Special Alert - 9 August 2012

Insight into Russian thinking on the Middle East

Former Russian foreign minister, Yevgeniy Primakov, is Russia’s pre-eminent expert on the Middle East, and his views are to be taken seriously.  On 8 August he gave an extensive interview to the government-owned Russian newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta (appended below) in which he detailed his current views on the Middle East.

For us, the main points are that he seems to accept that Russia is on a losing wicket in Syria, which in turn suggests there are limits to how far Russia will go to support Assad; he believes the US is acting intelligently in Egypt and should prevent a complete radicalization of the government, although that remains a threat; and he believes that the Arab Spring revolutions are unlikely to spread any further for now, although he accepts that he was completely taken by surprise by the original uprisings.

Most interestingly, on Israel and Iran, he explains (with the help of an anecdote about Georgian President Saakashvili's behaviour over the South Ossetia crisis in August 2008) why he thinks there is a good chance that the US will be unsuccessful in preventing Israel from attacking Iran.  It is interesting that he has said this as he will know that his comments will be studied carefully in Tehran.

The main points from the interview are:

On Syria, Primakov supports the current Kremlin approach but appears resigned to failure.  He says:

“I think Russia is occupying what can be called the only correct position...True, this is not necessarily a winning position.”

Primakov sees the US-Gulf-Turkey position on Syria as a straightforward anti-Shia policy aimed at preventing the formation of a Shia crescent comprising Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.  However, he warns that extremist organizations such as al-Qaeda are supporting the Syrian uprising.  He says:

“All the talk to the effect that the West, in supporting the opposition, want to see the establishment of democracy and stability in Syria is absolutely unfounded.  There will be neither stability nor democracy.”

On Egypt and the Arab Spring, Primakov says that it is too early to say that the outcome of the revolutions will be to strengthen the positions of the radical Islamists.  He sees the Muslim Brotherhood “as a fairly moderate organization”, although he adds that “Syria’s Brotherhood differs from Egypt’s, they are more radical”.

For Primakov, the biggest danger in Egypt is that the Muslim Brotherhood (which won 50% of the seats in parliament) makes common cause with the Salafi Al-Nour party, which won nearly 30%.  However, he does not consider the danger to be high.  He says: “If these two Islamic forces come together on some kind of foundation, although I do not think the probability of that is high, then there could be very serious problems.”

The main reason for Primakov’s optimism about the moderation of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is because he feels that, after a false start, “the Americans are behaving more intelligently with regard to the forces that are currently in power in Egypt”.

By this, he means that the US is working hard to find common ground between the Egyptian army and the Muslim Brotherhood.

On the spreading of the Arab Spring, Primakov seems confident that the countries that have so far remained more or less unscathed (by which he presumably means Jordan and the Gulf states) will not suffer from a renewed revolutionary wave.  He says: “I do not think there will be any new revolutionary waves in the near future”.  On the other hand, he admits to have been caught completely by surprise by the original outbreak and spread of revolutionary fervour.

On the Kurds, Primakov recalls that Mustafa Barzani, the father of Iraqi Kurdistan leader Masoud Barzani, told him that his two objectives were autonomy within Iraq and the opportunity to influence Iraq’s policy.  He says that Masoud Barzani, who he met in May 2008, “said approximately the same thing”.

Primakov’s point seems to be that the Iraqi Kurds are not going to use the autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan to push for the creation of a Greater Kurdistan by supporting independence movements in the Kurdish regions in neighbouring countries.

However, as we have reported in the past two weeks, it does seem that Barzani is interested in helping the Syrian Kurds to carve out a more autonomous position for themselves in post-Assad Syria and to develop close links between the Syria Kurdish movement and Iraqi Kurdistan.

On Afghanistan, Primakov is in favour of a continuing US military presence after 2014.  He says: “No way can Afghanistan be left unsupervised.  We already made that mistake in our day when in the early 1990s we stopped helping President Najibullah”.

On Israel and Iran, Primakov says that the US is trying to hold back Israel , but he is not sure it will be successful.  He says: “It must be understood that both within the Israeli leadership and within the US administration different forces exist and there are different positions.  It is hard to say at the moment who will prevail.”

He tells an anecdote of how in August 2008, during the crisis over South Ossetia, Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili followed the more hawkish views of the US vice-president than the advice of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and he concludes: “The Israelis are acting according to the same pattern.  After all, they do not only have access to Obama.  Somebody might say to them: if you strike, then the States will support you, even if it does not want to.”




