A necessary counterbalance

To evaluate modern Russian-Arab (including Palestinian) relations, it is worthwhile to take the October 1917 Revolution in Russia as a starting point. One of Lenin’s first acts after taking power was to reveal to the world the text of the Sykes-Picot Treaty. Concluded in 1916 between the tripartite alliance of the United Kingdom, France and Tsarist Russia, the treaty intended to divide the Arab world among the three powers after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. Lenin, however, declared the withdrawal of Russia from this conspiratorial treaty and denounced it.

In the event, however, the Arab world was then simply divided between the British and French victors and ruled under the mandate system. The governments of the new states in the Arab world were composed mainly of semi-feudal social strata. As an indication of their loyalty to the two dominating powers, the countries boycotted the Soviet Union, the successor of Tsarist Russia. The only exception was the state of Yemen, which, for different reasons, remained free from British and French domination. As a result, Yemen became the first Arab state to establish diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

It was not until the end of World War II that a new qualitative era of Arab-Soviet relations was born. In 1946, the Soviet Union firmly supported, in the UN Security Council, the just demand of Syria and Lebanon for full independence from the French mandate.

In 1947, the British government took the Palestinian case to the UN General Assembly as a conflict between Arabs and Jews. By presenting the issue in this way, the British government was hoping to prolong its mandate in Palestine with a new resolution from the General Assembly. But the Soviet Union was pushing for a different solution.

In the special session that was held in April 1947 to discuss the Palestinian problem, the Soviet representative declared that the proper solution to the Palestinian problem was to terminate the British Mandate, to withdraw all the British troops, and to establish an independent democratic state for all the inhabitants of Palestine without any discrimination.

In this very critical period, however, not a single Arab official representative was ready to meet and consult with the Soviet representative due to British and American pressure, so instead, on November 29, 1947, the General Assembly adopted the partition plan with the support of the Soviet Union. The plan stipulated the termination of the British Mandate, the withdrawal of all foreign military forces and the establishment of two independent democratic states, with a united economy and one currency.

Soviet involvement in the region soon increased. After the Israeli aggression on Gaza in February 1955, which resulted in the killing of 29 Egyptian soldiers, Gamal Abdul Nasser resolved to find alternative sources of arms supplies, instead of relying on the western powers. The West, and especially the US, had then stipulated that in return for any arms supplies, Egypt must join western military pacts.

In the summer of 1955, Nasser thus took part in the non-aligned nations conference in Bandong, Indonesia and succeeded, with the help of Chinese Prime Minister Chou En Lai, to strike a non-conditional arms deal with Czechoslovakia. The deal was significant in that it was the first with an Arab country from outside the West. The Soviet Union soon stepped up to become a main supplier of military equipment to Arab states.

The immediate repercussions of this unprecedented arms deal, however, were stark. The World Bank, pressured by the US, withdrew its offer to help finance the construction of the Aswan Dam. In response, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal Company, which was owned by British and French capital. This resulted in the tripartite aggression on Egypt in November 1956. Once again, the Soviet Union intervened and warned Great Britain, France and Israel that unless they stop the military operations against Egypt, they could become a target of Soviet ballistic missiles.

After the tripartite aggression had failed, the Soviet Union declared it’s readiness to help Egypt build the Aswan Dam, and Soviet technological and material assistance deepened in several Arab states. Tens of thousands of Arab students received scholarships to study in the Soviet Union. Soviet-Arab relations developed rapidly on all fronts and reached a peak.

Palestinian-Soviet relations did not develop until after the Israeli aggression in June 1967. Nasser escorted Yasser Arafat and a PLO delegation to Moscow in 1968 and introduced them to the Soviet leadership. After that, the Palestinian-Soviet relationship developed independently.

In February 1985, however, Arafat and King Hussein of Jordan signed the so called "Amman Agreement" which was a joint attempt to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, through the American channel alone, following the Egyptian example of Anwar Sadat. Moscow considered this another serious blow to Soviet influence in the region, following the 1978 Camp David Accords, mediated by the US alone, and Palestinian-Soviet relations suffered their first major setback.

Warmth only returned to Palestinian-Soviet relations in the spring of 1987, when the 18th session of the Palestinian National Council held in Algiers cancelled the Amman Agreement, which had yielded no results. This cancellation paved the way to recovering the unity of the PLO and to resuming positive relations with the Soviets.

In this friendly atmosphere a high level Soviet-Palestinian coordinating committee was established to meet regularly. From the beginning, Mahmoud Abbas was the Palestinian representative on the committee.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, however, saw a dramatic decline in the role and influence of Russia in the region and vis-a-vis the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This minor Russian role has continued until today, even if Russia retains some influence as a member of the UN Security Council and of the Quartet.

There is no doubt the Arab world in general and the Palestinians in particular lost a mighty strategic ally with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even the conservative Arab rulers recognized that they lost their maneuvering margin and now are directly subject to the dictates of the remaining sole superpower.

The recent visit by Vladimir Putin to the Middle East indicates that Russia is still eager to recover its relations with the Arab world, even if gradually. From the Arab and Palestinian perspective recovering some of the weight Russia had in the Middle East would help balance, even if only partially, the biased policies of the US. It is worthwhile here to note that the first visit abroad of Abbas after he was elected president of the Palestinian Authority was to Moscow.