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Sorting through my old files, I have rediscovered notes I wrote up about several meetings I attended and conversations I had in years past.  I have decided to post here those that I believe might be of interest now.  Below are my notes from my conversation with Dr. Abd al-Karim al-Iryani, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen), at his office in Sana’a on January 16, 1989.  Some background information, though, is needed first. 

At the time of this meeting, there were still two Yemens:  South Yemen which was closely allied with the Soviet Union, and North Yemen which then had good relations with the United States and Saudi Arabia, but also with the Soviet Union.  These two governments had been at odds since the late 1960s.  They fought border wars in both 1972 and 1979.  The South had also supported an insurgency against the North by the Marxist-leaning National Democratic Front (NDF), but this largely came to an end with the NDF’s defeat in 1982.  In January 1986, a short, sharp civil war erupted in South Yemen between rival factions within the ruling Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP).  The war began with supporters of President Ali Nasir Muhammad killing the supporters of the previous president, Abd al-Fatah Isma’il who had recently returned from exile in Moscow (I have already written on Moscow’s role in this episode).  Isma’il himself would die during the fighting, but his supporters went on to win the war with Soviet help while Ali Nasir would flee to North Yemen.  He still had supporters, though, in the South, as the civil war was not just between rival leaders, but between the South’s rival tribes and regions.  

When I met with Dr. al-Iryani in January 1989, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan was almost complete, whether Moscow would remain involved in the Yemens was in doubt, and serious talks on unification between North and South Yemen were underway.  Relations between North and South, though, were wary—and they would continue to be so after unification occurred in May 1990.  Here is what Dr. al-Iryani had to say about Soviet policy toward the Yemens at that time: 

Dr. al-Iryani characterized the Soviets as being extremely unhappy with the confused factionalism within the Yemeni Socialist Party.  But the Soviets themselves had ambivalent views of the different factions. 

According to al-Iryani, the Soviets favored the Ali Nasirist faction’s policy positions:  a more market-oriented economy and improved relations with the West, including the U.S., as Gorbachev himself was pursuing.  Nevertheless, the Soviets distrusted this group as being less than completely loyal to the USSR. 

On the other hand, the Soviets had faith in the loyalty of the Abd al-Fatahists and the Al Dhala-dominated military [Al Dhala being a governorate in western South Yemen], but were displeased with their policy preferences: a rigid state-controlled economy, and no opening to the U.S.  These latter groups had also expressed their disapproval of Gorbachev’s perestroika and détente with the U.S. policies through the South Yemeni Chief of Staff’s 1988 visit to Havana and expressions of support for Cuba (whose leader, Fidel Castro, also disapproved of perestroika and détente). 

According to al-Iryani, the Soviets had urged the YSP leadership to expel all NDF members from the YSP Politburo and Central Committee [the first and second most important bodies in Marxist regimes].  The Soviets had reportedly argued that until the YSP took this step, relations between North and South Yemen would remain tense. 

In addition, al-Iryani noted that Karen Brutents of the International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union [the CPSU CC International Department handled relations with other Marxist parties] visited the South Yemeni capital, Aden, in August 1988.  Al-Iryani claimed that Brutents came away terribly displeased with the Fatahist position. 

Al-Iryani said that the Soviets had been far better off when Ali Nasir Muhammad was in power.  He also claimed that Vitaliy Naumkin, a well-known Soviet academic specialist on the Yemens, had met with some of Ali Nasir’s supporters in Cairo.  [Naumkin, who is now director of the Oriental Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, has played a highly important role in Moscow’s relations with the Middle East during the Putin era.] 

Finally, al-Iryani portrayed the Soviets as having limited ability to move the divided South Yemeni leadership in directions favored by Moscow.  The Soviets themselves, he observed, had obviously not found the policy solution to accomplish all their goals with regard to South Yemen:  maintain a leadership there loyal to Moscow, but also to promote stability and prosperity as well as prevent South Yemen from becoming a barrier to improved Soviet relations with neighboring Arab states—especially Saudi Arabia. 

Reading this now, what strikes me about al-Iryani’s account of Soviet efforts to balance not just between North and South Yemen but between opposing sides within South Yemen in the 1980s is that they were similar to Putin’s efforts to balance between their numerous opposing objectives within the Middle East now:  to firmly support the Assad regime one the one hand but get it to agree to reform efforts that might induce the West and the Gulf Arabs to fund Syria’s reconstruction, to promote Iran’s defiance toward the United States but also to build and maintain good relations with Iran’s pro-Western rivals Israel and Saudi Arabia, and to support Turkish antagonism toward America and Europe but oppose Turkish policy in Syria, Libya, and toward the Azeri-Armenian dispute.  Just as, in the words of Dr. al-Iryani, it was “difficult to move” opposing parties “in directions favored by Moscow” then, it remains difficult to do so now. 

 

 

 

Sorting through my old files now that I am spending so much time at home, I have rediscovered notes I wrote up about several meetings I attended and conversations I had in years past.  I have decided to post here those that I believe might be of interest now—starting with this one about my encounter with Yevgeny Primakov in Moscow in 1986.

I was in Moscow the week of April 20-27, 1986, with a group of American academics and policy analysts visiting the various “international institutes” of the Soviet Academy of Sciences.  The most memorable of these meetings occurred on the morning of Tuesday, April 22, when we went to the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (commonly referred to by the institute’s Russian initials, IMEMO) and had a meeting with its director, Yevgeny Primakov.  In the 1990s, Primakov would become foreign intelligence chief (1991-96), foreign minister (1996-98), and prime minister (1998-99) before Russian President Boris Yeltsin fired him (partly out of jealousy, it was widely reported, that Primakov had become more popular than he was).  After Vladimir Putin first became president at the turn of the century, Primakov became an adviser to him and served as his special representative on various occasions before his death in 2015.

