It is now a cliché to say that the Syrian conflict is complicated, and has multiple regional and international drivers.
After about three years of hovering around $110 per barrel, with highs of $125 and lows of $90, oil prices began a precipitous decline in the summer of 2014, reaching a low of $48 per barrel in mid-August 2015 before plummeting to just under $30 per barrel five months later. While investors are no doubt reeling from the impact of this price decline on their portfolios and ventures, it’s well worth pondering how the Middle East and its geopolitics are likely to be affected.
But how to explain this downward spiral in the first place? By all accounts, reasons abound.
Regional responses to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, have varied depending on regime perceptions of threat, not only from ISIS itself, but also from other potential rivals, challengers or enemies. Despite the jihadi group’s extensive use of violence in Syria and Iraq and its claims of responsibility for bombings and attacks in Egypt, Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Turkey and Yemen—as well as France in mid-November—it was not necessarily the top security priority for any of these states.
As the violence intensifies in Syria, external powers, including the United States, are embracing increasingly belligerent positions. Indeed, in recent days the United States and Turkey have announced plans to study a no-fly zone after calls by many American commentators for a more direct military role.
Although there is no doubt the government of President Bashar al-Asad carries the overwhelming responsibility for the unfolding tragedy in Syria, the attempt to militarily defeat the regime is the wrong strategy if the goals are reducing violence and protecting innocent civilians.
The Institute for Oriental Studies in Moscow, once headed by the current Russian foreign minister, Yevgenii Primakov,  used to be the premier research establishment for modem history and Soviet policy making concerning the Arab world, Africa and Asia. Like other state-funded academic institutions, it has not fared well under the Yeltsin budgetary boondoggles and chaotic privatization measures. Salaries are so low that the academic and nonacademic staff spend most of their working hours at other jobs in the private sector. At the end of August 1997, all salaries were arbitrarily suspended for a month.
Grigorii Grigorevich Kosach teaches at the Academy of Social Sciences in Moscow. Some of his works translated into English include The Comintern and the East (Moscow, 1981), and “Formation of Communist Movements in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon in the 1920s and 1930s, ” in The Revolutionary Process in the East: Past and Present (Moscow, 1985). His latest work, on the formation of the Communist Party of Palestine, will be published shortly by Hauka Press in Moscow. Kosach has lived and worked in various countries in the Arab world, including Kuwait, Syria and Algeria. Garay Menicucci, who spent the 1989-1990 academic year in Leningrad and Moscow conducting dissertation research, interviewed Kosach in June 1990 and translated the interview from Russian.
The day after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and US Secretary of State James Baker announced what they termed “an unusual step.” They issued a communique “jointly urging the international community to join them and suspend all supplies of arms to Iraq on an international scale.” The Gulf crisis, the first major post-Cold War international crisis, provides a concrete measure of changing Soviet strategy in the Third World. While Soviet policy can be explained in large part by a desire to maintain good relations with the United States, one cannot disregard, in the short or the long run, the weight of Moscow’s relations with the Middle East and how they affect its strategy and tactics in the region.
Fred Halliday, From Kabul to Managua: Soviet-American Relations in the 1980s (Pantheon, 1989).
To give an account, in a mere 163 pages, of Soviet-American competition in the Third World is no mean feat. After all, this rivalry has lasted nearly half a century and its form has varied considerably. Moreover, there are now 120 independent states in the Third World, and there have been over 100 diverse conflicts. There is, to say the least, much to account for. Yet this is precisely what Fred Halliday has done, with lucidity and thoroughness. At times, Halliday’s conclusions are even provocative and unpredictable.
If the intifada has been an Israeli nightmare, upsetting a reality with which most Israelis had grown comfortable, the immigration wave of Soviet Jews to Israel which began in December may turn into a “miracle” that will lift the morale of many Israelis for years to come. The Soviet immigration wave of the 1990s may have an impact like that of the 1930s, when 250,000 non-ideological, well-educated German Jews settled in Palestine and made the victory of Zionism in 1948 possible.
Efraim Karsh, The Soviet Union and Syria: The Asad Years (London: Routledge, 1988.)
From the Soviet point of view, Iraq under the Baath Party has been a troubling enigma, in terms of its place in the Third World generally and its political position in Middle East diplomacy. In the first respect, Iraq during the 1970s did not manage to consolidate itself as one of the USSR’s dependable allies, which official Soviet parlance refers to as “states of socialist orientation.” Most Soviet scholars sooner or later reached the conclusion that Iraq has really been on the capitalist path of development, although neither Moscow nor Baghdad could state this openly.
