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DIFFERENT OPINIONS

The opinions expressed by the authors of the articles in this section are for discussion purposes only and may not coincide with the position of the Russian Government and the Embassy

22.08.2012

The Middle East conundrum

Rossiyskaya Gazeta: Mr Primakov, do you mind starting our conversation with a question on Syria? Some days ago I was on the Turkish-Syrian border and spoke to armed oppositionists. Besides, I have established contact with some important sources since my last trip to Damascus. Judging by the information the situation is getting ever more disturbing. First signs of panic are visible in the capital, which was not the case some three of four months ago. What is your take on the situation?

Evgeni Primakov: There is a full-blooded civil war in Syria, in which outside forces are also taking part. Together with the Syrians, all sorts of mercenaries and volunteers from other countries are fighting against the regime. What’s more, U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered the Central Intelligence Agency to support the Syrian opposition, which is gross interference in the internal affairs of sovereign Syria, all the more so that Damascus poses no threat to the United States or any other country.

The Saudi Arabia and Qatar are financing the paramilitaries. They have all the assistance from Turkey. Let me repeat, this is a full-fledged civil war with all of its horrors that bring suffering to peaceful civilians.

Rossiyskaya Gazeta: Russia is adhering to its consistent policy on Syria. I personally believe that it is quite fair, and even moral. While working in Syria I had an opportunity to see with my own eyes that millions of people are supporting the current government and that any foreign interference in the domestic affairs of this state is fraught with escalation of violence and new victims. However, what is happening shows that politics and morals are incompatible things. Is it true?

Evgeni Primakov: I think that Russia’s position on Syria is the only right position in this situation. If I still held office I would have thrown my full weight behind Moscow’s stance. I like it that Russia does not set itself the goal of capitalizing on the Syrian conflict. Although it may not be to its own advantage, it is a deeply moral approach, which reflects sincere concern over the lives and safety of millions of people and over the future stability of the Middle East – the only possible approach in this situation. However, the outcome is hard to predict and it remains to be seen whether Russia will prevail in its calls for a just and fair solution. Another problem is the worsening relations between Russia and a number of Arab countries.

Rossiyskaya Gazeta: Everybody keeps guessing what will happen if Assad’s regime falls. A breakup of the country? Civil war? Bloody terror against supporters of the incumbent President?

Evgeni Primakov: A significant number of the Arab League’s member states back the anti-Assad opposition in Syria. They do not want Bashar Assad to win as they fear it might create conditions for a Shiite belt consisting of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Lebanon. Arab countries ruled by Sunnis are afraid of that. In Lebanon the Shia population is growing faster than any other. Hezbollah is a Shiite orgainsation. Syrian Alawites are also very close to the Shias. After the US operation in Iraq the power was captured by the Shias. Arab states are afraid of this and their actions have a Sunni undertone.

If the armed opposition succeeds in toppling Assad, Damascus will want to solidify the Sunni regime. And this will inevitably lead to persecutions of Alawis, who make up a significant proportion of the population. Repressions will not only hit the activists of the ruling Baath party, as some might think, but all who do not share the opposition’s views. Why is Al-Qaeda involved in the armed fight against the regime? Because Al-Qaeda is also a Sunni organization.

All the allegations that the West wishes to establish democracy by supporting the opposition are absolutely ungrounded. There will be no stability and no democracy.

Rossiyskaya Gazeta: Syrian war is a continuation of the processes commonly known as the “Arab spring”. Mr Primakov, did you, as an Arabist, expect these revolutions to happen?

Evgeni Primakov: No, it all came about rather unexpectedly. And not only to me, so it was to Americans, Europeans, and Arabs themselves. I could predict demonstrations against an authoritarian regime in one of the countries or a change of a government. But no one could possibly foresee that a whole wave of revolutions might sweep across the region.

Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser dreamt of Arab unity and he did a lot in this field. Afterwards, especially after his death, there prevailed country nationalism.

