16. Airgram From the Department of State to the Embassy in the Soviet Union 1


  • Soviet Policy Toward Middle East


No Fundamental Shift As Yet

The apparent recent upsurge of Soviet maneuvering relating to the Middle East reflected in reporting from Embassy Moscow and other posts raises a question as to whether Soviet policy in the area is evolving toward greater militancy. In the interest of promoting the current dialogue with posts on this subject, the Department offers the following thoughts.2 We are inclined toward the assessment that Soviet policy has undergone no recent basic shift, vital Soviet interests continue [Page 50] to dictate a large measure of caution for Moscow and, despite recent intensified propaganda over Middle East developments, the Soviets still prefer to avoid peaks of tension in the area. In a broader context, the Kremlin dislikes unpredictability in the Middle East, as in Eastern Europe, at a time when Communist China promises to remain a major headache for the Soviet Union for the foreseeable future.

Immediate Soviet Considerations

While Soviet Middle East policy is motivated by a wide range of factors, two immediate Soviet considerations emerge as overriding: (a) perpetuation of friendly radical Arab regimes, above all the Nasser regime in the UAR, and (b) avoidance of a confrontation with the United States. These considerations require Soviet caution and in particular arouse an aversion to the outbreak of another round of Arab-Israeli hostilities, which would entail a mortal threat to client Arab regimes and increase the chances of a U.S.–Soviet confrontation.

The Fedayeen Dilemma

In line with these considerations, the Soviets have thus far carefully limited their support for the fedayeen, who pose a serious dilemma for the Kremlin. Growing fedayeen popular appeal and influence on the Arab governments cannot be ignored by Moscow. On the other hand, the fedayeen are potential competitors for power with Nasser and the radical Arab regimes, in whom the USSR has invested heavily. They are beyond any significant degree of Soviet control and cannot be trusted by Moscow to take into account Soviet interest in avoiding a confrontation with the U.S. They also oppose such other Soviet policies as public endorsement of the November 22 Security Council resolution3 and recognition of the legitimacy of the state of Israel. As in the past, Soviet support is therefore likely to continue to be largely in the form of inexpensive, although perhaps intensified, propaganda favoring the “national liberation struggle” to regain Israeli-occupied Arab territories. Token material assistance may be channelled through front organizations, but Moscow will, for the most part, probably continue to prefer indirect arms deliveries via friendly Arab regimes. A policy shift toward major direct arms deliveries to the fedayeen would tend to antagonize and encounter opposition from client Arab regimes and raise Arab-Israeli tension, without, however, necessarily giving Moscow much additional leverage over fedayeen policies. (See State 192205 for a fuller discussion of Soviet support for the fedayeen.)4

[Page 51]

Risks in the Arms Supply Game

Furthermore, once having rapidly replaced Arab arms losses suffered in the June 1967 war, an action followed by the U.S. decision to supply Phantom aircraft to Israel,5 the Soviets have refrained from adding to Arab military capabilities to an extent which might be construed as upsetting the Arab-Israeli military balance, with the result that the Arabs will hesitate for some time to come to court a full-scale war against Israel. Limited Arab absorptive capacity is no doubt a factor in the Soviets’ thinking. They are also certainly aware that a further escalation of the Middle East arms race would be costly and dangerous, yet without assured new benefits for the USSR.

The Kremlin would also have little to gain from becoming more actively involved in Arab war efforts, such as through providing combat pilots to the UAR, except perhaps for such a restricted purpose as defending the Aswan Dam if the latter should be directly threatened by Israel. Not only would U.S. reaction to a more active Soviet role be a deterrent to the Kremlin, but Soviet flexibility in general would be seriously jeopardized, and the Soviets would in addition bear a greater onus for any further Arab failures against Israel.

The West, the Mediterranean Squadron, and the “Progressives”

Among longer-term Soviet aims is, of course, the elimination of Western influence in the area and the increase of Soviet influence. Moscow has unquestionably benefited from being alert to every target of opportunity, for example by becoming the major arms supplier to the radical Arab states when the U.S. was unwilling to enter such competition. The USSR has, however, exploited rather than created indigenous trends. It has been acquiring in fact a position of influence to which it could realistically aspire not only because of its willingness to embrace the Arab cause but also because of its growing power and its geographic position. The USSR may still hope to gain even more influence, but it already has a substantial vested interest which can be a factor for conservatism in Soviet policy.

