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A very interesting article by Al Monitor, titled “Vlad and Yuri: How Putin is applying the lessons of Afghanistan to Syria”, October 2015. The article compares the Russian expedition to Afghanistan in 1979 with the Russian expedition to Syria in 2015. I will use the article, and I will add information from other sources, in order to write a more detailed comparison of the two Russian expeditions.
Map 1 Soviet Union
For Russia, the expedition of Afghanistan, 1979-1989, was what the Vietnam War was for the United States. In Afghanistan, the Russians wanted to help the Communist government remain in power. The Afghan communists were at war with the Afghan Islamists. In 1989, the Russians finally withdrew from the country, with the Islamists taking control and starting a new phase of the war. Saudi Arabia and Iran were supporting different Islamist militant groups in Afghanistan. They still support different Islamist groups. But that’s another story.
Egypt and Iran
In 1979, when the Soviets decided to enter Afghanistan, great changes were taking place in the Middle East. In 1979, the Egyptians, who had been moving closer to the United States, signed a peace treaty with Israel. When the Egyptians became an American ally and signed a peace treaty with the Israelis, almost all of the East Mediterranean Sea was under American influence. Even in Lebanon the West had more influence than the Soviets, with Syria being the only Russian ally.
Map 2 Eastern Mediterranean Sea
However, the Russians were not the only ones having problems in 1979. With the Islamic Revolution of 1979 the Americans lost Iran. Under the secular King Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran was a strong American ally. When the Islamists overthrew the Iranian King in 1979, they nationalized the oil industry and canceled all international agreements, and the relations between Iran and the West became very hostile. However, Egypt changed sides and became an American ally, while this was not the case with Iran and Russia. The primary reason was that Russia was supporting and arming Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s socialist dictator, who was a great Iranian enemy.
Saddam Hussein did not miss the opportunity presented to him by the deterioration of the American-Iranian relations, and attacked Iran in 1980, starting the bloody Iran-Iraq War, which lasted until 1988. Saddam Hussein wanted to take under Iraqi control the rich Iranian oil fields located near the Iran-Iraq borders at the river Shat al Arab. The Shat al Arab is the confluence of the rivers Tigers and Euphrates as you can see at the map, and it is the last border between Iran and Iraq.
Map 3 Shat al Arab River
Map 4 Oil (black) and Natural Gas (red) Fields of the Middle East
Saddam Hussein was an Arab socialist and a Russian ally, and he was an enemy of the Arab Islamists of the Persian Gulf i.e. Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates etc. However the Arabs of the Gulf perceived the Shiite Islamists of Iran as a greater threat than Saddam Hussein, and they supported the Iraqis in the Iran-Iraq War. The Americans and their allies were very worried that the war between Iraq and Iran would spill over to Saudi Arabia, interrupting the oil flow and increasing oil prices. Therefore, the US and their allies decided to impose an arms embargo on Iraq and Iran at the London Summit of 1984. However, the Westerners were worried about an Iranian expansion in the Persian Gulf and they gave limited support to Iraq.
Therefore, the Soviets, the Americans and the Arabs of the Gulf were supporting Iraq against Iran. Each one of these players were supporting Iraq at a different magnitude and for different reasons. The Chinese were helping the Iranians because the Chinese wanted to create a Chinese-Pakistani-Iranian axis. For the Chinese, Pakistani and Iranian connection see “Pakistan VS Taliban”.
Moreover in 1982 the Iranians outlawed the communist party of Iran, the Tudeh Party. The Iranians also executed many Iranian communists, thus infuriating the Soviets, after infuriating the West by nationalizing the oil companies.
What is also crucial for the Iranian-Russian relations is that the two countries are neighbors. Before the small states of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia were created, the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire and the Persian (Iranian) Empire were clashing for influence. In 1804 the Russians and the Iranians fought a war in what is today Azerbaijan, Georgia and Dagestan i.e. the Russo-Persian War of 1804-1813.
Map 5 Ottoman Empire, Russian Empire and Persian Empire
In 1826, another Russian-Persian war broke out i.e. the Russo-Persian War of 1826-1828. With these wars, the Iranians lost some land that belonged to the Persian Empire for centuries.
During World War 2 the British invaded Iran from the south and the Russians invaded it from the north, even though the Iranians wanted to remain neutral. Finally, the Soviets kept supporting the communists in Iran, something that caused tensions between the Soviets and the Islamists of Iran.
Therefore, there were quite a few reasons why the Soviet-Iranian relations were problematic. It is of course true that when the Iranian Islamists overthrew the secular pro-Western Iranian King in 1979, and they declared the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Soviets were the first to offer them official recognition. But as I said there were other problems preventing a cordial relationship between Iran and Russia. I think that the major problem in the Iranian-Soviet relations was the alliance between the Soviets and Saddam Hussein, the socialist dictator of Iraq. The main point is that the Iranians were against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and they were supporting the Islamists.