Rossiyskaya Gazeta: Could it have been the oil factor that precipitated the split? There emerged super wealthy countries with their own worldview. Indeed, the Arab world is said to be a mosaic, not a monolith.

Evgeni Primakov: Yes, there is such a possibility. There are traditions and anti-traditions. For example, these nations share a common language but originate from different roots. But mosaic is usually made of different colour stones, in this case there is just one colour.

The large-scale protest came as a surprise as the world failed to appreciate the power of modern communications, the Internet in particular. This was especially true for Egypt, which caught the wave from Tunisia and formed the core of the “Arab spring”; this wave spread further to Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. As I said, these large-scale protests were absolutely unexpected for all.

Rossiyskaya Gazeta: One would notice that almost all the countries were ruled by persons who practically usurped the power – Gaddafi, Mubarak, Ben Ali… Assad took over the power after his father, who had ruled for thirteen years. The people got tired of dictators and wished for changes.

Evgeni Primakov: Technical achievements of the modern age, especially television, allowed Arabs compare their life with that of other nations. I would like to highlight that it was not Islamists who initiated the protests. The Muslim Brotherhood, as a political structure, stepped forward later. At this moment they are the most organised force in Egypt.

The youth started to protest because they saw no prospects for their future: high unemployment, expensive education, corrupt officials, and inexistent democratic freedoms. And what is more, the government has spent too much time on their thrones. When someone, irrelatively of his great merits, stays in power for too long, it provokes irritation.

Rossiyskaya Gazeta: I, like many others, was very surprised by the sweeping success of Islamic radicals, who seized commanding heights in Tunisia and Egypt in an obviously democratic way. On the one hand, it has to be taken for granted – that is a choice of the people. But on the other hand, does not radicalization of a large and strategically important region cause misgivings?

Evgeni Primakov: I think it is wrong to assert that consolidation of radical Islamists’ position was the main outcome of these revolutions. Egyptian Muslim Brothers are a rather radical organisation. Syrian Moslim Brotherhood is different as they are more radical.

Today it is rather important to pay attention to how the “Muslim Brothers” will get on with hardcore Salafis. I mean the Freedom and Justice Party (it was supposed to have around 50 seats in the Parliament, which ceased to exist by order of the Constitutional court to overturn the results of the elections), and the Al-Nour Party (which gained almost 30%). If these two forces clash at a certain phase, which is not very likely, they might run into serious problems.

Evgeni Primakov: The recently elected Mohamed Morsi announced his withdrawal from the Muslim Brothers party and promised to become “the father of all Egyptians”. His recent statements and actions in the sphere of domestic and foreign policy give hope that Egypt will remain a secular state. Salafis vigorously advocate for a Sharia state.

Rossiyskaya Gazeta: Mr Primakov, I met many different people in Egypt and I often heard that one cannot trust the rhetoric of the “Brothers”, for they are said to be genetically programmed for radicalism. And what is more, this is not a national, but rather a supranational formation. They have always dreamt of some kind of an integrated political structure for Muslims, similar to a Halifax.

Evgeni Primakov: If you spoke with representatives of other parties it is understandable why they said so. Such are the rules political struggle. But the world is changing and it’s important that we keep up with the changes. For example, I think that Americans pursue a cleverer policy towards the forces in power in Egypt. They try to find common grounds with them and succeed. This is the right thing, if only to keep the Islamists on the moderate position.

Moreover, let us not forget that the military retain significant power in Egypt. True, they have withdrawn into the shadows, their positions have been somewhat shaken, but at the same time military officers have retained their corporativity as owners of a significant sector of Egypt’s economy. The United States obviously keep placing stakes on generals. It is they who can become the guarantors of the existing status-quo between Egypt and Israel. Egyptian armed forces still largely depend on American supplies – each year the US provide USD1,5bn of grant aid for their maintenance.

Rossiyskaya Gazeta: Do you believe that these investments are not in vain?

 Evgeni Primakov: Yes. The military commanders are convinced that all international obligations of Egypt should be paid off as usual. No one mentions the Camp David agreement directly, but it is understood that all the previous obligations will continue.

