In a quiet office overlooking the Potomac River we can imagine that an old man lifts a glass to his lips and toasts himself.
As he no doubt grimly watches the carnage in Syria on Al Jazeera, Henry Kissinger is witnessing the culmination of the strategy he put in place 40 years ago to end Soviet and then Russian influence in the Middle East. Starting with his shuttle diplomacy in 1973 at the end of the Yom Kippur War, the Soviets have gradually lost every foothold they had in this geopolitically critical region. Now the Russians are about to be expelled from Syria with the imminent fall of Bashar al Assad.
Although the Soviet military had in large part left Egypt in 1972, possibly to mislead Israel regarding Sadat’s intention to start a war in 1973, a substantial number of Soviet advisors remained until the Yom Kippur War. As part of the peace agreement with Israel engineered by Kissinger, the US agreed to provide Egypt with billions in aid and military equipment. While Egypt viewed US aid as a win gained by its partial success in the war, Kissinger saw it as leverage to successfully wean Anwar Sadat and the Egyptian military from remaining Soviet influence through the supply of superior Western weaponry and military training to replace the outdated Soviet equipment the Egyptians lost in the war. Responding to the combination of peace agreement and aid, Sadat is reported to have said: “Soviets can give you arms but only the United States can give you a solution.”
Egypt has been a key state in the Middle East since at least the end of WW II. Under Nasser, who came to power in a coup in 1952, Egypt steered away from “colonial influence”. After a variety of Western misadventures such as the 1956 Suez Campaign led by Britain and France, Egypt came ever deeper within the Soviet ambit in a “non-aligned” strategy intended to play off the USA and the USSR against each other to Egypt’s benefit.
Nasser’s apparent success led to uprisings against colonial powers in other Arab countries. Egypt became a political and ideological leader for Arab countries and Nasser’s pro-Soviet bias was viewed with concern by the USA. As his influence grew, Nasser attempted to create a vast Pan-Arab federation with the abortive United Arab Republic (UAR), combining Egypt and Syria into the UAR for the brief period between 1958 and 1961.
But even though the UAR proved short-lived, it was clear that the Arab world swung between Cairo and Damascus when it came to political leadership, and in both countries the Communist party made strong inroads until crushed by Nasser in Egypt and the Ba’ath in Syria (which led to a split among the Ba’athists and the rise of the Ba’ath in Iraq). Nevertheless, in Cairo and Damascus Soviet influence greatly exceeded that of the USA, and aid and weapons flowed from the USSR in unprecedented quantities to both countries. Leveraging Egypt away from Soviet influence would be an enormous setback to Soviet aspirations in the Middle East.
Looking around the region in the early ‘70s, Kissinger would have noted that another significant area of Soviet influence was Iraq. The Soviets had established close relations with Iraq after the murder of Faisal II, essentially a British puppet ruler, in 1958. The Iraqis saw the Soviets as an effective counter to their former colonial rulers. Increasing ties with the USSR demonstrated that they were shedding their colonial past and dependence on their former rulers. In a similar manner, Gaddafi’s Libya welcomed the Soviets who were expelled from Egypt in 1972. Soviet influence extended from Baghdad to Tripoli. Western countries stopped arms sales to Libya, which only increased Soviet influence following a large arms deal in 1975. This influence continued to a greater or lesser degree until Gaddafi was finally toppled last year.
From the point of view of an American strategist desiring more influence in the Middle East, the geopolitical situation was made worse after the decisive defeat of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War. With the USA clearly supporting Israel, the Soviets were able to expand their influence even further by replenishing the destroyed weapons of Egypt and Syria. The British continued to supply Jordan, the third major opponent of Israel in the war and the remnant of Churchill’s Palestinian strategy, but the Iraqis, too, swung deeper into the Soviet camp. The USA was able to retain influence only through the Saudis and the Gulf petro-states (and for a time in Iran until the Shah was toppled in 1979).
Things began to swing in the USA’s favor when Kissinger and Nixon managed to move beyond containment of the USSR in the West through NATO to encirclement in the East via the opening to China. Kissinger made a secret trip to Beijing in July 1971 while pretending to be ill during a visit to Pakistan. This could be viewed as the first real step to reducing the influence of the Soviet Union by providing China with a second super-power with which to do business, economically and politically.
Still, the Soviets continued pressing in the Middle East. Their ultimately disastrous invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 to support a Marxist government against the mujahedeen indicated that they, in turn, were establishing an Islamic bulwark from Syria, through Iraq, and into Afghanistan against the USA that could also exert pressure on the Saudis and Gulf states. The role of the USA in equipping and supporting the Afghan fighters in order to oppose the Soviets is well known, and may have contributed to the ultimate failure of the invasion. The last Soviet troops were pulled out of Afghanistan by Gorbachev on February 15, 1989. The withdrawal of the Soviet Union had begun. The first step to the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989 and the retreat from Eastern Europe, long a goal of US policy, had been taken. The Middle East beckoned.
Kissinger was always at hand as various additional dominoes began falling in his favor. His shuttle diplomacy in 1973 in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War wrested Egypt from Soviet influence, for example. Still, not everything went his way or could be planned for – Syria and Iraq remained in the Soviet and then Russian sphere. Libya was a setback, and he could not have anticipated the role of Afghanistan in curbing Soviet and Russian ambitions. Nevertheless, the enormous influence of Egypt in the Arab world was sufficient to reduce the Soviet role in the area significantly and expand the arc of US influence from the Saudis to the border with Libya. The French kept Libya’s western border controlled through their influence in Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco.