While not yet as famous as he would become later, Primakov was already well known as one of the foremost Soviet specialists on the Middle East at the time we met him in 1986 (when Mikhail Gorbachev had been in power for just over a year).  The Soviets at this time were clearly having trouble in Afghanistan; Gorbachev himself had described it as a “bleeding wound” at the 27th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in February 1986—an extraordinary admission.  So we were eager to hear what Primakov had to say about Soviet aims in Afghanistan.

According to the notes that I took at the time, Primakov told us that the Soviet Union wanted to pull its troops out of Afghanistan and did not even want the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan to remain.  He said that the only obstacle to a settlement was the continuation of American and Pakistani aid to the rebels.  He also said that Iran had agreed in principle to stop aiding the Afghan rebels.  When pressed on exactly what kind of settlement he would accept in Afghanistan, Primakov was very vague.  He said that it was the Afghans’ internal affair, though it was clear that he would not accept a government dominated by the Islamic fundamentalists.  I had the impression that basically what the Soviets then wanted was for the world to accept a less Marxist but still pro-Soviet government in Kabul and to stop aiding the Afghan rebels.

In retrospect, it occurs to me that what Primakov wanted in Afghanistan then is similar to what the Trump Administration wants there now:  to withdraw its troops but for the government in Kabul Washington has been supporting to survive.

Afghanistan, though, was not the only crisis that Moscow was then confronting.  Just in January 1986, there had been a short civil war in South Yemen (the only Marxist regime in the Arab world) between rival factions of the ruling Yemeni Socialist Party.  In its brief life span as an independent country since 1967, South Yemen had experienced a coup toppling its first president in 1969, the overthrow and execution of its second president in 1978, the resignation and departure to Moscow “for health reasons” of its third president in 1980 who later returned to South Yemen (but not as president) in 1985, and then the civil war in January 1986 in which he was killed and the fourth president fled to North Yemen.  Later, just after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the fifth president would agree to merge South Yemen with North Yemen in 1990—a decision he would soon come to regret and unsuccessfully try to reverse in an all Yemen civil war in 1994.  All South Yemen’s presidents and other top leaders were either Marxist-oriented or outright Marxist.

Soviet relations with South Yemen was something that I was especially interested in, and so I posed a question to Primakov about this.  According to my notes, the conversation went as follows:  When I asked him to explain to me why the fighting occurred in South Yemen in January 1986, he said he wished someone would explain it to him.  I asked him if the Soviets contributed to the outbreak of violence by allowing ‘Abd al-Fatah Isma’il (the third president who had moved to the USSR in 1980) to return to Aden from Moscow in 1985.  Primakov’s response was to ask what could the Soviets do?  The Yemeni Socialist Party had elected him to the Central Committee Secretariat, and he wanted to go back, so Moscow could hardly prevent him from doing so.  When I mentioned to him that whenever the party and government leadership in South Yemen had been previously divided, this had always led to internal conflict and that this was the case again when Isma’il returned to South Yemen.  He responded that the USSR did not want to see another one-man dictatorship.  I had the impression that he had been willing to see a certain amount of instability in which different pro-Soviet factions vied with each other rather than have one strong man in power who could conceivably expel the Soviets (as Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Somalia’s Siad Barre had done in the 1970s).  But this had clearly backfired in South Yemen.

At the end of the formal meeting, Primakov and the other Soviet scholars (who had not said much during it) mingled with us in the large conference meeting room we had been meeting in.  Primakov and I had a brief conversation on the side of the room where there were shelves with all sorts of books, mementos, and other items on display.  I noticed an elaborate wooden box on a shelf above my head.  I couldn’t see the top of the box, but just the woodwork on the side that was visible prompted me to point to it and say, “That’s pretty.”

Primakov chuckled as he reached up and took it down to show me that the top was a lacquered photograph of Syrian President (and Soviet ally) Hafez al-Assad.  “Not so pretty,” Primakov remarked and then put the box back up on its shelf.

I remember wondering at the time whether his comment was more than just aesthetic criticism.  Now I wonder whether there is a Bashar al-Assad box beside the Hafez al-Assad one at IMEMO.

 

The recently published memoir by former National Security Advisor John Bolton (The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir, Simon & Schuster, 2020) provides an extraordinarily detailed account. In it, Bolton underscores that there have been three main features in Trump’s approach to foreign policy.  First and foremost is that while Donald Trump is both woefully ignorant about international relations and is largely uninterested in learning about the subject, he is unwilling to defer to expert advice on it.  Second is that Trump does not really value America’s traditional allies, and indeed he often sees the democratically elected ones in particular more as adversaries seeking to take advantage of the United States.  Third, while Trump is concerned about how America’s actual adversaries (including Russia) are acting to America’s detriment, he is firmly convinced that he can make mutually advantageous deals with them—and that they are all eager to do so with him.

Bolton deplores all three of these features in Trump’s foreign policy approach.  I certainly agree with him about the first two.  Presidents need to become deeply knowledgeable about foreign affairs since so much of the job requires dealing with this set of issues.  And while presidents should not accept uncritically everything told to them by the foreign policy and intelligence community, they need to recognize and respect the depth of its expertise and have a far more serious reason for rejecting its advice than that their “gut” tells them otherwise, as Trump has all too often done.  In addition, America’s interests are not well served by treating our allies as adversaries.  The world will be a far more difficult place for the U.S. to navigate if democratic governments lose confidence in it.

