Soviet Backing for Arab Wars – A Painful Recurring Memory
The scenario that sends shivers down many Israeli spines is the possibility of the Russian-US discord in 2008 leading to Russia riding back to a lead-role in the Muslim world and Middle East – not only through military pacts with Iran and Syria, but by reviving the Soviet Union’s alliance with Egypt.
This alliance pre-dated and certainly would have precluded Cairo’s 1979 peace accord with Israel.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources report that a brains trust set up by Israel strategists is postulating scenarios that could stem from a pro-Russian coup in Egypt – albeit not before the death of the ageing president Hosni Mubarak. Moscow would then make a spectacular comeback to the positions of military strength and influence the Soviets held in the Middle East in the 1970s – far overriding the holdings of the United States.
For the first time in 23 years, a major power would stand behind Iran and the Arab nations and again provide them with weapons systems, missiles, intelligence, warships, submarines and electronic warfare of a quality which Israel can only obtain from the United States.
To understand Israeli security experts’ jitters, our sources turn a few pages of history back to November 19, 1985, the day before US president Ronald Reagan met Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva. On that day, Israeli fighter jets flying close to Lebanon’s Mediterranean coast downed two Russian-made Syrian Mig-23 fighters.
Operational intelligence in Washington and Israel had assumed the Syrian Migs were flown by Russian pilots to shoot down Israel fighters and show off the superiority of top-line Russian aviation electronics and weapons to anything Washington and Israel could produce.
Massive Soviet backing for four Arab wars
Had Moscow’s ploy succeeded, the Reagan-Gorbachev summit might have turned out differently. But after the Migs were bested by American weaponry, the Russian president came to the summit cap in hand and the American president was able to dictate the terms for the Soviet Union’s breakup.
Massive quantities of Soviet hardware, expertise and military personnel were thrown behind two major Arab wars on Israel in 1967 and 1973, as well as the two Wars of Attrition waged from 1968 to 1971 and from 1973 to 1974.
Israel won these wars but paid an exorbitant price in thousands of lives and costly social and economic disruptions.
Almost exactly 30 years ago, Egyptian ruler Anwar Sadat finally snapped the links his predecessor, the ultra-Arab national Gemal Abdul Nasser, forged with the Soviet Bloc. He turned his face to Washington and, after Menahem Begin came to power in Jerusalem 1977, sought peace with Israel.
On November 30, 1985, Syrian and Russian aircraft challenged the Israeli Air Force again. The IAF shot down another two Mig-23s.
And that was the last time the Syrian or any other Arab air force challenged Israel in the air – up until now.
Syria’s Hafez Assad, father of the incumbent president, preserved his close military ties with Moscow and enmity for Israel – even after the Soviet empire collapsed.
For a Middle East comeback, Moscow must net Egypt
In early August, 2008, alarm bells rang again in Israel’s intelligence and military headquarters, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report, when Russian troops went into Georgia to crush Mikhail Saakashvili‘s offensive. Since then, their staffs have been scouring every site, sound and vibe for a digital or verbal sign portending a Russian Middle East comeback.
They stopped digging after Aug. 21, when they heard Syrian President Bashar Assad saying that Damascus was ready to consider deploying the dread Russian Iskander missile systems in its territory, in response to the US missile shield in Europe.
He was followed three days later by an announcement from the Russian Navy chief Adm. Vladimir Vysotsky that warships in the Mediterranean had been placed under the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s command in Sevastopol.
Israeli defense planners believe this is just the beginning. The Kremlin has taken the first step toward bringing the cold war to Mediterranean waters and will now reach for the gold, Egypt, the biggest Arab nation and traditional regional leader.
Moscow might never have a better opportunity.
The regime is in the doldrums. President Hosni Mubarak, who turned 80 in May, is running low on energy and for the last five years governed pretty much by inertia.
It is said that his working day is down to two hours. Since 120 minutes per day are hardly enough to rule a population of 82 million and conduct the Arab world’s strategy in Africa and the Persian Gulf, Egypt has been sidelined as a spent force.
One Arab ally after another has dropped out of the Egyptian orbit and is going his own way, like Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, Syria’s Assad, Sudan’s Bashir, Yemen’s Ali Salah and the Gulf emirs. They have all stopped seeking advice from the Egyptian president.
Egypt, weak and facing political upheaval is ripe for takeover
A Western diplomat familiar with the Cairo scene told DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources that Egypt is no longer a player for Iraq or even Darfur at its back door. To sort out the Lebanon imbroglio, the ruler of lightweight Qatar easily swept into Egypt’s traditional role as broker and drove Syria and Lebanon to a settlement. Even Hamas has stopped paying attention to the ruler of the Nile nation.
Israeli strategic analysts foresee three alternative scenarios:
1. Mubarak will be forced to step down by sudden illness, political upheaval or economic disaster, and his political and military associates, all over 70, will take over and establish a transitional regime.
2. His son, Gemal (Jimmy) Mubarak will muster enough supporters in the ruling Socialist Democratic Party to step into his father’s shoes.
He will not be unchallenged. Two rival power bases will spring up – his own loyalist coterie, most of them political opportunists, and the arm,y bolstered by the security and intelligence services and opposition factions.
3. In times of low morale like the present, the Egyptian street tends to gravitate towards charismatic leaders built in the image of the magnetic dictator, Nasser.
Some pretenders believe they fit this image and are preparing to stake their claim.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Middle East sources name some of the front-runners.
Arab League Secretary, former Egyptian foreign minister Amr Mussa.
His performance in both appointments was far from scintillating, but he panders to the popular anti-American, anti-Israel urge to recover “national pride,” and which blames the Sept. 11 attacks on an American-Israeli conspiracy to defame Arabs and Muslims.
Minister of defense, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi Soliman, a professional soldier of the old school.
Intelligence minister Gen. Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s leading facilitator in Palestinian and inter-Arab diplomacy. Wearing the enigmatic face of a typical spymaster, he is solidly backed by the Muhabarat intelligence and security community and Saudi Arabia.
Sawfat Sherif, head of the ruling party’s Shura Council, a grass-roots apparatchik.
The next Egyptian government will turn to anti-US, anti-Israel belligerence
Israeli analysts conclude that all three alternatives play into Moscow’s hands.
To survive, any new Egyptian regime or ruler must establish popular credibility and broad Arab endorsement, a short cut to which would be a belligerent posture towards Israel (with whom Mubarak’s predecessor Anwar Sadat signed peace in 1979, later paying for it with his life.)
The obvious patron for this reversion to the old pan-Arab, anti-Israel enmity is hardly the United States who would be targeted by the same enmity. But embroiled in a controversy with Washington, Moscow would jump at the chance.
Russian penetration would find in Cairo an influential pro-Moscow infrastructure, left over from the Soviet days of the 1960s and 1970s. Some of these retirees from the good old Soviet era passed through Russian military and intelligence academies.
Israel might end up pitted against an evolving Russian presence in the region, hinging on the powerful Iran-Syrian-Egyptian axis. It would be more formidable than the hostile pro-Soviet bloc which the Jewish state fought off in Cold War 1.
This scenario does not look entirely farfetched to contemporary Israeli defense planners.
It is undoubtedly under consideration by their opposite numbers in Washington too.