01:25 GMT24 June 2021
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    Russia has maintained close ties with the Middle East and North Africa since Soviet times, when it helped the countries of the region rid themselves of Western colonial pressure, equip their armies and revive their economies. Speaking to Sputnik, analysts shed light on the USSR's regional strategy and how it affects Moscow's policies today.

    Russia's relationship with the Middle Eastern states began to develop actively during the Soviet era in the aftermath of the Second World War, which sealed the USSR's role as a global power, says Boris Dolgov, PhD researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Center for Arab and Islamic Studies.

    "The USSR's influence [in the Middle East] was considerable," Dolgov told Sputnik Arabic. "The crux of the matter is that the national liberation movements in the territory of the Middle East came as a result of the Soviet Union's policies in the region. Moscow actively supported these movements in such countries as Egypt, Syria, Yemen and many others."

    According to the academic, the countries' victory over colonialism was largely facilitated by the Soviet Union. Later, when many of them gained independence, they joined the socialist camp and declared that they were going to build Arab or Islamic socialism.

    "Actually, they became the Soviet state's allies, both at regional and global levels," he explained. "In particular, the Soviet Union issued loans [to Middle Eastern states] which later were repaid partly or sometimes Moscow funded their armament on a non-reimbursable basis. This was done to promote the ideas of socialism."

    According to some estimates, the volume of deliveries of Soviet weapons to Arab states between 1966 and the 1970s amounted to about $3.2 billion. The USSR reportedly provided $55 billion worth of weapons — of which about $24 billion went to Iraq, and $11 billion went to Syria during the early 1980s and the 1990s.

    It was also reported that these supplies met 100 percent of Syria and South Yemen's demand for arms and 50 percent of those in Iraq. According to more recent data, overall, the USSR provided $30.5 billion worth of arms to Baghdad.

    The USSR and Baath Party in Syria

    The Soviet Union had indirectly played a part in the Baath ("renaissance" or "resurrection") party's rise, Syrian political analyst Hassan al-Khuri told Sputnik.

    "At that time, socialist ideas were spreading in the region due to the victory of the USSR over fascism [in 1945] and the strengthening of Moscow's positions in the world arena. Thereafter Baath and the USSR bolstered their relations. Following Hafez Assad's rise to power [in 1971] and the ouster of his former party fellows [the USSR and Baath] continued to maintain relations."

    According to al-Khuri, Syrian communists, who initially opposed Assad, also aligned with the new Syrian leader due to Moscow's influence. He added that Hafez Assad boosted his power in the country by being supported by both the USSR and the West.

    Syrian president Hafez al-Assad salutes people after attending Eid Al-Adha, or feast of sacrifice, prayers 27 March 1999 in Damascus
    © AFP 2021 / SANA
    Syrian president Hafez al-Assad salutes people after attending Eid Al-Adha, or feast of sacrifice, prayers 27 March 1999 in Damascus

    "The USSR's assistance to Syria was considerable," the Syrian analyst underscored. "Damascus could not have resisted Israel without Moscow's support. Syria obtained the most advanced weapons for free [from the Soviet Union]. This assistance was 'unlimited' because at that time the US declared Israel its strategic ally."

    Al-Khuri presumed that in case Russia had taken a neutral position in the Syrian civil war, Damascus would maintain good relations with Moscow even if the opposition forces had prevailed.

    "Even if Russia did not support Assad, it would keep its positions [in Syria]," the analyst said, referring to longstanding ties between the two countries.

    Hussein Ibn Talal, King of Jordan (l) and Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (r) smile after signing a Jordan-Egyptian defense agreement June 1967 in Cairo
    © AFP 2021
    Hussein Ibn Talal, King of Jordan (l) and Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (r) smile after signing a Jordan-Egyptian defense agreement June 1967 in Cairo

    Moscow Has Never Turned Its Back on Cairo

    Taimur Dvidar, a Russian-based political analyst of Egyptian descent specializing in Mideast and Arab countries, emphasized the Soviet Union's role in Egypt's struggle for independence.

    "In the post-WW2 period Moscow regarded then-President of Egypt Gamal Abdel Nasser [1956-1970] as its partner," Dvidar recalled. "Moscow not only supplied arms to Cairo but also provided training to the Egyptian armed forces."

    The analyst underscored that additionally the Soviet Union lent support to the country's economy and implemented significant infrastructural projects, such as the Aswan Dam.

    When Muhammad Anwar el-Sadat, the third president of Egypt, came to power in October 1970, the two countries continued to maintain close ties. However, a year later el-Sadat turned to Washington, which resulted in the expulsion of thousands of Soviet specialists and their families from Egypt.