However, the desire to reach mutually beneficial agreements with America’s adversaries, and convert them into partners or even friends, is not a bad thing.  Further, this is something that previous presidents have done—including Republican ones—and so Trump’s desire to make deals with adversaries is hardly outside the norm of American diplomacy.  But whether or not he should have pursued deals with these particular adversaries (and Bolton is doubtful on this score about most of them), none of Trump’s efforts in this regard have proven to be successful.

Bolton’s account describes Trump’s efforts to “make deals” with six authoritarian adversaries:  Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Iran’s Islamic leadership, elements of the Maduro regime in Venezuela, and the Taliban in Afghanistan.  There was variation, though, in what each of these attempted deals sought to accomplish.  The deal Trump sought with North Korea was a straightforward trade about Pyongyang’s foregoing nuclear weapons in exchange for the U.S. removing economic sanctions.  In Iran’s case, a nuclear deal had already been reached with Tehran by the Obama Administration and five other governments, but Trump withdrew from it and sought a “better deal” over the nuclear issue as well as Iran’s regional behavior in exchange for economic sanctions relief.

The deals Trump sought in Venezuela and Afghanistan, by contrast, related to internal conflict resolution, but in opposite ways.  In Venezuela, Trump sought the negotiated departure of the anti-American president, Nicolas Maduro, through a deal with the leaders of Maduro’s security forces co-opting them to support a transfer of power to the democratic leader, Juan Guaido.  In Afghanistan, by contrast, Trump sought a deal with America’s longtime adversary, the Taliban, in which U.S. forces are reduced and ultimately withdrawn in exchange for this group behaving moderately afterward.

The deal Trump sought with China focused mainly on trade issues, while the one with Russia appeared more a classic great power bargain involving several politico-military issues, but not trade (since there isn’t much between the U.S. and Russia).

In each case, according to Bolton’s account, Trump convinced himself that the top adversary leader or leadership was “dying to do a deal” with him.  Trump even saw his getting tough with them through increased sanctions and other measures as increasing their desire to do so.  Trump also seemed to think that good personal relations with Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong-un in particular would help make this possible.  Much to the disgust of Bolton (a longstanding Iran hawk), Trump repeatedly sought meetings with Iranian leaders, and blamed their unwillingness to meet with him on what he saw as the malign influence of former Senator John Kerry, who had helped negotiate the 2015 Iranian nuclear accord when he was Obama’s Secretary of State.  With regard to Venezuela, Bolton relates how Trump not only had a negative view of the democratic opposition leader Guaido (and of his wife) whom U.S. policy sought to support, he sometimes expressed admiration for Maduro, the authoritarian leader whose departure his administration was seeking.  Bolton also relates with disgust how Trump sought a Camp David meeting between the Taliban and Afghan government leaders whom the Trump Administration had earlier excluded, per the Taliban’s request, from the U.S.-Taliban negotiations in Doha about an American drawdown and withdrawal.

Although he did not say so, what Bolton’s account suggests is that, despite Russian interference in support of Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections and Trump’s aversion to criticizing Putin publicly, Trump has not really treated Putin differently than he has America’s other authoritarian adversaries.  Indeed, during the Trump Administration, Washington has increased economic sanctions against Moscow, sent arms to Ukraine, withdrawn from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces agreement, and so far refused to extend the New Strategic Arms Treaty (which expires February 2021)—all of which has displeased Putin.  Yet Trump still seems to think that reaching a deal with him is what Putin wants and needs.

Indeed, this is the hallmark of Trump’s approach to authoritarian adversaries:  pile on sanctions and other negative measure, but offer to come to more moderate terms in face-to-face meetings.  Perhaps this is how Trump conducted his private business dealings before he became president, and so believes that this formula would also work for him as president.  And indeed, some authoritarian leaders (Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and most especially Kim Jong-un) have been willing to flatter Trump as well as meet with him.  In addition, some Taliban leaders and (as Bolton relates) some of Maduro’s top security officials have either met or communicated with Trump administration officials.  The Iranian leadership is the outlier in refusing to do so.  But with the partial exception of a partial trade truce with China (which seems shaky), none of these diplomatic forays by Trump have succeeded.

Why is this?  To begin with, personal chemistry (or Trump’s attempted pursuit of it) with authoritarian leaders may be useful in helping reach a deal, but it is not enough to induce leaders to change their long-held views of what their interests are.  Indeed, they may be bold enough to think that the more personal chemistry they build up with Trump, the more likely it is that they can change his mind about them and their countries.

In addition, while Trump himself prioritizes trade issues, America’s authoritarian adversaries often do not.  Trump, then, may think that piling on economic sanctions should be sufficient to induce rational actors to change their policy in order to get them removed, but authoritarian leaders often have other priorities.  Indeed, for some such as Vladimir Putin and the Ayatollahs in Tehran, the prospect of increased trade and other contacts with the U.S. may actually appear more threatening than beneficial since what they really fear is that the U.S. seeks their downfall through increased societal contact which might more easily lead to “color revolution.”

Further, America’s authoritarian adversaries may have good reason not to take Trump’s tough talk seriously after seeing how (as Bolton ruefully pointed out) when Trump was on the point of retaliating militarily against Iran for shooting down a U.S. drone, he suddenly—and with needless publicity—canceled his order to do so.  It is also difficult for them to take Trump’s tough talk seriously when he himself repeatedly raises the prospect of withdrawing U.S. troops from various allied countries in several parts of the world.  In other words, Trump’s talk of withdrawal only shows them that they may not have to make any concessions to Trump to get him to do what they want the U.S. to do anyway.