Text of report by the website of government-owned Russian newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta on 8 August – reproduced by the BBC Monitoring Service:

[Interview with Yevgeniy Primakov by Vladimir Snegirev under the "Direct Speech" rubric; date and place not given: "Very Near East. Yevgeniy Primakov: The outcome of the confrontation between moderate Islamists and radicals will influence the future not only of the Middle East but of the whole of the rest of the world"]

For many months now the attention of the whole world has been focused on the stormy events taking place in the Middle East. What are the roots and causes of the protest demonstrations of the Arab Spring that led to radical changes in a whole string of countries? What is in store for this strategically important region tomorrow?

Rossiyskaya Gazeta's commentator talks with one of the most authoritative experts on the Arab world, Academician Yevgeniy Primakov.

[Snegirev] Yevgeniy Maksimovich, if you do not mind, let us talk first about Syria. A few days ago I was on the Turkish-Syrian border and I met there with people from the armed opposition. Furthermore I still have reliable sources after a recent trip to Damascus. All the indications are that the situation there is becoming increasingly alarming. In the capital the first signs of panic have appeared, which were not there only three or four months ago. How would you comment on all this?

[Primakov] There is a full-scale civil war going on in Syria, and moreover with the participation of external forces. All kinds of mercenaries and volunteers from other countries are fighting against the regime together with the Syrians themselves. Here is the latest news: President Obama has given a direct command to the CIA to support the Syrian opposition.

And that is gross interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state that is not threatening either the United States or anybody else in any way. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are funding the militants. Turkey is giving them active support.

There is, I repeat, a full-scale civil war going on, with all its horrors, from which the civilian population is suffering.

[Snegirev] Russia is continuing to occupy a consistent position on the Syrian issue. To me personally that position appears absolutely fair and even moral. Working in Syria, I saw with my own eyes that the present authorities have millions of supporters and that any external interference in that state's internal affairs threatens to cause an escalation of violence and more casualties. But alas, everything that is happening shows that politics and morality are incompatible things. Is that not so?

[Primakov] I think Russia is occupying what can be called the only correct position in this situation. If I was head of government now or if I was foreign minister, I would support precisely the line that is currently being implemented. True, this is not necessarily a winning position. I am greatly struck by the fact that we are not attaching paramount importance to extracting benefit from the conflict by every possible means. But we have a moral approach that is based on concern for the lives and safety of millions of people, concern for the future stability of a huge and important region. And that is the only possible approach in this situation. What the outcome will be is, I repeat, unknown. Nobody knows whether we will succeed in achieving justice.

This position is also difficult in the sense that our relations with a number of Arab countries are being spoiled.

[Snegirev] Everyone is now speculating about what can be expected if Bashar al-Asad's regime does not survive. The disintegration of the country? Civil war? Bloody terror against supporters of the current president?

[Primakov] Why do a significant proportion of the member states of the League of Arab States support the Syrian opposition? They do not want a victory for Al-Asad, believing that this would create the conditions for the formation of a Shi'i belt - Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon. In Lebanon the Shi'i population is growing more rapidly than all the rest. Hizballah is a Shi'i organization. The Syrian Alawis are also very close to the Shi'is. In Iraq, after the American operation, Shi'i forces took the helm of central power. The Arab countries are afraid of that, and there is undoubtedly a Sunni emphasis in their actions.

If the armed opposition succeeds in ousting Al-Asad they will want to establish a Sunni regime in Damascus, which will automatically lead to persecution of the Alawis, who make up a significant proportion of the population. It is not only activists of the ruling Ba'th Party who will be subjected to repressions, as some people think, but all those who do not share the oppositionists' religious convictions. Why is Al-Qa'idah involved in the armed struggle on the side of the regime's opponents? Because Al-Qa'idah is also a Sunni organization.

All the talk to the effect that the West, in supporting the opposition, wants to see the establishment of democracy and stability in Syria is absolutely unfounded. There will be neither stability nor democracy there.

[Snegirev] The war in Syria is a continuation of the processes that are now called the Arab Spring. Tell me, did all these revolutions come as a surprise to you, as an Arabist?

[Primakov] Yes, it was a complete surprise. And not only for me - for everyone: for the Americans, for the Europeans, for the Arabs themselves... Demonstrations against an authoritarian regime in one particular country were possible. A coup somewhere or other might have been expected. But like this - the wave swept through the entire region - nobody was expecting that.

Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, in his day, lived with a dream of Arab unity, and he did much in this direction. Later, particularly after his death, country-by-country nationalism took the upper hand...

