story of the Arabs sabotaging themselves through petty infighting. It is a tale of a lost opportunity to create secular stability in a region now swamped by religious civil wars, mass murder, eroding women’s rights, and terrorism.    

Nasser’s move was to create the United Arab Republic uniting Egypt with Syria. After Iraq became a left-leaning republic in 1958, Iraq might well have jointed too. Yet Nasser’s vision was quashed first by Iraqi worries of submitting to Egypt and, more importantly, by the arrogance of Syrian officials who in spite of multiple concessions by Nasser believed that the union was too Cairo-centric.

During the Brezhnev years Syria remained a highly important Arab ally for the USSR.  The other key Arab allies of the USSR during this period were the socialist regime in South Yemen, which came to power there after driving out the British, and Iraq, arguably a more important ally than South Yemen because of its much greater size and its abundant resources.   

By the 1970s both Syria and Iraq had governments that followed what was nominally the same ideology: Ba’athism. Both Syria and Iraq were supported by the USSR.  However in 1966 there was a rancorous split between the Iraqi and Syrian branches of the Ba’ath party, causing the two countries to remain disunited and become increasingly hostile to each other.

In spite of this a plan took shape in 1978 to form a union between Iraq and Syria, which was agreed between the then Iraqi leader Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr and Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. However, the emergence of Saddam Hussein as leader of Iraq thwarted this plan. 

Saddam Hussein was a megalomaniac to be sure, and his volatile relationship with the Iraqi Communist Party may well have been enough to frighten off Soviet support. Yet as was the case with Egypt under Nasser and with Syria under Assad the USSR was nonetheless willing to work with non-communist, secular Arab governments such as Saddam Hussein’s.

Saddam Hussein, like Nasser before him and Gaddafi simultaneously with him, sought Arab unity.  However he lacked Nasser’s diplomatic genius.  He first proposed to create a distinct Iraqi identity, something arguably necessary to overcome the sectarian divisions of his arbitrarily created state.  Saddam Hussein’s idea was that after a properly united Iraqi state had been created it would form the basis for a united Arab state. 

Nasser and Gaddafi ruled over states with fewer sectarian problems, making Saddam Hussein’s attempt to draw on ancient Mesopotamian history to unite Iraq a difficult task. Saddam Hussein – like most idealists – in the end proved a failed idealist. That said, Saddam Hussein’s idealism was based on an understanding of his people in contrast to post-Gulf War Western ideals for Iraq, which were based on a total misunderstanding of the population of Iraq.

Whilst Nasser began his political life courting both Soviet and America support, Saddam followed something of an inverse pattern. Throughout the Iran-Iraq war Saddam received steadfast Soviet support against Iran, a fact which complicated Soviet attempts at normalisation with Iran despite the USSR’s early recognition of the Islamic Republic. 

Yet Saddam also began to turn increasingly to the West, receiving support from the US, Britain and especially France. This of course led in the end to conflict and the eventual destruction of Iraq, the execution of Saddam Hussein, and a civil war out of which the ugly beast ISIS has emerged.

What are the lessons of this tragic story?

First of all, it demonstrates that the Western powers are unreliable allies for secular, independent Arab leaders. Whilst the Soviets never forced a Marxist-Leninist government on these leaders, the US and its allies have sought to impose their ideologies on them. Many Arab leaders who sought rapprochement with the West (Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi, Mubarak, Ben Ali) have fallen, and chaos has emerged whether in Iraq, Yemen and Libya. Without Russian assistance Bashar Al-Assad in Syria might have fallen too, spreading chaos there as well.

The other consequence is that the quest for secularism and Arab unity is succumbing throughout the Arab world to theocracy and Islamism. This has less to do with the creation of the Islamic Republic in Iran than it has to do with the absence of a strong Soviet state to assist secular Arab leaders in the 1990s.

The fall of the USSR allowed the West freedom to weaken secular Arab leaders, allowing violent Islamism to fill this gap. Ironically Iran’s power has increased as a result. The silver lining to that is that the Iran of today is a vastly more moderate country than it was in 1979, so that it has remained one of secular Syria’s few allies in the region.

That being said, even if Syria defeats her Islamist enemies, the Middle East has become far less stable since the collapse of the USSR. It is tempting to blame exclusively NATO interventions in the region for this.  However the sad truth is that Arabs themselves must share the blame. By refusing to unite when they could have easily done so – under the assistance and with the protection of Soviet power – they let petty chauvinistic squabbling and personal egotism get in the way of their regional prosperity.

Ultimately Arab leaders forgot that one rarely gets to choose the timing of the occasion to which one must rise. In betraying their Soviet friends and the opportunities they presented, secular/socialist Arab leaders betrayed themselves, betrayed the Arabs, and – given the importance of the Middle East for world peace – betrayed the world.

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