While all these significant changes were taking places in Egypt and Iran in 1979, the Afghan Islamists were challenging the Afghan Communists. The communist party PDPA (People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan) had risen to power in Afghanistan with a military coup in 1978. However, Islamist rebels were challenging the Communists, and there was a civil war in large parts of the country. Afghanistan was a very important country for the Soviets. First of all Afghanistan is located under the rich in gas and oil Soviet colonies of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, which are predominantly Muslim countries. If the Islamists took control in Afghanistan, they could help the Muslims of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Moreover, Pakistan and India were allies, and by controlling Afghanistan, Russian and India could curb the Sino-Pakistani influence in the region. Note that India did not have an active role in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan even though she was a Soviet ally.
Map 6 Rich in Oil and Gas Colonies of the Soviet Union
But the presence of the Soviet Army in Afghanistan was a problem for the Americans too because Russia was approaching the Persian Gulf. At the time, the West was addicted to Saudi oil, and after losing Iraq and Iran the West could not afford to lose Saudi Arabia too. With the Carter doctrine of 1980 the Americans made clear that they would go to war if the Soviets somehow decided to challenge the American influence in Saudi Arabia. Moreover the Soviet presence in Afghanistan was a threat for the Islamists of Pakistan and the Arabs of the Persian Gulf, because the Soviets were supporting the socialists in these countries, and the socialists could challenge the Islamist status quo. For the Pakistanis, things were even worse because they would have to fight the Soviets in the north and the Indians to the south.
Therefore, the U.S., the Iranians, the Arabs and the Pakistanis all disapprove of the Soviet army entering Afghanistan in 1979. China did like the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan either. China and the Soviet Union were the most important communist countries, but they had a very problematic relation. They were fighting for influence over the Communist world. Moreover, the Soviets were Indian allies, and India was one of China’s major rivals. Moreover the Chinese were allies of Pakistan, and the Pakistanis were American and Saudi allies, and the American and Saudis were the principal rivals of the Soviet Union. Therefore sometimes the Soviet and the Chinese communists managed to cooperate i.e. Vietnam and Korea, and sometimes they were in opposite camps i.e. Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Somalia. The Soviets supported the Ethiopians and the Chinese supported the Somalis during the Ogaden War. During the Angolan Civil War, the Soviets and the Chinese were also supporting opposite sides.
The Chinese, together with the Pakistanis, the Arabs, the Iranians and the Americans, were supporting the Islamist militants in Afghanistan, who were fighting the Afghan Communists and the Soviet soldiers.
6th and 7th Paragraphs
China and Afghanistan had neutral relations with each other during the King’s rule. When the pro Soviet Afghan Communists seized power in Afghanistan in 1978, relations between China and the Afghan communists quickly turned hostile. The Afghan pro Soviet communists supported China’s enemies in Vietnam and blamed China for supporting Afghan anti communist militants. China responded to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan by supporting the Afghan Mujahidin and ramping up their military presence near Afghanistan in Xinjiang.
Besides the issue of India and Pakistan, and their struggle for power in the communist world, the Soviets and the Chinese had very long borders. The last Sino-Soviet war took place in 1969. As you can see at the following map China is located next to the rich oil and gas fields of the former Russian colonies of Central Asia, and also very close to Western Siberia, which is Russia’s richest region in oil and natural gas.
Map 7 Soviet Union VS China
Map 8 Russian Oil and Natural Gas Production
Russia was always worried that at some point China could move towards her oil and gas fields of Western Siberia and Central Asia, and she made sure that the Sino-Soviet borders were very well armed i.e. Kazakhstan, Kyrgistan, Tajikistan. Moreover the Soviets had a strong military presence in communist Mongolia, another Soviet satellite. The Chinese were not happy to see the Soviet army on their borders. For more information on the Russian-Chinese relations see Russia VS China.
From all the above it can be concluded that in 1979 things could not get much worse for the Russians in Afghanistan. They had to fight against the Chinese, the Americans, the Arabs, the Iranians and the Pakistanis. For different reasons each one of these players saw the Soviet Army in Afghanistan as a threat.
In 2015 Russia decided to send heavy Russian military reinforcements in Syria, in order to protect the socialist Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad. According to the Al Monitor article, and I agree 100% with it, things are not as tough for the Russians in Syria as they were in Afghanistan. First of all the Russians do not plan to control the whole of Syria, but only the part inhabited by Assad’s people i.e. the Muslim Alawites. Alawites are an off-shoot of Shiite Islam. At the following Wikipedia map you can see Syria’s ethno-religious composition in 1976.
With light green you can see the parts of Syria which were inhabited by Assad’s Alawites, with pink the ones inhabited by the Kurds, with dark green the ones inhabited by the Druze, and with orange the ones inhabited by the Sunnis, who are the majority of the Syrian population. The mixed and the underpopulated regions are the white regions. That’s what Syria should look like if at some point the war is over and the country is divided in smaller states. The Russians want to help Assad, or another Russian ally, to stay in power in the region marked with light green. The Russians cannot do much more than that. Therefore in Syria the Russians do not plan to control the whole of the country as they planned to do in Afghanistan.