Rossiyskaya Gazeta: Let me go back to my topic. The Taliban in Afghanistan, Salafis in Egypt, the Wahhabi in the Northern Caucasus… What are the causes of the growing popularity of extreme Islamic movements?

Evgeni Primakov: I met the King of Saudi Arabia, back when he was Crown Prince and when he already took over the monarchy. He said that the Wahhabi movement must not be linked only with extreme Islamism. The main idea and message of Abd al-Wahhab’s preaching was the return to the roots of Islam. Allah is the only authority for the Wahhabis, and there are no other saints.

True, the Muslim world is not homogenous – there are moderate and radical believers. The future will very much depend on which denomination prevails. The results of this standoff will not only determine the fate of the Middle and Far East, but also that of the whole world.

Rossiyskaya Gazeta: What do you think of America’s role in the turbulent changes of the “Arab spring”? Does anybody still believe that these events were plotted by the US and make part of a strategy aimed at destabilizing the situation in the Middle East?

Evgeni Primakov: This is ridiculous. Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak suited both Americans and us. Washington, on the contrary, was rather alarmed in the beginning. However, very soon Americans decided that there is no way back and they would have to establish relations with the new people in power. At first they counted on the military, namely, the former head of military intelligence service General Omar Suleiman. But he appeared to be too close to Mubarak.

Rossiyskaya Gazeta: Don’t you think that demonization of the USA is an erroneous and dangerous path? Seeing behind all these events, from the “Arab spring” to the protests on the Bolotnaya Square, the hand of Washington is turning a blind eye to the real causes of the problems.

Evgeni Primakov: I agree with you. It is wrong to demonize the Americans. If they are to blame, than it is for not seeing the situation clearly. When the changes in Egypt happened Hillary Clinton gathered all US Ambassadors to Arab countries only to lambast them for the inability to present the real state of affairs in their reports.

Rossiyskaya Gazeta: What about the much-vaunted American secret services with their numerous analysts, research centres, foundations and Universities? Where did they look?

Evgeni Primakov: Politicians often disregard intelligence information. As regards analytical geniuses, they are far and between in the West as well.

Rossiyskaya Gazeta: What do you think of the future of these revolutions? Has the “Arab spring” run out of steam yet?

Evgeni Primakov: I think there will be no new revolution waves soon.

Rossiyskaya Gazeta: Among the many unresolved issues torturing the Middle East there are two particularly explosive ones. I mean Kurds and Palestinians. These two ethnic issues have stalled not without a reason. Maybe it’s high time for them to be resolved?

Evgeni Primakov: I came across the Kurds problem back in the 60ies when I was a correspondent at the Pravda newspaper. In 1966 on the order of the editorial office I left for the Iraqi Kurdistan shortly after clashes between Kurds and government forces. I was ordered to meet the leader of the Kurds Mustafa Barzani. Running ahead of the story I will say that I was the only Soviet person to regularly meet Barzani in the four years to follow. So when I was on my assignment in Iraq, I was to reach the mountain hide-out of the Kurdish leader. The President of Iraq, whom I interviewed, promised that the head of the counterintelligence would help me. I remember that there was a football match between a local and a Soviet team. Probably I was the only Russian who cheered for the Iraqis, that is how much I wanted the head of the counterintelligence to be in a good mood.

We set out for the North, towards Kirkuk, on a passenger car escorted by an armoured troop carrier. I was going with Sasha Zotov, who later became Russia’s Ambassador to Syria, and two Iraqi officers. At a stop-over Zotov told me a spicey story when one of the officers cracked up. It became clear that he was rather good at Russian.

This was a tough journey. Kurds wouldn’t permit the armoured vehicle and the soldiers into their territory, they put us and the two Iraqi officers on mules so we had to ride along mountain paths part of the way. In the end we made it safely to Barzani’s residence and accomplished our mission.