[Snegirev] Maybe the oil factor influenced the fragmentation? Super-rich countries appeared, and they developed their own view of the world. After all, it is said that the Islamic world is not a monolith but a mosaic.

[Primakov] This factor is also possible. One can talk about traditions and anti-traditions. For instance, the literary language is common to all, but by no means all share the same historical roots. As for your comment about a mosaic... Mosaics are usually multicoloured, but these little stones are all the same colour, after all.

As far as the large-scale protest wave is concerned, it came as a surprise mainly because people underestimated the potential of modern communications, in particular the Internet. This was particularly characteristic of Egypt; there, the social networks instantly rallied the young people and brought millions of demonstrators out into the streets. Egypt, "infected" by Tunisia, became the main nucleus of the Arab Spring, and from there the wave moved on - to Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain. I repeat, the scale of it came as a surprise to everyone.

[Snegirev] One could point out that in practically all the countries the people at the helm were people who had, in effect, usurped power: Al-Qadhafi, Mubarak, Ben Ali... Bashar al-Asad received his powers from his father, who ruled for 30 years. People were tired of dictators, they wanted change.

[Primakov] The technical achievements of the modern day, particularly television, made it possible for the Arabs to compare their lives with life in other countries. I wish to stress that at first the actual participants in the protest demonstrations were not the Islamic organizations. The Muslim Brotherhood, as a political structure, became active later. But it is the most organized force in Egypt.

Young people began to protest because they could see no prospects for themselves: The level of unemployment is high, education is expensive, the officials are corrupt, democratic freedoms are absent. And the rulers had obviously been on their thrones too long. When certain people, no matter how great their services may have been in the past, remain in power so long, it always causes irritation.

[Snegirev] For many people, including myself, it came as a great surprise to see the total success of the Islamic radicals, who seized the commanding heights in Tunisia and Egypt, and moreover, obviously by democratic means. On the one hand this must clearly be taken in the proper way: It is the people's choice. But on the other hand... The radicalization of an enormous and strategically important region - does that not inspire misgivings?

[Primakov] It would, in my view, be wrong to assert that the main outcome of these revolutions was to strengthen the positions of the radical Islamists. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is a fairly moderate organization. Syria's Brotherhood differs from Egypt's, they are more radical.

In Egypt at the moment the main attention should be focused on how relations are developing between the Muslim Brotherhood and the really radical Salafis. That is, between the Freedom and Justice Party (it should have had about 50 per cent of the seats in the parliament, which ceased to exist following a ruling by the Constitutional Court cancelling the election results) and the Al-Nur Party (it had nearly 30 per cent). If these two Islamic forces come together on some kind of foundation, although I do not think the probability of that is high, then there could be very serious problems.

The recently elected President of Egypt Muhammad Mursi announced his withdrawal from the Muslim Brotherhood organization and promised to be the "father of all Egyptians." His recent statements and actions in the sphere of foreign and domestic policy make it possible to hope that Egypt will become a secular state. The Salafis, however, categorically advocate a state structure that would be based on the laws of the Sharia.

[Snegirev] You know, Yevgeniy Maksimovich, I had many meetings in Egypt with all kinds of people and I often heard this from them: You cannot trust the Brotherhood's rhetoric, because they are genetically programmed for radicalism. And then, this is not, after all, a national structure but a supranational one; they always dreamed of some kind of united political structure for Muslims, along the lines of a caliphate.

[Primakov] If your interlocutors were representatives of other parties, then it is obvious why they would say that. Those are the rules of the political struggle. But the world is changing and it is very important to be up to these changes. I believe that, for instance, the Americans are behaving more intelligently with regard to the forces that are currently in power in Egypt. They are trying to find a common language with them. And they are finding one. That is right - if only in order to keep the Islamists in moderate positions.

On the other hand let us not forget that the Army continues to play a substantial role in Egypt. True, it has receded into the shadows and its position has been somewhat shaken, but at the same time the corporativeness of Army officers, who own a substantial sector of the Egyptian economy, is still preserved. Obviously the United States is continuing to back the generals. It is they who can act as guarantors of the preservation of the status quo between Egypt and Israel. The Egyptian Armed Forces still depend to a significant degree on American deliveries: Every year the States gives 1.5 billion dollars for their maintenance, and this is nonrepayable aid.

[Snegirev] And you think those investments are not in vain?

[Primakov] No, they are not. The Army leadership is currently quite clearly advocating that all Egypt's international commitments be fulfilled on the same scale as before. In this context nobody is talking directly about the Camp David treaty, but at the moment all the previous commitments remain in force.