The build-up of the Soviet Mediterranean squadron is tangible evidence of another related long-term Soviet goal: strengthening of the Soviet strategic and military position vis-à-vis the U.S. and its NATO allies. This squadron has both a political impact on the Arabs and a deterrent value against NATO. Nonetheless, it will probably remain inferior militarily to the Sixth Fleet for the predictable future and this inferiority imposes due limitations on its use by the Kremlin.

[Page 52]

The “spread of socialism” is still another long-term goal. Moscow continues to emphasize pragmatism over ideology, however, subordinating the fate of the Arab Communist parties to the requirements of government-to-government relations. The Soviets encourage “progressive” political movements such as Nasser’s Arab Socialist Union and the Syrian Baath, as well as the “socialist path” in economic development, so that future Soviet-Arab relations will become more institutionalized and less dependent on individual Arab leaders. Concrete results here have thus far clearly been limited from the Soviet point of view, however. The USSR hardly expects, nor would it necessarily even welcome, the emergence of an Arab communist regime at this stage, a development which could bring serious entanglements and burdens for Moscow. Recent increased Soviet urging of the Arabs to work on developing their internal political and economic structure is undoubtedly intended to encourage stability in the UAR and other radical Arab states, as well as being in effect an effort to deflect them from excessive zeal against Israel.

Peking Competition

Another concern for the Kremlin is Chinese Communist activity in the Middle East. The Chinese have, of course, extended minor aid to Arab extremist groups. They also have had well-advertised government-to-government contacts with Syria, among others. These contacts could hardly fail to irritate the Soviets and probably have not induced them to be more forthcoming vis-à-vis the Syrians. While the Chinese can do little in the region at the moment, Moscow may tend to exaggerate both current and potential Chinese capabilities. Along with other observers, Moscow probably believes Communist China stands to gain from continuing chaos in the area, and this could be a factor inclining the Soviets toward wanting stability there.

“Controlled Tension” or Settlement?

The theory is sometimes advanced that the Soviets prefer “controlled tension” to a genuine peace settlement. The Soviets undoubtedly see their choices as lying between the extremes of continuing military engagement and genuine peace. The experience of 1967 no doubt convinced Soviet leaders, however, that tension in the Arab world is not always subject to adequate control and that, while still falling short of genuine peace, a more effective accommodation than in 1949 and 1957 is needed.

A political settlement is the only alternative to war whereby the Soviets can help the Arabs get back Israeli-occupied territories, and lack of a settlement implies an eventual new round of hostilities. Moscow, in the major power talks, has stressed that any settlement should be comprehensive. It is unlikely that the Soviets harbor secret hopes [Page 53] for a partial settlement limited mainly to Israeli withdrawal because they realize that Israeli agreement to such an arrangement is not in the cards. They also know that if either the Arabs or the Israelis, after agreeing to a comprehensive settlement, sought only partial or selective implementation, a new war would probably ensue.

If a settlement is in fact viewed favorably by the Soviets, why then have they thus far considered it a matter of no urgency to exert the pressure on the UAR and others obviously needed for progress toward a settlement? The answer may lie in part in differing Soviet and U.S. perceptions of what is achievable. The Soviets may feel that UAR acceptance of the November resolution itself represents a major concession, implying as it does UAR willingness to accept for the first time the partition of Palestine and the sovereign existence of Israel in that part of Palestine it has held since 1949. The Soviet settlement plan given the U.S. on June 17, 1969, supplemented by Soviet agreement to Rhodes-type negotiations,6 falls short in many basic respects of U.S. desiderata for a viable settlement. It does, however, represent a distinct advance over the UAR position toward Israel previous to June 5, 1967, and the Soviets have said it is acceptable to the UAR, whereas we have given no comparable assurance that Israel will accept the position set forth in our July 15, 1969, document as modified by our reformulations of Sept.–Oct., 1969.7

A Soviet assessment that large-scale Arab-Israeli hostilities are unlikely in the near future could also underlie the Soviet attitude. The Soviets can be expected to continue to press for concessions from Israel and the US and will not wish to expend leverage over the Arabs prematurely. Furthermore, the large Soviet investment in the UAR, coupled with the experience of having lost similar investments in Indonesia and Ghana,8 presents the USSR with the dilemma of not wanting to antagonize Nasser while at the same time wanting to save him. Moscow also seems to defer to Nasser’s view of what is required of him politically to shore up his weakened position at home and in the Arab world, tolerating but not encouraging periodic heating up of the situation along the Suez Canal, “fire-and-blood” speeches, etc.