If his goal was to push the Soviets back into Russia, Kissinger was able to influence US policy in the Middle East even after he left office as unexpected opportunities presented themselves.
Iraq, despite all its complexities, had the advantage, from Kissinger’s point of view, of offering a new opportunity to push the post-Soviet Russians further out of the Middle East. The development of a strong group of senior advisors in Washington who envisaged the fall of Iraq post 9/11 as leading to a more democratic Middle East – that is, a more Western-leaning Middle East – added leverage to Kissinger’s attempts to complete the Middle East puzzle. Out of office, but wielding considerable influence as an advisor, Kissinger met regularly with G.W. Bush and Dick Cheney, as Bob Woodward later reported . It is not difficult to imagine that neocons leading the charge on Iraq such as Richard Perle, Doug Stief, and Rumsfeld were influenced by this grandmaster of the global game in developing their ideas about the centrality of Iraq in the Middle East.
Kissinger continues to argue for the centrality of Iraq. As the debate over withdrawal raged in Washington, Kissinger argued for maintaining US influence in Iraq, highlighting its geopolitical importance in an article in the Washington Post on February 3, 2010 :
“Yet while Iraq is being exorcised from our debate, its reality is bound to obtrude on our consciousness. The U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq will not alter the geostrategic importance of the country even as it alters that context.
Mesopotamia has been the strategic focal point of the region for millennia. Its resources affect countries far away. The dividing line between the Shiite and the Sunni worlds runs through its center — indeed, through its capital. Iraq’s Kurdish provinces rest uneasily between Turkey and Iran and indigenous adversaries within Iraq. It cannot be in the American interest to leave the region as a vacuum.”
Moreover, Kissinger identified radical Islam as a new and dangerous player that must be dealt with, and raised the question to what degree US success in Iraq will affect the war against radical Islam:
“Nor is it possible to separate Iraq from the conflict with revolutionary jihad. The outcome in Iraq will influence the psychological balance in the war against radical Islam, specifically whether the ongoing withdrawal from Iraq comes to be perceived as a retreat from the region or a more effective way to sustain it.”
Although the overall outcome of the war in Iraq and the ongoing war in Afghanistan may not be all that Kissinger would have liked to see, from one perspective the USA achieved a greater aim – the USSR and then Russia was eliminated almost entirely from the Middle East. Except in one country – Syria.
With the uprising against Bashar al-Assad in Syria, the last domino owned by the Russian inheritors of Soviet influence in the Middle East is being pushed over. It is clear that the Western powers are supporting the rebels directly or through proxies such as the Saudis, while Russia and China refuse to allow direct intervention.
The Russians are also past masters of the great game, and realize that they have nothing to lose by continuing their support for the Assad regime. If, through massive force of arms, Assad remains in power, they will retain their foothold in the only country in the Middle East where they still have influence. If, as appears increasingly likely, he falls, they will have lost nothing by supporting him since it is clear that they will be sent packing by the rebels whom they refused to support in the early going. (The Chinese expect to be able to come in as neutrals and reap their share of the gains whoever wins, simply by supporting neither side until a resolution is reached. They after all, care nothing for either side and possibly score points with undesirable but powerful leaders around the world for demonstrating reluctance to engage in regime change).
If the Russians are pushed out of Syria, the old man in Washington will see the fulfillment of the grand design he set in motion 40 years ago. From Cairo to Beijing, Kabul to Baghdad, he has helped move the pieces on the board with one major goal in mind – the removal of the Soviets, and then Russia, from influence in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. When Syria, the last domino, falls, his strategy will have been fulfilled.
His time is almost over, and it will need a new Kissinger to devise the strategy to win the emerging multi-player global game – the USA versus the Chinese thrust for Asian hegemony, and the world against radical Islam’s global ambitions. We have already seen Leon Panetta touring South East Asia, and the increasing awareness of the threat of what Charles Krauthammer has termed the “Islamic Ascendency”, as opposed to the increasingly meaningless “Arab Awakening”.
Perhaps while Panetta was encouraging Kissinger’s old enemy, the Vietnamese, to join an American alliance, Kissinger also smiled grimly at the strange way in which his actions in the Vietnamese conflict and its resolution almost 40 years ago have played out. But that game, and dealing with Islamic radicals, is for others to take care of.
He can toast himself while thinking that his work has been done. With the fall of Syria and the eviction of the Russians, the Cold War will truly be over.
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* AKUS is an Israeli-American who gained so much notoriety as a critic of theGuardian’s Israel coverage that he was banned from the site and is now free to channel his energies into occasional contributions for CifWatch. This is his first post for The Warped Mirror – with many more to come, hopefully!
http://russiapedia.rt.com/on-this-day/july-18/ In July 1972, a large number of the Soviet troops left Egypt. They, however, belonged to the regular forces who, by 1972, had already fulfilled their mission and were dismissed, while the Soviet military advisors resumed their service in Egypt and the flow of military supplies to Egypt not only did not cease, but was increased.
 In 2006, it was reported in the book State of Denial by Bob Woodward that Kissinger was meeting regularly with President George W. Bush and Vice PresidentDick Cheney to offer advice on the Iraq War. Kissinger confirmed in recorded interviews with Woodward that the advice was the same as he had given in an August 12, 2005 column in The Washington Post: “Victory over the insurgency is the only meaningful exit strategy.”