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Russia, China and the Wrong Side of Arab History PDF Print E-mail

By DAVID ROMANO

Not so long ago, “revolutionary” Arab republics held the initiative in the Middle East. With memories of Western imperialism and colonialism still fresh in everyone’s minds, the young officers who overthrew corrupt puppet monarchs in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Iraq and elsewhere inspired the Arab masses. They promised “Arab socialism” of one form or another, and a new kind of politics that would fulfill the people’s aspirations. Western-backed kings and sheikhs trembled on the defensive. They could never seem to capture Arabs’ imagination and enthusiasm the way charismatic officers like Gamal Abdel Nasser did in every radio address he gave. The Soviet Union aligned itself with the new “progressive” leaders, and the communist party became the largest political party in most of the new Arab republics. Arab League resolutions seemed in sync with the Soviet Bloc much more often than with the West.

 

Arab socialist regimes in Syria and Iraq soon succumbed to extreme totalitarianism and virulent, militant nationalism, however. Their system of government looked more like the fascism of Europe’s darkest moments or Stalinistic paranoia and leadership cults than anything else. Libya became the sandbox of a mad, all powerful child, devoid of any ideology others could make any sense of. While Egypt turned away from the Soviet Union to face westwards, it only delivered its people into a jungle of corruption, crony capitalism and rigged elections.

 

How things have changed today. When the Arab Spring demonstrations hit Egypt in earnest, the West demanded that their ally Mubarak surrender to popular demands and step down. NATO intervention in Libya did not serve as cover for another imperialist venture, but rather helped Libyans reclaim their country from a despot. In Yemen Western pressure on President Salih came more slowly, but came nonetheless and helped produce an outcome similar to Mubarak’s. In Syria, once the full extent of the Assad regime’s murderous determination to avoid reform became too plain to ignore, the West again demanded an end to the repression and tyranny. The Arab League, Europe and America now work hand in hand trying to pressure Assad to end the bloodshed. And now that American military forces have withdrawn from Iraq, their claim to have really liberated the country begins to gain more traction. The West, in short, increasingly looks like the progressive force for the Middle East.

If every action demands a reaction, however, who now plays the role of the reactionaries, the supporters of despotism and the oppressors of the masses? If the crisis in Syria is any indicator, that would be Russia and China – or yesterday’s progressives. At the moment, these two are the only thing preventing a stinging United Nations Security Council rebuke of the Assad regime (or stronger sanctions against Iran’s nuclear weapons program, for that matter). A Security Council resolution would give the Syrian protestors a welcome boost of morale, and chip still further into the Assad regime’s last remaining bits of legitimacy.

 

Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, responded to criticism of Russia’s promise to veto any Security Council resolution condemning the Assad regime: “The Russian policy is not about asking someone to step down; regime change is not our profession....We are not friends or allies of President Assad....We never said that Assad remaining in power is a precondition for regulating the situation. We said something else — we said that the decision should be made by Syrians, by the Syrians themselves.” Unfortunately, it’s difficult for Syrians to make such a decision about their government when the Russians have armed it with billions of dollars of sophisticated weapons. As five thousand civilians and counting get shot down in Syria’s streets, it’s harder for the international community to isolate that government and its killers while Russia and China continue to actively support it with trade, more weapons sales and political cover at the United Nations.

 

Instead of just refraining from getting involved and only refusing to condemn Assad, Russia and China have chosen to actively help his regime. At least when the West’s despots in Egypt and Tunisia showed themselves naked before the world, the Americans and Europeans disowned them. When Russia and China’s tin dictators lose their clothes, Moscow and Beijing hand fig leaves and implicitly tell them to do whatever it takes to get things back under control.

 

In the larger scheme of things, this seems to put Russia and China on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of human rights, and the wrong side of most of the Arab world.

 

* David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since August 2010. He is the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and author of The Kurdish Nationalist Movement (2006, Cambridge University Press).

 

 

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