    "This was [Egypt's] 'gratitude' for friendship," Dvidar remarked. "It is clear that there is no friendship in politics, but there are interests. Egypt was especially important for the USSR due to the country's location in the 'heart of the world' and its control of the Suez Canal."

    He noted that after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the US used the tactics of shuttle diplomacy in its relations with Egypt and Israel, manipulating Tel Aviv. For its part, the Soviet Union did not turn its back on Cairo under the Sadat leadership and remained on Egypt's side.

    "In fact that was due to the Soviet Union that the Israelis fell behind Egypt," the analyst said. "However, Sadat continued to distance from the USSR. […] In Egypt, the gratitude to the USSR and the Russian people for their assistance and support is being passed on from generation to generation."

    He noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin is especially popular with the people of Egypt.

    "This is all because Putin returned Russia to its former glory, and this is the same thing the Egyptians sought when they elected [current president] al-Sisi. Russia gave al-Sisi an opportunity to choose friends and partners. Putin has something to offer [Egypt] and al-Sisi accepts it. Perhaps, Putin has become a sort of 'brand' in Egypt," Dvidar suggested.

    Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein shown in file picture dated 28 May 1990 in Baghdad, addresses the opening session of the Extraordinary Arab Summit called to adopt a unified Arab stance against Soviet Jewish immigration to Israel.
    © AFP 2021 / Mike Nelson
    Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein shown in file picture dated 28 May 1990 in Baghdad, addresses the opening session of the Extraordinary Arab Summit called to adopt a unified Arab stance against Soviet Jewish immigration to Israel.

    The Soviet Union and Saddam's Iraq

    Moscow has maintained cooperation with Iraq since the times when the monarchy was overthrown in the country. The Soviet Union continued to develop relations with Baghdad after the Baath Party took the reins of the country, Valerian Shuvaev, former Russian ambassador to Iraq and Libya, told Sputnik.

    He pointed out that the USSR helped explore Iraq's major oil fields and significantly contributed to the development of the country's economy and the construction of Iraqi infrastructure.

    "The Soviet Union counted on the Iraqi leadership, and not on Saddam Hussein. The priority was the course pursued by the Baathists. It coincided with the priorities of the Soviet leadership," Shuvaev explained, adding that one of Baath's political imperatives was "anti-imperialism."

    The Russian diplomat recalled that Moscow supported Iraq in its war against Iran in 1980-1988, among other things.

    "The truth of the matter was that Iran was not completely 'understandable' for the Soviet authorities at that time; at the same time, the loss of Iraq was fraught with aggravation of tensions in the Middle East," he elaborated.

    In those days, Moscow provided modern weapons to Iraq. Today, Soviet weapons remain in the arsenal of the Iraqi army. The Iraqi authorities continue maintaining military cooperation with Russia, being guided by pragmatism.

    Socialism on the Southern Coasts of Arabia

    The Soviet Union's cooperation with Yemen was determined by ideological considerations, Alexei Kalugin, the former Russian ambassador to Yemen, explained.

    The diplomat recalled that Soviet specialists had constructed a large number of critical facilities, including factories and hospitals, in the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen — another name for South Yemen at that time.

    "The [USSR's] economic assistance [to South Yemen] was quite considerable, let alone the military assistance," Kalugin pointed out. "Money that was transferred [to South Yemen] in the form of loans has never been actually returned. Then Russia wrote off these debts when the south and the north of the country united."

    US Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles conduct airstrikes in Syria and Iraq
    © REUTERS / U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Matthew Bruch/Handout
    The diplomat noted that there were also a large number of Soviet military advisers in the country. Then Yemen suggested that Russia maintained its military presence for money. At that time, Russia did not have such funds, so it withdrew its forces from the region, he said.

    For his part, Boris Dolgov emphasized that the countries of the region have good memories of the Soviet Union's assistance. He pointed out that today Russia's goals in the Middle East and North Africa are pragmatic.

    "Russia wants to establish mutually beneficial relations with the countries of the region. It's worth mentioning Russia's assistance to Syria. Today, Syria is the forefront of Russia's defense against radical Islamism. As for Russia-Egypt cooperation, it is guided by the same concerns. In some sense, this is the continuation of the policy aimed at protecting the interests of the country both in the Soviet era and the modern time," he concluded.

    The views of the contributors do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

    The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.


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    colonialism, independence, Yom Kippur War, Second World War, Cold War, WWII, Baath party, Hafez al-Assad, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, USSR, Syria, Iraq, Russia, Egypt, Yemen
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