Moscow’s Historical Relationship with Damascus: Why it Matters Now

By Carlo Jose Vicente Caro | (Huffington Post) | – –

There have been many objections to what is denominated as the Russian interference in Syria, more specifically in the Syrian Armed Conflict. Most of the objections coming from these analysts concentrate on one sided-arguments and therefore ignore the historical relationship that Moscow has had with Damascus. Many of the reasons given for why Russia is in Syria could be part of the general spectrum of things – they are neither completely false nor completely true – yet they all sidestep history as an unfounded phenomenon. They paint an ingenious yet delusional picture of a foreign intruder coming out of nowhere to the aid of an internal despot, while ignoring the fact that the relations of cooperation between Syria and Russia were established literally as the former gained independence from the French and thereby became a modern nation-state. The objections raised by many analysts are therefore tantamount to objecting to the historical assistance from the United States to Israel. Both are indeed unrealistic arguments.

Both historically and in the present relations between Russia and Syria have not been perfect and have had many contradictions – just like the relations between Israel and the United States (for a recent example of the latter view here). Recently as Reuters reported; one diplomat said the Russians had been frustrated with Assad for ignoring limited political reforms, something that Moscow believes as essential for any future political process.

Historically; the USSR did not share the introduction of Syrian troops to Lebanon in 1976, something, about which the Soviets were neither consulted nor informed. In general the Syrian vision over Lebanon (part of Greater Syria), or its contacts with Hezbollah in the 1980s could not be shared with Moscow. Moscow would also understand the Syrian enmity towards Iraq as damaging to the Arab cause. The level of closeness between Syria and the USSR also diminished the possibilities of Soviet policies in Iraq. The Soviets did not have a real desire to partake in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, as they were reluctant to risk detente with the United States. So while they were clearly not happy with the Arabs for risking what they had going on- they were still obligated to contribute in microscopic portions – like transporting Moroccan units to the line of fire in the Levant for example. While the Soviet Union would eventually place the PLO as a lever on anti-imperialism, they did not exactly see eye to eye with Syria on this question. After the attack to the Palestinian movement by the Syrian army in October 1976, only the Soviet Committee of the Afro-Asian Solidarity reacted with a declaration in which it stated it did not understand why Syria attacked its natural allies in the struggle against imperialism. While the Soviet Union did not agree with Syria’s actions, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union did not risk jeopardizing their relationship either.

Many of these ahistorical analysts have argued that Putin’s motive is to assert Russia’s role as a superpower and that it is trying to project power beyond its borders; that the reason why Russia is in Syria is because it has adventurous policies; that Putin wants to threaten Western interests in Syria in exchange for concessions in the Ukraine; that Putin’s aim is to boost his public approval ratings; that he’s filling a vacuum in the Middle East and Syria as the USA scales back military involvement in the region.

Amanda Taub has argued that Syria is the sum of many of Putin’s fears (anarchy, uprisings, Western meddling). Charles Lister tweeted he couldn’t comprehend why Russia has to play a part in the opposition talks. Other analysts argue that Putin claims to target ISIS but that is not who he’s really after. Michael Horowitz from the Levantine Group for example illogically stated that Russia bombed [rebel] groups (I would call them terrorist) in Ltamenah who were not ISIS, thereby implying that the Russians had committed some kind of sin or mistake. Yet I ask: is it a sin or a mistake to bomb the Army of Conquest in Ltamenah? Did Jabhat al Nusra, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria not form part of that coalition? And did al Qaeda not perform the 9/11 attacks?

Some propose a distorted view of history. Analysts argue that Putin is only in Syria because of the naval base at Tartus. Charles Krauthammer misleadingly writes: “Guess who just popped up in the Kremlin? Bashar al Assad, Syrian dictator and destroyer, now Vladimir Putin’s newest pet.” Some like the great General David Petraeus unfortunately claim that Putin is trying to “resurrect the Russian empire.” Max Fisher, a journalist, misleadingly wrote that the reason why Russia is in Syria is because Moscow aligned with the latter in the 1970s when Hafez al Assad took over the country. Another journalist argued that Russia’s contemporary intervention in the conflict is the reaction to the success of the Army of Conquest, which threaten Assad’s hold on Latakia.