Whether or not the Kremlin evaluates a settlement as a real possibility, we would expect the USSR to continue to be interested in [Page 54] pursuing major-power talks. If the talks permit Moscow to curry favor with the Arabs and increase pressures on the US and Israel, they also serve the important purpose for the Kremlin of helping to dampen tensions, although their effectiveness in this regard will diminish in the absence of demonstrable progress. Even without such progress, however, the Soviets will think twice about breaking them off for fear of creating a crisis atmosphere in the area.

Soviet Policy Toward the Moderate Arabs

An example of Soviet priorities in practice can probably be seen in Soviet policy toward the moderate Arab regimes. The USSR appears for the present to favor preservation of the Lebanese and Jordanian governments. The Soviets presumably recognize that radicalization of these regimes would be at the cost in Lebanon of internal Christian-Muslim chaos, with possible intervention by Israel and Syria, and an ultimate risk of US-Soviet confrontation. In Jordan, the cost could be a fedayeen takeover, with an attendant undesirable higher-risk policy toward Israel and, again, a likelihood of firm Israeli reaction.

While Soviet propaganda in the recent Lebanese crisis9 was unfriendly to the U.S. and designed to enhance Soviet prestige as a friend of the Arabs at the expense of the U.S., it at the same time welcomed and perhaps even encouraged a negotiated settlement between the Lebanese government and the fedayeen through UAR mediation. As in other cases, the Kremlin did not originate propaganda themes but echoed the radical Arabs, especially Cairo, although in less strident tones than those used by UAR spokesmen. Also, Soviet diplomacy apparently tried to curb the Syrians and sought to identify the USSR with the relatively moderate, pro-UAR Lebanese Sunni leader Rashid Karami. Moscow has, of course, gradually built up a substantial presence in Lebanon, which provides it with a uniquely free atmosphere among Arab countries, in the form of a large embassy and extensive commercial and banking representation. It has also shown a persistent desire since the 1967 war to increase cooperation with the Jordanian government in economic, cultural and military fields.

Polarization Along US-Soviet Lines?

Moscow probably recognizes that a complete US-Israel versus Soviet-Arab polarization could entail a dangerous rise in tension in the area, inflate Arab expectations of the USSR, and increase the burden on the USSR of supporting the Arabs materially. The Soviets might not necessarily be hostile, for example, to some increase in US or other [Page 55] Western ties with the radical Arab states, should such a possibility evolve. Any resulting US economic aid to these states could relieve some of the burden on the USSR (as do current contributions to the UAR from Libya, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia), while leaving the arms monopoly in Soviet hands. US-Arab ties would therefore not infringe significantly on Soviet influence, particularly as they would not involve any greater US willingness to support the Arab radicals politically.

In sum, we believe there has been considerable consistency in Soviet policy toward the Middle East over the years. However, we do not discount the growing possibility that this policy might take new directions under altered circumstances which could arise unexpectedly. The Department will, of course, continue to welcome contributions on this subject.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL NEAR E–USSR. Secret; Limdis. Drafted by G. Norman Anderson (EUR/SOV); cleared in EUR, EUR/SOV, NEA/IAI, NEA/ARN, NEA/ARP, NEA/UAR, INR/RNA, INR/RSE, and by Sisco; and approved by Adolph Dubs (EUR/SOV). It was repeated to Algiers, Amman, Beirut, Kuwait, Paris, Cairo, Khartoum, London, Jidda, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Tripoli, USUN, and the Mission to NATO.
  2. See also INR Memorandum RSE–94 of November 17, 1969—“USSR–Middle East: Dilemma of Involvement—USSR Maneuvers an Uncertain Course.” [Footnote is in the original. This memorandum was not found.]
  3. A reference to UN Resolution 242. See footnote 6, Document 3.
  4. Telegram 192205 to USUN, November 14, reported that Soviet policy toward the fedayeen remained the same albeit with tactical variations. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 13–10 ARAB)
  5. The first Phantoms arrived in Israel September 6. Documentation is scheduled for publication in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XXIII, Arab-Israeli Dispute, 1969– 1972.
  6. The Rhodes formula refers to the negotiating mechanism used at the January– March 1949 armistice talks held in Rhodes, Greece. This formula required separate meetings led by UN mediator Ralph Bunche with each delegation discussing substantive items until they reached the stage where informal meetings could be held.
  7. Documentation on these U.S. proposals is scheduled for publication in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XXIII, Arab-Israeli Dispute, 1969–1972.
  8. Reference is to the successful 1966 coups against President Sukarno of Indonesia and President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana.
  9. A reference to ongoing domestic disturbances in Lebanon and the USSR’s October response warning against any outside intervention.