Finally, given how rudely and disdainfully Trump treats America’s longstanding allies compared to how (relatively) solicitous and accommodating he has been toward America’s adversaries, Trump may unwittingly be giving the latter strong incentive to remain adversaries.  For Trump has given them reason to wonder whether increased cooperation with him will result in his eventually treating his new friends like he does America’s old ones.

Bolton made clear in his memoir that he disagreed with most of Trump’s efforts to make deals with America’s adversaries.  But one does not have to agree with Bolton’s much harsher policy preferences to appreciate how his description of the erratic and idiosyncratic manner in which Trump pursued his hoped for deals with adversaries was self-sabotaging.

Diplomacy is hard enough to succeed at even for those leaders who have a thorough knowledge of international relations.  For those who do not have such knowledge and refuse to take advice from those who do, it is impossible.

News stories about Russian bounty payments to the Taliban to target U.S. and Coalition forces in Afghanistan continue, understandably, to excite interest and concern in America and the West.  The Kremlin, the Taliban, and President Trump have all attempted to cast doubt on the veracity of these reports, but none of them appears to be particularly credible sources.  Indeed, the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) has made it known with increasing specificity that the reports are accurate, and that President Trump received a written briefing on the matter in late February 2020.  Former National Security Advisor John Bolton, though, made clear in his recently published memoir, In the Room Where It Happened, that Trump often ignores both written and oral IC briefings.

Much of the reporting on this story has focused on examining the nefariousness of Russia’s actions and motives as well as the apparent lack of response to them from the Trump Administration.  More attention, though, needs to be paid to the Taliban’s actions and motives.  The Taliban, as is well known, have long been targeting U.S. and Coalition forces as well as Afghan government forces and Afghan civilians.  But there is something odd about this story, as I pointed out in my June 30 article published in Responsible Statecraft, in which I asked, “Why would Russian intelligence go to the trouble of making bounty payments to the Taliban for attacking U.S. and coalition forces when this is something that the Taliban has long shown itself willing and able to do at its own expense? In other words, why pay someone to do something that they are already doing anyway?”

Focusing on the Taliban’s motives is especially important because in the February 2020 agreement that its negotiators signed with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in Doha, the Taliban reportedly agreed not to target U.S. and Coalition forces in exchange for the U.S. agreeing to reduce its presence in Afghanistan to 8,000 men in mid-July 2020, and to potentially withdraw from Afghanistan altogether by May 2021.  Presumably, the Taliban would not want to risk Washington calling a halt to the withdrawal of U.S. forces—not to mention a forceful response against them—by targeting American and Coalition military personnel in Afghanistan after it agreed not to.

Now while the Russian bounty payments to the Taliban may have begun some years ago, it has not yet been revealed whether they continued after the signing of the Khalilzad-Taliban agreement in February.  If the Taliban accepted Russian bounty to target U.S. and Coalition forces after this agreement was made, this would signal that its intentions toward the U.S. are truly hostile and that Washington would be foolish to trust it.

But General Kenneth F. McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) indicated that he was “not convinced” by intelligence about whether Russian bounty payments to the Taliban actually resulted in American deaths.  “I found it very worrisome.  I just didn’t find that there was a causative link there,” he stated.  “I just didn’t see enough there to tell me that the circuit was closed in that regard.”

This raises an intriguing possibility.  However deplorable, it is perfectly understandable if Taliban accepted Russian bounty payments to target U.S./Coalition forces if they were going to attack them anyway.  General McKenzie’s statement, however, raises the possibility that the Taliban may have accepted Russian bounty payments to attack Western forces in Afghanistan, but either did not carry out such attacks successfully or did not make them at all.  In other words:  the Taliban may have lied to the Russians in order to get money from them.

What the truth actually is remains murky.  But while many in the West might think that the possibility of the Taliban cheating the Russians is too good to be true, there are those in Moscow who might worry that it is too true to be good—at least for Russia.

There has been tremendous press coverage about what former National Security Advisor John Bolton had to say about President Trump and other top administration officials in his recently published memoir, The Room Where It Happened.  Bolton’s book, though, also offers insights into the thinking of many others, including numerous foreign leaders.  Especially fascinating is Bolton’s account of his June 27, 2018 meeting in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin in which they discussed (among numerous other subjects) the Iranian role in Syria.

In response to Bolton’s statement of the Trump Administration’s desire to see Iranian forces withdraw from Syria, Putin asked Bolton, “Who would accomplish that?”  Putin then told Bolton to convey the following points to Trump (pp. 130-31):

–Moscow did not need Iranian forces to be in Syria, and there was no advantage to Moscow of them being there;

–Iran’s policy agenda with regard to Lebanon and the Shi’a were not the same as Moscow’s, and in fact, Iranian policy was causing problems both for Russia and the Assad regime;

–But while Russia wanted to see an Iranian withdrawal from Syria, Putin could not ensure that this would happen;

–And if Iranian forces did withdraw from Syria, there would be “large-scale aggression” against Assad regime forces;

–And Putin had no intention of substituting Russian forces for Iranian ones;

–Putin, though, did want a U.S.-Russian agreement on their respective military dispositions in Syria;

–Putin warned that up to 5,000 “locals” near where U.S. forces were at Al Tanf were actually ISIS fighters who would “ostensibly” follow U.S. direction, but then betray Washington when doing so suited them;

–These Syrian opposition forces were not reliable allies for the U.S., and could not be trusted;

–Instead, the U.S. should support the (Russian-led) peace process in Syria.

