The Soviet-Arab disenchantment
The failure of the Soviet Union to evince support for the beleaguered PLO and Syrian forces during the early stages of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon reflects mutual Soviet-Arab disenchantment. Will the United States be able to take advantage of this?Skip to next paragraph
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Key Arab governments which enjoy close relationships with the Soviets, such as Syria and Iraq, have become increasingly irked by Soviet-imposed limits on arms shipments and by Soviet refusal to make binding military commitments. This has applied, for example, to Iraq in the context of the Iraqi-Iranian war and, most recently, to Syria in the framework of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which resulted in very substantial losses of Soviet military equipment.
For its part the Soviet Union has become increasingly fed up with these so-called Arab ''clients'' because of their independence of action -- including their persistent rejection of Soviet input into their decisionmaking -- and their continued cold-shouldering of indigenous communists. This applies to the main PLO leadership (al-Fatah) as well as to Syria and Iraq.
It was, of course, not always so. In the mid 1950s opportunities for the expansion of Soviet influence in the Middle East, following Gamal Abdel Nasser's dramatic turn to Russia, seemed to be limitless. These opportunities flowed from a number of factors.
The first was the initiation of a US policy of providing substantial political and military support to Israel, at the expense of US-Arab relations. And, conversely, the Soviet Union offered full support for the Arab cause vis-a-vis Israel.
The second factor was the Soviet undertaking to provide arms with no political strings attached in contrast with restrictions imposed by the US on the use of arms it sold to an Arab government.
The third factor was lingering, deep-seated Arab resentment over Western colonialism as it had impinged on the Middle East, which made the record of Soviet nonintervention in the area look well by comparison.
The fourth factor was the appeal in the 1950s and 1960s of leftist, pseudo-Marxist ideologies as the hoped-for panacea for the ills of Arab society and the coming to power in certain Arab countries of regimes that subscribed to these ideologies. So-called ''Arab socialism'' became the name of the game.
And, finally, though these regimes claimed to advocate freedom (as in the case of the Baath party) or democratic principles (as indicated in the name for the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen), in fact they were dictatorships which patterned themselves on the Soviet totalitarian model.
Thus, in the 1950s Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Algeria and, in the 1960s, Libya and the Yemens all cozied up to the Soviets. Within a year or so after becoming independent in 1961, Kuwait established relations with the USSR - opening the Persian Gulf to the Soviets for the first time.
By the 1970s and the 1980s, however, countervailing focus came into play and the prospects that had looked so rosy for the Soviets began to dim. Why?
First, because the Soviets failed to reckon with an irrepressible urge: the urge of each nation to remain independent. The Arab governments that had welcomed Soviet support and close cooperation fiercely resisted Soviet efforts to interfere. With perhaps one exception (South Yemen) they made clear that they weren't about to be manipulated by the Soviets.
Second, because the Soviet brand of socialism lost its appeal as heavy injections of it failed to remedy the ills of Arab society. In fact, Arab economics became worse off than they had been under the much maligned entrepreneurialism.
Third, because the Soviets sometimes acted heavy-handedly and occasionally bumbled. It is possible that the Soviets were fundamentally just incapable of capitalizing on their opening advantages. In any case, bitter Arab experience with the USSR over the years dispelled earlier illusions about them.