As regards the Kurd issue, I remember Barzani say “I want to have autonomy within Iraq, I want to be able to influence Iraq’s policy. These are my two goals”. He did not mention the millions of Kurds living in neighbouring countries. Barzani said: “If I insist on establishing a separate Kurdish state everyone will turn against me – Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. I don’t want these problems”.

His son and the incumbent President of the Kurd region Masud Barzani said almost the same when I spoke with him in his residence in May 2008. Iraqi Kurds received autonomy but this is not to say that all problems got resolved. There are still disputes with Arabs over the annexation of the oil-reach Kirkuk. There are paramilitary bases of Turkish Kurds who are regularly bombarded by Turkey.

As regards the Palestine problem you asked about, there is no clarity yet, as much depends on who will become the next President of the US. If Barack Obama stays, positive changes are possible.

Rossiyskaya Gazeta: Judging by the words of one of my friends, these difficult trips to Kurdistan were not the only times when you risked your life. He, in particular, said that your car was shelled from the air in Lebanon.

Evgeni Primakov: In 1975, I was instructed to hand over a letter from the Russian leadership to the former Lebanese President Camille Chamoun, whose residence was located outside Beirut. There was civil war. At that time I was a member of the Academy of Sciences and Deputy Director of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations. The most difficult part was to get to Mr Chamoun, as many streets were constantly shelled; it was dangerous to travel in them. We decided to take two cars; I sat in one and our intelligence officers in the other. In the beginning we were lucky: there was a short ceasefire and nobody shot. In the course of our meeting with Mr Chamoun his telephone rang; he answered the call and became instantly pale. As it turned out, Phalangists fusilladed one hundred and sixty Muslims in response to a killing of five young Christians. It became clear that fighting would soon resume. The escort car got the bad luck: Robert Martirosyan was severely wounded and Volodya Zaytsev (who later became General-Lieutenant) was grazed by a bullet.

Rossiyskaya Gazeta: Last year US troops left Iraq “with the head up and the gratifying feeling that our duty has been done”, as the American leaders described it. Soon they plan to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan. Probably they will also report complete victory and brilliant results of their mission. But who knows what this holds for Afghanistan? A return of the Taliban? A new spiral of the civil war? A breakup of the country in Tajik-Uzbek North and Pashto South?

Evgeni Primakov: I doubt that Americans will pull out all their forces from Afghanistan. If anything, a significant contingent will stay there, which is not bad after all.

Afghanistan must not be left without attendance. In our time we made this mistake when in early 1990ies stopped helping President Najibullah. Kabul was seized by Mujahideens, and intestinal clashes followed; soon the whole country immersed in chaos and the Taliban took advantage of the situation.

If the Taliban come to power again, that can seriously affect the post-Soviet area as well. The Taliban will approach the borders of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan where radical Islamists are strongly entrenched.

Rossiyskaya Gazeta: Do you believe that Israel, with or without the support of the Americans, might strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities?

Evgeni Primakov: The States do not want this to happen now, on the eve of Presidential elections. They contain Israel. But one should understand that in both Israeli government and US Administration there are different forces which have different positions. It is hard to predict who will prevail.

Just to recall the South Ossetia conflict in August 2008. The American leaders did not want Georgia to set off a war. Condoleezza Rice visited Mikhail Saakashvili and told him, “Don’t do it, we urge you”. However, the Georgian President made connections with other Americans in these days, namely, Vice-President. And he got the idea that NATO would interfere and help. Saakashvili thought he would reach the Roki tunnel and shut it off rendering the Russians unable to redeploy their tanks over the mountains. He thought that at this point the Americans would interfere. The Israeli are using the same scheme. They reach out not only to Obama. Somebody might tell them, “If you make a strike the USA will support you even if they don’t want it”.

Rossiyskaya Gazeta: So the possibility of a strike still exists and it is dangerous for the whole region?

Evgeni Primakov: That is very dangerous. Especially since the impact of an airstrike, there is no talking of a ground operation, will be contemptible. In two years Iran will have recovered, and then it will ostentatiously leave the non-proliferation regimes to create its own weapon of mass destruction.




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