There are several observations that can be made from this set of statements which Putin made to Trump.

First of all, there appears to be a logical inconsistency in them.  Putin’s statement that Russia did not need Iranian forces to be in Syria and that there was no advantage to Moscow of them being there is directly contradicted by the later statements about how if Iranian forces withdrew, Assad regime forces would come under attack that Putin had no intention of substituting Russian forces for Iranian ones.  Iranian forces remaining in Syria, then, clearly do have some utility for Russia.  For Putin, the level of effort Iran is making to defend the Assad regime is not one that he wants Russia wants to undertake.

Second, whatever the merits of Iranian forces remaining in Syria, Putin seemed quite clear that Russia was not in a position to get them to withdraw.  And for Putin, there would be no benefit in attempting something that was bound to fail. Indeed, if Putin believed that Bolton understood this to be the case, then the Russian president may have suspected that Bolton was urging Russia to move against the Iranians in Syria not because he thought Moscow could succeed at this, but because the U.S. thought that the attempt would bring about a worsening of Russian-Iranian relations.  This might be in Washington’s interests, but not Moscow’s.

Third, if and when Assad’s opponents were ever completely defeated, then the differences between Russia and Iran in Syria might come to the fore.  Putin’s call for the U.S. to support the Russian-led Syrian peace process seemed to suggest that the best way for the U.S. to limit, if not remove, Iranian influence in Syria would be for Washington to cooperate with Moscow.

Bolton response to this last point of Putin’s was, “I said our priorities were to destroy ISIS and remove Iranian forces.”

This exchange revealed not just a difference in policy, but in how to analyze the situation.  Bolton’s statement suggested that he thought it was possible to remove both ISIS and Iranian forces from Syria.  Putin’s statements, by contrast, indicated that at present, the only way to weaken ISIS was for Iran to remain in Syria, whereas ISIS and other jihadists would only grow stronger in Syria if Iran withdrew.  In other words, Bolton’s preference—“destroy ISIS and remove Iranian forces”—were mutually incompatible goals if they were being pursued simultaneously.

Putin’s support for the Assad regime in Syria is appalling.  But his July 2018 comments to Bolton indicate that Putin may have a more accurate assessment of what Russia can and cannot accomplish in Syria than the Trump Administration has about what the U.S. can do there.

Like his Tsarist and Soviet predecessors, Putin has been highly successful in projecting Russian power and influence in the Middle East.  But the Tsars and the Soviets also suffered setbacks in the region.  Crises closer to home—the Napoleonic Wars, the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Second World War, and the collapse of the USSR—all led to Russian pullbacks from the Middle East.  In other words, crises in Europe or Russia itself have negatively affected Russia’s ability to pursue its grand strategy in the Middle East.  But as both the Crimean War of the 1850s and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan during the 1980s showed, Russia’s overreaching in parts of the Middle East can contribute to a decline in Russian influence throughout the region.

Up to now, Putin’s grand strategy toward the Middle East has avoided the reverses that Tsarist and Soviet grand strategies experienced.  But the Romanov dynasty lasted for just over three centuries while the Soviet Union lasted over seven decades.  Putin, by contrast, has been in power for only two decades.  Although Putin led Russia’s rebound after the collapse of the Soviet regime, the Putinist regime’s not yet having experienced in its brief lifespan the sort of dramatic setback negatively affecting Russia’s position in the Middle East that its longer-lived predecessors did does not mean that Putin or his successor will not do so.

In that Russia has experienced so many crises and debacles affecting its position in the Middle East in the past, it is useful to consider what sort of events might trigger similar setbacks in the future, even if what these might be and when they might occur cannot be foretold.  One is the possibility of a power struggle to replace Putin getting out of hand, especially if he exits the political stage suddenly without having designated a clear heir.  Another is the eruption of domestic opposition to Putin or his successor that is so massive that the security forces themselves are unwilling to suppress it (especially if the same oppositionist spirit has spread within their ranks).  Yet another is the possibility that the decline of Russia’s ethnic Russian population and the growth of its Muslim population will lead to increasing demands on the part of the latter either for independence or (more frightening for ethnic Russians) a greater role in governing Russia. Even if such movements do not succeed, Moscow will have to allocate more and more resources to suppressing them should they rise up.  And if the status of Muslims in Russia becomes a cause célèbre in the broader Muslim world, Moscow’s ability to separate its efforts to suppress Muslims domestically while having good relations with them abroad may diminish drastically (as occurred during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan).  Crises such as these, of course, might occur in combination and so make Russia’s ability to pursue a grand strategy in the Middle East all the more problematic.

Events in the Middle East itself could also undermine Putin’s grand strategy toward the region.  Compared to the Cold War when the Middle East contained some governments allied to Moscow and others allied to Washington, Putin’s having established good relations with all Middle Eastern governments appears to be a more successful approach.  The Middle East, though, is a region where sudden political change has occurred in the past and could well occur again.  The Soviets were usually able to take advantage of that change when a pro-Western regime was replaced by an anti-Western one (the Iranian Revolution of 1979 being the exception).  By contrast, in supporting the status quo everywhere in the Middle East, Putin risks the possibility that Russia will lose influence if it falls anywhere.  The same, of course, can be said for Western powers which also support the status quo in the Middle East, even if they sometimes (usually hesitantly) call for progress toward democracy and human rights while Putin does not.  But if the change that occurs is the rise of jihadist regimes which are anti-Russian as well as anti-Western, this may be of little comfort to Russia.

