Former Soviet Arab Allies Scramble for New Role

SYRIAN President Hafez al-Assad's recent waltz across the oil-rich Gulf states - seeking political and financial support - is an important sign of the deteriorating position of the former Soviet Union's chief ally in the Middle East.

Gone are the days when Mr. Assad defiantly and proudly received rows of international and Arab officials seeking to appease the once major power broker in the Arab world.

The rapid disintegration of the Soviet Union has left Arab allies such as Yemen, Algeria, and Libya scrambling for political and economic stability as they try to redefine their position in a region now dominated by a single superpower.

The Palestine Liberation Organization also finds itself isolated in the face of the United States, Israel, and a host of Arab rivals that have overtly and covertly sought to undermine it since its inception in 1965.

"It was a shattering blow," says PLO Executive Committee member Abdul Rahim Malouh of the Soviet collapse. "The PLO was stripped of its major international ally, while at the same time Israel's ally, the US, has emerged stronger than ever."

But the superpower's demise has not compelled Assad, the PLO, or Moscow's other allies in the Arab world to yield to Washington, despite the loss of crucial economic, military, and political support.

"They are trying to accommodate the United States, but they have not totally given in to Washington," says Muhammad Rabii, the Washington-based Palestinian author of the "New World Order: A perspective on the post-cold-war era."

For instance, despite Syria's participation in the US-led coalition against Iraq last year and its engagement in US-sponsored Middle East peace talks, Damascus still resists taking part in regional talks to tackle normalization of relations with Israel.

Moreover, Assad recently made strong statements against US calls for a "new world order," arguing that Syria's involvement in the coalition against Iraq did not aim to consolidate American interests but to uphold international law.

In the view of European and Arab analysts, Assad's statements reflect disappointment that his cooperation with Washington during the Gulf war has not brought US recognition of Syria's role as a major regional power in the post-cold-war era.

This apparent failure to secure a strong role, as well as Syria's fear that it could be next in line for punitive international sanctions over its alleged involvement in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am airliner over Scotland, have reinforced suspicions that Washington is seeking to cut Moscow's former allies in the region down to size.

"If Syria has failed to carve out a place for itself in the new world order, the rest of us do not stand a chance," says a senior Arab diplomat from a country that had close ties with Moscow.

Unlike Syria, Moscow's other less powerful Arab allies pinned their hopes on Iraq to fill the vacuum left by the Soviets. But Baghdad's military defeat has forced them to begin yielding to US interests to survive.

The PLO, for example, practically accepted peace talks with Israel that sidelined the organization; while Yemen struggled to avoid friction with its US-backed Saudi neighbor.

More significantly, however, the former Soviet allies could no longer form an Arab bloc to counter pro-American policies in the region, as was the case at most Arab summits in the past. Instead, these "former rejectionists" went along with US terms for the peace talks with Israel and did not challenge the imposition of sanctions against Iraq or Libya.

Despite this weakening of Moscow's former friends, the collapse of the Soviet Union does not necessarily signal their own demise.

For a start, none of the Soviet Arab allies, with the exception of Marxist South Yemen, endorsed the communist ideology or pursued a strict socialist economy.

"There was no ideological or economic alliance," says Ziyadh Abu Amer of Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. "The Arab governments maintained a dual economy allowing the private sector to survive."

In the case of Syria, financial aid from the Gulf states was always a source of income. In fact, Damascus used Moscow's political support as a bargaining chip to secure a constant flow of cash from the conservative oil-rich states who wanted to restrain Syrian radicalism. These links were reinforced by Syria's support of the US-backed coalition in the Gulf War.

Furthermore, Moscow cultivated the friendship of pan-Arab nationalist governments, which ideologically opposed Marxism, but looked to the Soviet Union to counter Israel and undercut US interests in the region.

The only former Soviet ally that has not survived, the Marxist regime in South Yemen, was reunited with the pan-Arab nationalist and more economically liberal north in 1991, after the failure of the Marxist experiment in the south and bloody tribal strife.

Thus the Soviet Union's Arab allies were not clients, in the full sense of the word, since none of them totally depended ideologically or economically on the Eastern bloc.

ACCORDING to Arab and European experts, Moscow gave up its expectations of creating a solid Arab bloc of allies to undercut US interests in the region when Egypt, then the Soviets' chief ally, expelled Soviet experts in 1976 and moved to sign a peace treaty with Israel three years later, excluding any role for Moscow. Following the loss of Egypt, Moscow was more cautious with its Arab friends, always suspecting that they could drift into the Washington camp at any time.

"You are trying to climb our backs to reach out for Washington," Soviet officials repeatedly told their Middle Eastern allies, Arab officials say, signaling Moscow's reservations about being used to improve Arab governments' leverage with the US.

On the Arab side, Moscow was criticized for failing to provide its allies with adequate political and military support to counter Washington's strategic alliance with Israel - to which Soviet officials would respond, "you cannot expect us to fight Israel on your behalf."

While Arab friends may have been disappointed with the Soviet Union, Moscow's recent withdrawal from the region has left them exposed. For years Syria, Algeria, Yemen, and Libya provided sanctuary and support for revolutionary and radical Arab and international groups.

The international sanctions against Libya are viewed by Western and Arab analysts as a strong message that the US will not tolerate any former Soviet allies continuing to support such groups.

Palestinians believe that they will be the main target of such policies as Arab governments, fearful of US and international reaction, stop short of supporting military training or even providing asylum to PLO fighters. It will also undercut the groups opposing pro-Western Arab governments who sought refuge in "the radical Arab states."

Moscow's former friends' struggle to survive in the post-Soviet era, however, is not confined to accommodating the West. Arab nationalist governments that adopted the Soviet one-party system are under tremendous pressure to democratize. Algeria's experiment with democracy was abruptly halted by the military after the Islamic fundamentalist swept the polls; Syria has instituted some, albeit cosmetic, reforms; and Yemen is headed for multiparty elections.

But until pro-Western regimes are put under serious pressure, the demise of the Soviet Union will not be enough to promote democratization in the Arab world.

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