[Snegirev] All the same, I am sticking to my point. The Taleban in Afghanistan, the Salafis in Egypt, the Wahhabis in the North Caucasus... What do you see as the reasons for the growing popularity of extreme Islamic currents?

[Primakov] I have met with the king of Saudi Arabia many times - both when he was still crown prince and after he became the monarch. This is what he said to me about the Wahhabis: It is totally wrong to associate this current solely with the harsh radicalism of Islam. The main thesis and main thrust of the sermons of Abd al-Wahhab, who lived in the 18th century, was to return to the origins of Islam. For the Wahhabis the sole authority is Allah. There are no saints but Allah.

True, the Islamic world is heterogeneous, there are those who profess moderate Islam, there are the radicals. And undoubtedly much will depend on how the confrontation between representatives of these currents develops. Moreover, the outcome of this confrontation will influence the future of not only the Near and Middle East but also the whole of the rest of the world.

[Snegirev] What is your view of the theory of the "American connection" in the stormy processes of the Arab spring? There are some smart guys in our country who assert that everything that is happening was planned across the ocean and is part of a strategy to destabilize the situation in the Middle East.

[Primakov] That is simply laughable. Egyptian President Husni Mubarak suited the Americans very well and, incidentally, us too. Washington, on the contrary, was very alarmed at first. But then, quite soon, the Americans decided that there is no way back and they must shape their relationships with the new people who will come to replace the old ones. At first they backed the Army, and specifically former military intelligence chief General Omar Suleiman. But he had very strong links to Mubarak.

[Snegirev] Do you not think that the demonization of the States is a false and dangerous path? To see the hand of Washington behind everything - from the events of the Arab spring to the rallies in Bolotnaya Square - is to close your eyes to the causes of the real problems...

[Primakov] I agree with you. We should not demonize the Americans. If they can be accused of anything, it is of having a poor understanding of the real situation. When the changes in Egypt happened, all the US ambassadors to the Arab countries gathered for a conference in Washington and Hillary Clinton criticized them extremely harshly. You all compile your reports, she said, without leaving your embassy offices. Your reports are one thing but the reality is entirely different.

[Snegirev] But what about the much-lauded US intelligence community, their huge staff of analysts, all their research centres, foundations, universities? Where were they looking?

[Primakov] Intelligence information is frequently not taken into account by politicians. As for analysis geniuses, not everything is fine with them "across the ocean" either, there are clearly not enough of them.

[Snegirev] What do you think about the further prospects for revolutionary processes in this region? Or has the Arab Spring already run out of steam?

[Primakov] I do not think there will be any new revolutionary waves in the near future.

[Snegirev] Among the large number of unresolved problems that have troubled the Middle East for decades, there are two that are particularly explosive - the problems of the Kurds and the Palestinians. For various reasons they are, so to speak, "left hanging," unable to be resolved. But maybe now the time has come to tackle them head on?

[Primakov] I encountered the Kurdish problem for the first time back in the mid-1960s when I was a Pravda correspondent. In 1966, on the instructions of the editorial office, I went to Iraqi Kurdistan, where fighting between the Kurds and government forces had only just come to an end. I was instructed to meet with the Kurds' leader Mustafa Barzani. Incidentally, getting ahead of myself, I will tell you that in the subsequent four years I was the only Soviet representative who met with Barzani regularly. Well, back then, the question arose of how to reach the Kurdish leader's secret refuge, which was far away in the mountains. The president of Iraq, whom I interviewed, promised the assistance of the counterintelligence chief. I remember a soccer match was going on in Baghdad at the time between a local team and some Soviet team or other. And I was probably the only one of our people who was supporting the other side - that shows how badly I wanted the counterintelligence chief, who was also at the stadium, to remain in a good mood.

We left for the North - in the direction of Kirkuk - in a car escorted by an armoured carrier. With me were Sasha Zotov, who subsequently worked as ambassador to Syria, and two Iraqi officers. When we stopped somewhere along the road Zotov started telling me a rather dirty joke, and suddenly one of the officers burst out laughing. Immediately it became clear that he knew Russian, and knew it well.

It was a rather difficult journey. The Kurds would not let the armoured carrier full of soldiers approach, they transferred us, with the two Iraqi officers, onto mules and we had to ride some of the way along mountain paths. In the end we successfully reached Barzani's residence and fulfilled our mission.

Well, about solving the Kurdish problem. I remember well that, back then, Barzani said: "I want autonomy within Iraq, I want the opportunity to influence Iraq's policy. Those are my two objectives." The millions of Kurds living in neighbouring countries were not the issue. Barzani said: "If I start urging the creation of a separate Kurdish state, everyone will unite against me - Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria. What do I want with those complications."