Finally, while many in Moscow believe that U.S. power and influence is declining and that its doing so is contributing to the rise of Russian influence in the Middle East and elsewhere, this may not necessarily be the case.  For the decline of the U.S. as a great power may actually serve to further the rise of China more than Russia.  And if China decides to assert its influence in the Middle East, status quo governments there may find Beijing—which is far stronger than Russia economically and which buys petroleum from the Middle East instead of competing to sell it like Russia does—to be a far more useful external partner than Moscow.  Further, if Russia’s own economic dependence on China continues to grow, Moscow may not be in a position to compete with China in the Middle East if Beijing decides to assert its influence there more vigorously.  Finally, if the U.S. with all its resources is having trouble maintaining its influence in the Middle East and even questioning how much it should even try to do so, it is not clear how Russia, with far fewer resources, will be able to acquire the role of most influential external great power in the Middle East much less maintain it.

 

This article was adapted from Mark N. Katz, “Incessant Interest: Tsarist, Soviet, and Putinist Mideast Strategies,” Middle East Policy, Spring 2020, https://mepc.org/journal/incessant-interest-tsarist-soviet-and-putinist-mideast-strategies

I attended the Valdai Club conference on Russia in the Middle East that took place in Moscow February 19-20, 2018.  During the opening session on the first day, representatives from the governments of Russia, Iran, and Syria all denounced American policy toward the conflict in Syria.  By contrast, they portrayed Russia and Iran as fighting together against terrorism while U.S. actions were seen as supporting it.

Yet while speakers from Russia, Iran and Syria had the same view of the U.S., there was an important difference among them with regard to Turkey.  Bouthaina Shaaban, an advisor to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, bitterly denounced Turkey’s recent intervention in Afrin in northwestern Syria.  She described Ankara’s actions as a violation of Syria’s sovereignty and accused Turkey of facilitating the infiltration of mercenaries across the Syrian-Turkish border.  She also accused Turkey of not implementing the Astana agreement between Russia, Iran, and Turkey on establishing de-escalation zones in Syria.

The view of Turkey’s role in Syria expressed by both Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, though, was quite different.  Both of them portrayed Turkey as a partner in Syria.  Lavrov pointed out that American support for Syrian Kurdish forces has alienated Turkey.  Ankara fears that the more powerful the Syrian Kurds grow, the more powerful that separatist Kurds in Turkey will also become.  For his part, Zarif described Turkey’s anxiety about American support for Syrian Kurdish forces as “understandable.”

Yet despite these more positive views expressed by the Russian and Iranian foreign ministers of Turkey’s policy toward Syria at the Valdai conference, Moscow and Tehran are widely reported to be apprehensive about Turkey’s intervention in Syria.  There have even been reports that Russian forces in Syria have helped transport Kurdish fighters opposing the Turkish incursion to the battlefield.

But if Moscow and Tehran actually share Damascus’s anxiety about Turkish policy toward Syria (even if not to the same degree), why would Lavrov and Zarif downplay their differences with Ankara about it at this conference?

One possibility is that whatever their discomfort with Turkey’s military action in Afrin, Moscow and Tehran may see the opportunity to promote a wider rift between Turkey and the U.S. as simply too tempting to forego.  Since U.S. support for the Syrian Kurds (whom Washington sees as allies against both ISIS and Iranian-backed forces in Syria) is promoting Turkish hostility toward Washington, neither Moscow and Tehran wants to discourage this dynamic by directly confronting Turkish policy in Syria.  And to achieve this “greater good,” Moscow and Tehran are quite willing to ignore Damascus’s denunciation of Turkey’s intervention.

Yet Moscow’s policy may have yet another layer of complexity, as the session on the Kurds on the second day of the conference made clear.  While not directly opposing Turkey’s intervention against them, Moscow appears to be competing with the U.S. for influence with the Syrian Kurds by arguing that they would be better protected from Turkey through allying with the Damascus regime.  This, they argue, would afford Syrian Kurds better protection than relying only on U.S. support, which they see Washington as unwilling to sustain in the long run.

But can Russia really hope to get closer to Ankara by exploiting Turkish-American differences over the Syrian Kurds while at the same time luring the Syrian Kurds away from Washington through offering them a “better” means for resisting Turkey?  These aims seem to be quite contradictory.  But as contradictory as these two aims may be, it is America’s Syria policy that may have encouraged Russian hopes of achieving them.  This is because the U.S. has supported the Syrian Kurds enough to alienate Turkey but not enough to protect them from it, thus giving Moscow the opportunity to simultaneously exploit both Turkish and Syrian Kurdish unhappiness with American policy.

During most of Canada’s centennial year, 1967, I was twelve years old, and was living in the town where I was born—Riverside, California, USA.  I had never been to Canada, and didn’t know much of anything about it.  But I was an avid coin collector.  I first learned about the 1967 centennial from a Royal Canadian Mint ad in a coin collecting magazine offering commemorative medallions for sale.

I sent away for, and soon received, a silver medallion (Americans could not import gold at that time, and I would not have been able to afford the Mint’s gold medallion anyway).  I later saw an ad, probably in the next issue of the same magazine, for the Province of Ontario’s centennial medallion, and I ordered that too.  Then I got the idea that maybe all the Canadian provinces were selling medallions, so I wrote letters to each one asking if it was doing so.  British Columbia replied positively, and I ordered its medallion (which, in addition to Canada’s 1967 centennial, was also celebrating BC’s 1966 centenary).