Map 9 The Ethno-Religious Composition of Syria in 1976
Moreover in Syria the Russians have neighboring countries as allies i.e. Iraq and Iran, and also Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Iranians do not have exactly the same interests with the Russians, but they fight next to the Russians against the Islamists supported by Turkey and the Arabs of the Gulf. The Iranians want peace, as long as they can make sure that they have access to the Mediterranean Sea, in order to sell their oil and gas to Europe, and as long as they block the Arab-Turkish pipelines, which can send the Arab natural gas and oil to Europe through Turkey.
This is not true for Russia. Russia sells it oil and natural gas to Europe. The optimal outcome for Russia in Syria is war, in order to block both the Iran-Iraq-Syria and the Qatar-Turkey pipelines. Iran-Iraq-Syria is the less damaging pipeline for Russia, but it would hurt the Russian interests too. Anyway, the thing is that Iran and Iraq are fighting with Russia for the moment. Moreover the Russians have China’s diplomatic support in Syria.
Another advantage for Russia in Syria is that the American interests are not aligned with the Turkish and the Saudi ones. In Syria the Americans want to support the Kurds. But the poor in oil and gas Kurds of Syria (YPG) are aligned with the Kurds of Turkey (PKK), who are poor in oil and gas too. The problem is that the Kurds of Turkey (PKK) are supported by Russia and attack Turkey at her eastern flank (Kurdistan of Turkey). In Eastern Turkey the American and Turkish interests are 100% aligned because the Americans want the Turks to send to Europe the oil and natural gas of Iraqi Kurdistan, Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkmenistan. But in Syria the American and Turkish interests are not aligned, because the Americans prefer the Kurds who are pro-West than the Islamists supported by Turkey and the Arabs.
Map 10 Kurdistan
For more details about the Kurds of Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran see “The Energy War of Kurdistan : Internal Alliances & External Conflicts”.
Moreover the Turks want to control Syria, while it not clear whether it would be better for the Americans if the Turks or the Iranians control Syria. The Turks have become too aggressive when it comes to their energy policy, and they are not the reliable US ally they once were. The Turks have a close cooperation with the Russians on the energy sector, and they also cooperate with the Chinese on the New Silk Roads promoted by China. See “The War for the Railways and the Motorways of the New Silk Road”.
Therefore maybe it would be better for the Americans if there was an Iran-Iraq-Syria-Europe energy axis, and a Caspian-Turkey-Europe axis, instead of Turkey being able to control all the energy flows. This is a very difficult geopolitical exercise for United States, since the American interests are not perfectly aligned with the ones of their traditional allies. That’s of course a great advantage for Russia.
Moreover the Turks and the Saudis, both of whom want to overturn Assad, cannot cooperate smoothly, because they both claim for themselves the role of the leader of the Sunni Caliphate. Erdogan has become for Saudi Arabia an Islamist version of the Egyptian socialist dictator Gamal Nasser, who was attacking Saudi Arabia. Nasser wanted to unite the Arabs in a socialist union under his leadership. In that way Egypt would take control of the oil of the Persian Gulf. See “The Intra-Arab War for Oil : 1950-1970”.
The Saudis are trying to form an Arab alliance with Egypt in order to stand against Turkey and Iran. But Egypt, a Saudi ally, cannot offer too much help in Syria, because Egypt moved closer to Russia after the Arab Spring. Egypt was an American ally, but moved closer to Russia when the Americans accepted the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which was supported by Turkey, Qatar and Iran. Therefore in Syria the Russians face very weak and complicated alliances.
At the following map you can see the TAPI pipeline with purple (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India). I include this map because the TAPI pipeline is another conflict between the Americans and the Arabs of the Gulf. The Americans want the natural gas and oil of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan to reach the Indian Ocean, but this gas and oil would hurt the Arab interests. The Arabs of the Gulf sell their oil and gas mainly to Asia. Their differences in Central Asia make it even harder for the Arabs and the Americans to cooperate in Syria.
Finally in Syria there is not a country like Pakistan in 1979. In 1979 Pakistan was willing to do whatever was required to combat the Soviets, because Pakistan had nothing to gain from the Russians, and the Islamist Pakistanis perceived the Russian Communists as a threat. This is not the case in Syria today. Turkey, which is the strong neighbor who wants Assad to go, buys most of her natural gas from Russia, and the Russians offer discounts to Turkey whenever they are happy with the Turks. The Turks of course threat the Russians that they will stop buying their natural gas, as you can read at the following Stratfor article, titled “Turkey: Erdogan Threatens To End Nuclear, Natural Gas Cooperation With Russia”, October 2015. But can the Turks stop buying the cheap Russian natural gas as they threat they will do?
Therefore even though it is not clear whether Russia can take the military cost of her expedition in Syria, it is clear that in Syria Russia does not face many of the difficulties she was facing in 1979 in Afghanistan. In Syria the magnitude of the operations is much smaller than the one in Afghanistan, the alliances that Russia has to face are much weaker, and Russia has also strong allies. With all the above I do not mean to say that the Russian moves are the correct ones. Only time can tell.
For the Al Monitor article see
“Vlad and Yuri: How Putin is applying the lessons of Afghanistan to Syria”, October 2015