Masud Barzani, Mustafa Barzani's son who is now president of the Kurdistan region of Iraq and whom I met with at his residence in May 2008, said approximately the same thing. The Kurds obtained their autonomy in Iraq, but it cannot be said that all the questions have been decided. There are disputes with the Arabs about attaching the oil-rich district of Kirkuk to the autonomous formation. In northern Iraq there are Turkish Kurd militants' bases, which are regularly subjected to bombings by Turkey.

As for the Palestinian issue, which was mentioned in your question, here we must wait before we make predictions; much will depend on who is going to be president of the United States. If Barack Obama stays, I think positive developments are possible.

[Snegirev] Judging by what one of my friends told me, those difficult visits to the Kurds were by no means the only occasions when you really risked your life. He said your car came under fire from automatic weapons in Lebanon...

[Primakov] In 1975 I had a mission: to take a letter from our leadership to former President of Lebanon Camille Chamoun, whose residence was outside Beirut. A civil war was in progress there. At the time I was working at the Academy of Sciences, I was deputy director of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations. The problem was how to reach Chamoun, because many streets were constantly being shelled and it was dangerous to drive down them. In the end we went in two cars, me in one and staffers of our intelligence service in the other. At first we were lucky: There was some kind of brief truce, nobody was shooting. During the meeting with Chamoun his telephone rang; he picked it up and immediately went pale. It turned out that in response to the killing of five young Christian Phalangists at the port 160 Muslims had just been shot. It became clear that the fighting in the city was about to break out with renewed force. The escort car was unlucky. Robert Martirosyan was seriously wounded and Volodya Zaytsev (who subsequently became a lieutenant general) was hit tangentially by a bullet.

[Snegirev] Last year the US troops left Iraq: "with heads held high and a sense of duty done," as the American leaders informed the world. They intend to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan in the near future. Here too they will most likely report total victory and brilliant results from their mission. But what lies in store for Afghanistan after that? The return of the Taleban? A new spiral of civil war? The country's disintegration into the Tajik-Uzbek north and the Pashtun south?

[Primakov] I do not think the Americans will withdraw all their troops from Afghanistan by 2014. A fairly significant contingent will most likely stay there. That is no bad thing.

No way can Afghanistan be left unsupervised. We already made that mistake in our day, when in the early 1990s we stopped helping President Najibullah. Kabul was then seized by the mojahedin, internecine clashes began, and soon the entire country was in the grip of chaos, which the Taleban took advantage of.

If the Taleban come to power again it could also hit the post-Soviet space hard. The Taleban will come up to the borders with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, where radical Islamic elements are strong.

[Snegirev] I must ask you: How likely is the scenario where Israel, with or without US support, carries out a strike against Iran's nuclear facilities?

[Primakov] The States does not want this to happen now, ahead of the presidential election. They are holding Israel back. But here it must be understood that both within the Israeli leadership and within the US Administration different forces exist and there are different positions. It is hard to say at the moment who will prevail.

Remember the conflict in South Ossetia in August 2008. The actual American leadership did not want Georgia to unleash war. Condoleezza Rice went to Mikheil Saakashvili and told him straight out: "Don't do it, we are asking you." However, the Georgian president also had access to other Americans at the time, in particular the vice president. And he had formed the conviction that NATO would intervene and provide support. Saakashvili thought he would reach the Roki Tunnel, close it, and then Russia would not be able to send in its tanks through the pass and at that time the Americans would intervene.

The Israelis are acting according to the same pattern. After all, they do not only have access to Obama. Somebody might say to them: If you strike, then the States will support you, even if it does not want to.

[Snegirev] So the possibility of such a strike remains? And that is dangerous for the whole enormous region?

[Primakov] Very dangerous. Even though the results of an airstrike - and there is no question of a ground operation - might prove negligible. In two years Iran would recover completely, ostentatiously secede from the treaty on the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and then create its own weapons of mass destruction for sure. [Interview ends]


"Events have taken place in the Middle East before my very eyes, many of which have been the subject of false rumours. Some of them people either do not know about or have forgotten. Yet these events played a major role in the formation of the region as it is today: heterogeneous, many-hued, complex, dangerously obstreperous, sometimes naive, and repeatedly deceived." (From Ye.M. Primakov's book Behind the Scenes in the Middle East.)

Source: Rossiyskaya Gazeta website, Moscow, in Russian 8 Aug 12


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