But I didn’t have much luck with most of the other Canadian provinces.  Either they didn’t write back (which was not surprising, since I simply sent my letters of inquiry to each respective provincial government with no more definite an address than its capital city), or they wrote back saying that, no, they had not produced a medallion.  Someone from the Prince Edward Island government replied saying that the province didn’t have a medallion for the 1967 centennial, but had produced one for the 1964 centennial of the first confederation conference that had been held in Charlottetown in 1864—and enclosed one in the envelope for free!

My letter to Alberta resulted in a reply advising me that the province had not produced a centennial commemorative medallion, but that many towns in Alberta had done so.  My correspondent even supplied a list of them, and suggested I write to the city government of any that I wanted to buy one from.  So I did.  And as a result, I ended up buying centennial medallions from each of seventeen different towns in Alberta.

By today’s standards, the process for buying each of these was long and involved.  I first had to send a letter of inquiry to each town government, then wait for the reply informing me of the charge (invariably C$1.00 for the medallion, and usually C$0.25 for postage and handling).  I then had to go to my local U.S. post office to purchase a money order, in Canadian funds, for the requisite amount (and for which the U.S. Post Office charged a small fee).  I then mailed off the money order with a note summarizing my order (which, of course, required postage).  And then the small packages from Alberta, with little green customs stickers, started to arrive.

Many of these medallions were also C$1 tokens that the town businesses agreed to accept up until a date specified on the coin.  In addition to celebrating Canada’s centennial, many of them also celebrated something related to their own town.  The one for Rocky Mountain House proclaimed the town to be “Alberta’s Oldest Settlement,” with its founding in 1713.  The one for Drumheller listed grain, beef, oil & gas, and coal as “Our Heritage.”  The one for Viking declared that it was a “Crossroads Town with a Future.”

Some town medallions listed more specific points of pride.  In addition to farming, ranching, sporting, and hunting, the one for Oyen noted its “Centennial Curling Rink.”  Under the image of a buffalo, Wainwright’s declared, “World’s Largest Buffalo.”  St. Paul’s boasted of having the “World’s First Flying Saucer Landing Pad.”  The one for Drayton Valley was inscribed, “In Commemoration of Voyageur Canoe Pageant” (and listed May 25 as the date for this), while the one for Alder Flats noted that the town was the “Centennial Voyageurs First Stop.”  The medallion for Grande Prairie proclaimed, “Grande Prairie Sea Cadets Salute Canada’s Centennial.”  That confused me, since Alberta is landlocked.

I made my first trip to Canada in January 1973 when I went to Quebec City on a January intersession college study tour.  I’ve been back to Canada on many occasions since then, including to Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, Kingston, and Victoria.  But I never have been to Alberta. Still, when I think of Canada, I remember my centennial medallions—especially the ones from all those towns in Alberta reflecting such pride in both country and community.

And the coin collector in me is curious as to whether they have produced commemorative medallions for Canada’s sesquicentennial this year.  Now, I could find out and order them within a matter of minutes via the internet.  But that wouldn’t be nearly as much fun as sending out all those letters and waiting for replies was half a century ago.

 

President-elect Donald Trump has indicated on several occasions that he sees Russia as an ally in Syria against Islamic extremists there.  Russian President Vladimir Putin, for his part, has indicated a desire to cooperate with Trump on Syria.  But will Trump and Putin actually be able to come to an agreement on what to do about Syria?

The answer to this question may not become clear until quite some time after the Trump Administration comes into office.  To test whether such a deal might be possible, though, I conducted a role playing game in my undergraduate course on Russia that I am teaching this semester in the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government.

Role playing games, of course, do not necessarily predict what will actually happen.  They can be useful, though, for suggesting an outcome for the scenario being examined that was not anticipated in advance, but does seem possible (though not inevitable)  in retrospect.  And this is what happened in the role playing game that my students played in class.

The time of the scenario was set for just after Trump’s inauguration.  The class was divided into several teams:  USA, Russia, the major NATO allies (UK, France, and Germany), the Assad regime in Syria, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.  (We clearly could have had many more teams, but the line had to be drawn somewhere to make the game manageable).  The game started simply with the American and Russian teams contemplating whether they could come to an agreement on Syria, and how the various other teams reacted to this possibility.

What quickly became apparent was that most of the other teams were apprehensive about how any deal reached by the American and Russian teams might negatively affect their interests.   These other teams also started to plan (often in cooperation with each other) how to prevent or thwart any such deal, even though—and perhaps because—they did not know what it might consist of.

While it was not clear at first whether the American and Russian teams could reach a deal on Syria, by the end of the game they did.  The main element of the Russian-American deal they came up with was essentially a trade:  in exchange for the American team acquiescing to the Assad regime remaining in power “temporarily” (i.e., indefinitely), the Russian team agreed to limit and reduce Iran’s role in Syria.  The agreement also involved intelligence sharing between the US and Russia, America taking over from Russia the targeting of the jihadist opposition (in order to alleviate the NATO team’s concerns about human rights), and Russia and America both agreeing to reduce support for the Syrian Kurds (in order to mollify the Turkish team).  The Saudi and Israeli teams were satisfied since they were more concerned about Iran’s continued presence in Syria than about whether Assad remained in power.  The Assad regime was also happy, since it now had not only Russian, but also American support, as well as general regional acceptance, for its remaining in power.

In contrast with all the others, though, the Iranian team was not at all happy with this agreement.  In the class discussion about how realistic the game had been after it was over, members of the Iranian team argued strongly that Iran would not leave Syria just because America and Russia agreed that they wanted it to, and that Iran would strongly any effort to force it out.

