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Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Pavel Stroilov, the exiled Russian historian and the author of Behind the Desert Storm. A secret archive stolen from the Kremlin that sheds new light on the Arab revolutions in the Middle East.
FP: Pavel Stroilov, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
The subtitle of your new book states that it “sheds a new light on the Arab revolutions in the Middle East.” Yet, most of it is based on the Soviet secret archives about the 1990-1991 Gulf War, or even older events. It may be interesting to a historian, but what is its relevance to the current events in the Arab world?
Stroilov: Thanks Jamie.
These revolutions may have come as a bolt from the blue to many politicians and experts, but in fact, they had been inevitable for decades. Sooner or later, any socialist regime exhausts its economy and the patience of its people. All these regimes – Egypt, Libya, Syria – are socialist regimes and former Soviet clients. What we witness today is simply the collapse of the Soviet empire in the Middle East, part of the same process which we had seen in Europe in 1989-1991. Unfortunately, at that time the Red Arabs were allowed to survive. They could be – and should have been – overthrown at least twenty years earlier, and with much better results. Why that did not happen is a long story; and I hope I have told much of that story in my book.
Amusingly, I thought I finished the manuscript just before the revolt in Tunisia erupted; and I concluded it by predicting that the Red Arab regimes would be overthrown. I did not expect that to happen so soon that I would have to update the book several times as the events unfolded. Yet, that was where the evidence had led me. The value of this book lies not in my own expertise (fairly modest), but in the unique documents it reveals.
FP: Tell us about the documents and how you obtained them.
Stroilov: Most of the documents are verbatim transcripts of closed-door negotiations between the political leaders of those times. They are still top secret in Russia; and analogous documents in Western countries have not been declassified either.
They came into my hands through a chain of lucky coincidences. When the Soviet regime collapsed in 1991, and Gorbachev was being thrown out of the Kremlin, members of his private office staff made copies of top secret documents they had access to. Those copies were then stored in the Gorbachev Foundation, unknown to the Kremlin at that stage. A decade later, Gorbachev allowed some limited access to the documents to researchers he thought to be friendly, myself included. In fact, I was not that friendly: when I realized what a valuable archive was there, I played some tricks with passwords on their computers, turned my limited access into an unlimited one, and copied the whole archive. That was just in time. In 2003, the Kremlin learned about the existence of that archive, and put pressure on Gorbachev to stop sharing it with researchers. But it was too late – I had already stolen it. I am now working to make it public, and hopefully, this book about the Middle East is only the beginning.
FP: So, what do we still not know about the Gulf War?
Stroilov: Many things.
For example, there were secret negotiations between Washington and Baghdad during the fall of 1990, with the Soviets mediating, in an attempt to resolve the conflict peacefully. Indeed, they were close to an agreement on that – and on fairly scandalous terms, too. Saddam would withdraw from Kuwait voluntarily in exchange for big concessions over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – it would have to be resolved under the Soviet scheme of a UN-sponsored international conference. That would certainly mean, to put it simply, a disarmament and a dismemberment of Israel.
The documents show that George W. H. Bush Administration agreed to that deal in principle. However, they were very keen to keep the ‘linkage’ between Kuwait and Israel completely secret. They wanted Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait as if unconditionally, and then the United States would help to put pressure on Israel as a part of a supposedly unrelated ‘peace process’. On September 9, 1990, George W. H. Bush asked Gorbachev to ‘sound’ Saddam out about such a deal, Gorby sent an envoy on a long round of shuttle diplomacy, but eventually, Saddam refused. He would agree to such a deal if it was made openly, but he did not trust the Americans to adhere to their side of a secret bargain.
Worse still, although the deal with Saddam was not reached, the Bush-senior Administration made many promises on Israel to their anti-Israeli allies in the Gulf War – to Gorbachev, to Mitterrand, to Mubarak, to Assad, etc. It seems that much in the subsequent ‘Middle East peace process,’ disastrous as it has been for Israel, is rooted here.
FP: These are serious allegations; you have the evidence to support this?
Stroilov: It is all in the book. There is a verbatim transcript of the summit-meeting between Bush and Gorbachev in Helsinki on September 9, 1990, where Gorbachev explains his ‘peace plan’ and eventually persuades reluctant Bush to accept it. Gorbachev then proposes to ‘send someone’ to Saddam and to ‘sound him out’; Bush gratefully agrees to that, but asks to keep those negotiations completely secret. It is interesting to compare that transcript with the accounts of that summit-meeting given in the memoirs of Bush-senior, Brent Scowcroft, and James Baker. All of them give a fictitious story: they mislead us to believe that Gorbachev wanted to mention Israel and Palestinians in a joint public statement, but then conceded the point. In fact, as the document shows, the argument was about a secret deal, not a public statement, it was Bush who conceded the point, and Gorbachev who won it.
In October, Gorbachev sent his envoy Yevgeny Primakov to Baghdad, then to Washington, and then to Baghdad again. Those trips were known at the time, but the substance of the negotiations was not. Again, Bush, Scowcroft and Baker pretend in their memoirs that the ‘Primakov’s mission’ took them completely by surprise. They mention briefly that Primakov brought some compromise proposals from Saddam, which Bush and Co. firmly rejected, and then reprimanded Gorbachev for his initiative. However, the Soviet archives suggest that both Bush and Baker actually thanked Gorbachev for it.
It was only in November 1990, just after Saddam’s firm rejection of the ‘peace plan,’ that the US began military preparations for an offensive into Kuwait.
FP: What about evidence of other agreements leading to the Israeli-Palestinian ‘peace process’?
Stroilov: At the same summit-meeting in Helsinki, according to the transcript, Bush promised to Gorbachev that the United States would no longer oppose the Soviet presence in the Middle East and would cooperate with Moscow to start an Arab-Israeli ‘peace process.’ In further negotiations, they discuss the role of the UN and of Western Europe. In effect, one can see in these documents that the present ‘Middle East Quartet’ was established secretly long before it started operating publicly; and its roots are in the secret diplomacy of the Gulf War.
At the meeting with Gorbachev near Moscow on July 31, 1991, Bush and Baker discuss arrangements for deceiving Israel and making it negotiate on unacceptable terms. Thus, they would bring some ‘moderate’ Palestinians to a negotiating table, but promised to Gorbachev that the PLO would be allowed to ‘command its people behind the stages’ from Tunisia. They openly promised to Israel that the status of East Jerusalem would not be negotiated, and secretly promised to Gorbachev and to the Palestinians that the issue would be eventually smuggled into the talks.
Some of the discussions of that period include much bolder proposals. Thus, French President Mitterrand talks about a two-state solution on the basis of not even 1967 borders, but of the 1947 partition plan. Italian Prime Minister Andreotti also supported that idea.
FP: Why would the US Administration make all these concessions? What for?
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