In January 1986, a major crisis broke out within the leadership of the Yemeni Socialist Party, the ruling party in the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. In two weeks of fighting many thousands of people lost their lives, and afterward between 30,000 and 70,000 fled to neighboring North Yemen.
The Middle East, the Persian Gulf and the eastern Mediterranean are of particular strategic concern to Moscow because of their proximity to the Soviet Union. In addition, the Soviets view the Middle East in the second half of the 20th century as akin to the Balkans at the turn of the century: they consider the area to be the most likely source of a world war. Since 1979, moreover, the Soviets have confronted the concrete possibility of a major military conflict with the United States in the area north of the Persian Gulf. This prospect has brought the dangers of political turbulence in the Middle East into sharper focus, and altered Soviet perceptions of the immediate strategic significance of various countries in the Middle East.
In the seven years since the Iran-Iraq war began, Soviet policy toward the conflict has been quite constant. Moscow regards the war as “senseless” and has repeatedly called for an immediate ceasefire and return to the status quo ante, as outlined in the 1975 Algiers Agreement between Iran and Iraq. Moscow considers the war as dangerous not only because of its destructiveness to both combatant states, but also because, by alarming the Arab states of the Peninsula, it has provided a justification for greater US military deployment in the region. In the longer run, Moscow is concerned about the collapse of either the Tehran or the Baghdad regimes, and the uncertainty that could result in a region so near the Soviet Union’s borders.
Babrak Karmal was replaced as general secretary of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) six weeks after this series of articles first appeared. It was the first non-violent change in the party’s leadership since it came to power in April 1978.
There is some evidence that the new leader, Major-General Najibullah (the official media shortened his name to Najib a few days later) was not the Soviet Union’s first choice to replace Karmal. Shortly before the leadership change on May 4, the Prime Minister, Sultan Ali Keshtmand, visited Moscow where he was prominently received. Keshtmand had long been known as the number two man in the regime, and his visit was given generous coverage in the Soviet media.
Shaikh-ul-Islam Pashazada Allahshukur Hummatoglu is chairman of the Board of Management of Caucasian Muslims. Fred Halliday and Maxine Molyneux interviewed him in Baku in July 1984.
How are Soviet Muslims organized?
There are four separate Islamic religious bodies in the Soviet Union. Three of these are for Sunnis. Here in the Transcaucasian region, comprising Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia, Shi‘i Muslims are the majority. Their leader is the shaikh-ul-Islam, the position I now hold.
Are you appointed by the state?
Baku, the capital of Soviet Azerbaijan, lying on the west coast of the Caspian, embodies many suggestive contrasts with other areas of the Soviet Union and with the neighboring countries of Iran and Turkey. On the esplanade running along the seashore, restaurants sell kebabs, local pancakes (kutab) and Azerbaijani sweets; there are the colored lights, smells and sounds of outdoor eating places further south. The mustachioed young men, the gestures of greeting, the pace of the crowd suggest other Middle Eastern cities. In the icheri sheher, the inner city, glass-paned balconies lean over the first floors of the houses, as they do in Turkey. Three centuries of Persian rule have also left their mark on the literature and art of this region.
Anthony Cordesman, The Gulf and the Search for Strategic Stability: Saudi Arabia, the Military Balance in the Gulf, and Trends in the Arab-Israeli Military Balance (Boulder: Westview Press, 1984).
Occasionally, when an important head of state arrives in Washington for consultation without a previously announced agenda, he is greeted by an embarrassing series of articles and commentaries exposing the cumulative ignorance of American foreign policy analysts. Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd recently visited with President Ronald Reagan and provided just such an example.
Jonathan Steele, Soviet Power: The Kremlin’s Foreign Policy — Brezhnev to Andropov (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983).
This is the sixth book on international events from one of Britain’s most senior and experienced journalists. His previous works on the USSR and Eastern Europe have shown him to be a sensitive and sympathetic observer of the Soviet scene. Steele starts from the premise that an emphasis on the USSR’s military capabilities alone is likely to produce an over-estimation of Moscow’s ability to intervene or expand its influence abroad. Steele’s aim is to examine the totality of Soviet military preparations, policy statements and political actions to produce a more complete and reliable calculus of Soviet power today.
This report summarizes impressions of Soviet foreign policy gained during a study visit to the USSR in July 1982. During this visit, under the auspices of the Oriental Institute of the Academy of Sciences, I was able to meet a wide range of experts working in the institute, as well as journalists and foreign policy analysts attached to other publications and institutes.