What the outcome of the game revealed to me was that the Trump Administration, Israel, and Saudi Arabia might well regard Russia as a partner both in Syria and the Middle East if Moscow could not only work with them in defeating the Sunni jihadist opposition in Syria, but also limit and reduce Iranian influence.  Similarly, Turkey would regard Moscow as a partner if it acted to limit Kurdish influence in Syria as well.  Iranian press commentators have often complained that Moscow is always willing to sell out Tehran’s interests in exchange for a mutually satisfactory deal with Washington, and so the outcome of this game would not have surprised them.

Putin might well prefer that the Assad regime become mainly dependent on Moscow and not be in a position to get help from Tehran in resisting policy advice it doesn’t like from Russia.  But would Putin be willing and able to limit or even reduce Iranian influence in Syria?  This is not clear since he values good relations with Tehran, but Putin might be willing to do this if he calculated that Iran could not afford to retaliate against Moscow when the Trump Administration is far more likely to be hostile toward the Islamic Republic than the Obama Administration ever was.  But even if Putin did think this way, the reality is that Iran has a much larger military presence in Syria than Russia does, and so Moscow is in no position to force it to leave.  Nor is the Assad regime likely to ask Iran to leave since this would mean sacrificing the possibility of playing two patrons off against each other, resulting in Damascus becoming far more dependent just on Moscow.

What the outcome of my class’s role playing game suggests to me is that even if Putin and Trump are genuinely interested in reaching an agreement on Syria, Iran will probably be in a position to block it.  Like it or not, the U.S. and Russia are going to have to negotiate with Iran if the Syrian civil war is ever going to be resolved.  But just as with the American team in my classroom, this is not something that the incoming Trump Administration appears willing even to acknowledge, much less undertake.

Iran’s Mehr News Agency published an interview with me today. The interview was conducted by e-mail in English, but the article appeared in Farsi. I am posting here the English-language e-mail interview:

Mehr:  After the coup, President Erdogan announced Turkey would change its foreign policy.  Do you believe that Turkey’s foreign policy will change?

Katz:  President Erdogan seemed to be in the process of changing Turkish foreign policy before the coup attempt anyway, but he has accelerated this change since then.  The main outlines of this policy seem to be a move away from America and Europe and toward Russia and, to a certain extent, Iran.  Although Erdogan is still calling for the departure of Bashar Assad from Damascus, he is clearly de-emphasizing this goal and prioritizing the weakening of the Syrian Kurds instead.  Still, a Turkish “move toward Russia” does not mean an alliance with Russia—with which Turkey has long had many differences, including over the Armenia-Azerbaijan dispute.  These differences will not disappear.

Mehr:  Ben Ali Yildirim , the Turkish Prime Minister  said, Russia can if necessary, have the use of Incirlik base. Will these statements damage Turkey’s relations with NATO?

Katz:  Such statements will indeed damage Turkey’s relations with NATO.  I think that it would be very difficult for NATO and Russian forces to share the same air base.  This statement may be more intended to motivate America and Europe to adopt policies that please Ankara rather than to signal an actual invitation to Russia. Even if there is a wider breakdown in Turkey’s relations with the West and U.S. forces end up leaving Incirlik, it is not clear that Turkey would really want forces from Russia to replace them.

Mehr:  Now that relations between Tehran and Turkey have improved after the military coup [attempt], can it be helpful in solving the Syrian crisis?

Katz:  Turkish-Iranian relations have generally been good, except with regard to Syria.  To the extent that Erdogan is no longer actively seeking the departure of Assad from Syria, the prospects for Iranian-Turkish cooperation will increase.  They appear to have common interests with regard to the Kurds also.  And to the extent that Erdogan now realizes that Sunni jihadists such as ISIS are actually a threat to Turkey, this may provide an additional common interest for Turkey to cooperate with Iran as well as Russia on.  Yet even if Turkish policy on Syria is moving closer to Iran’s and Russia’s, it is not clear that this will help resolve the Syrian crisis.  There are, after all, real differences between the Assad regime and its domestic opponents.  Further, these opponents seem quite likely to continue fighting—especially since there are other countries that continue to support them.

Mehr:  Fethullah Gülen’s extradition—would the US now give him over to Turkey?  And if not, what will be the consequences for relations between Turkey and the US?

Katz:  It is highly unlikely that the U.S. will ever extradite Fethullah Gulen to Turkey.  Ankara does not seem to have the sort of hard evidence needed to convince the American courts that Gulen was behind the coup attempt.  I, for one, do not think he was, and that Ankara is merely using the coup attempt (which appears to have been based within the Turkish security services) to label all Erdogan’s opponents (real and imagined) as “Gulenists” in order to get rid of them.

And this could have serious consequences for U.S.-Turkish relations.  Erdogan has made clear that he really wants Gulen extradited.  The U.S. will not accede to this.  Erdogan may then decide to take drastic action, such as withdraw Turkey from NATO.  Perhaps Erdogan wants to do this anyway, and is merely using the Gulen case as a pretext for arousing popular indignation within Turkey against the U.S. (where there is widespread belief that America and Europe actually supported the coup attempt). 

The U.S. does not want to see Turkey leave NATO, but would be unable to stop it.  Russia, of course, would be quite happy to see any country withdraw from NATO.  Still, a Turkey led by Erdogan that is outside of NATO may not pursue a quiet foreign policy, but attempt to assert itself as a regional great power instead.  Turkey’s neighbors (including Iran) may find Ankara much more difficult to deal with if its policies are not constrained by being a member of NATO.