Religious authorities in the world’s largest sponsor of terrorism – Saudi Arabia – have denominated Russia’s interference as an invasion of “Muslim Syria” and have encouraged jihad against Russia in the background of their airstrikes. Similarly, terrorist groups inside Syria have called Russia’s military strikes a “flagrant occupation”, and a “war on Sunnis”. Interestingly enough when Syria gained independence, in part thanks to the actions of the Soviet Union and as diplomatic relations were established between the two nations, it was the Sunni elite who inherited the government from the French and thus began their rule over the new nation-state and their friendship with the Soviets. Then when cooperation between Syria and the Soviet Union intensified, after the Baath party came to power in 1963 under Salah al Din al Bitar, again it was a Sunni who was in power.

The Baath party was founded as a pan-Arab political entity which sought the unity of the Arab world through nationalism, secularism, and socialism. This party had the objective to emancipate the Arab peoples, while deemphasizing religious differences. It would be initially important in the development of Nasser’s Egypt, Iraq, and of course in Syria. In the 60s and early 70s the Soviet Union contributed fundamentally to the creation of a national industry in Syria, which took over importations. The USSR supplied engineers, scientists and machinery for the development of the country’s industries. Soviet cooperation in the development of the oil industry was key for the Syrian economy, as well as their contribution with the construction of railways and agriculture. Mixed corporations were built. It is calculated that around 10 percent of Syria’s population worked in these companies.

2016-01-25-1453698511-806153-cometosyria25.jpg Old relations – at the UNSource: United Nations

But Syria needed to guarantee its sovereignty and this is where Moscow’s military cooperation would start to play a role. The USSR sent military instructors, armament, and other equipment. It is calculated that around 16,000 Soviet military personnel served in Syria. The USSR continued to help Syria at every diplomatic and military levels. During the Six Day War in 1967 the USSR gave unfaltering aid to the Arab nations. Combat started on the 5th of June 1967 with the invasion of Israel to the United Arab Republic, and after to Jordan and Syria. The same day the USSR reacted with a declaration that denounced the aggression from Israel. This declaration had two requests for the government of Israel: to immediately cease the armed actions and to withdraw its troops to the other side of the line of fire. The war did not end until the 10th of June when the Soviet Union broke its diplomatic relations with Israel, declaring that if they did not suspend their military actions then they would take measures, including military ones, to force them to do so. The Soviet Union also controlled Syrian airspace and then it was given a port in the city of Tartus, which would permit the Soviet Navy to have a presence in the Mediterranean. Even today it is easy to find Soviet armament from the 1960s in Syria.

Yet politicians have also participated in this narrow-minded ahistorical campaign to discredit the Russians. Senator Cotton’s ridiculous comments blamed Obama for Russia’s role in Syria (while I actually criticize Obama’s policies in my article here – to agree with Cotton would be to ignore the last 70 years of history between Moscow and Damascus). Senator Cotton argued that Russia’s actions were the result of inaction in US foreign policy. Similarly, Senator Cruz has said that “America…retreated from the world” therefore prompting Russia’s actions inside Syria. Rubio has gone one step forward when he said that “[Putin] he’s trying to destroy NATO… He is exploiting a vacuum that this administration has left in the Middle East.” Carly Fiorina has said like a typical ignoramus that General Soleimani traveled to Russia to talk to Vladimir Putin into aligning with Iran and Syria. And of course Hillary Clinton needs to be mentioned in this foreign policy hiatus, as she has previously challenged Obama to be more hawkish in confronting Russia’s involvement in the Syrian war. She stated: “We have to stand up to his bullying, and specifically in Syria, it is important”. In essence most of the Republicans and Hillary Clinton seem to be on the same erroneous page.

In reality a formal consolidation of the military cooperation between Damascus and Moscow was formalized in 1980 with the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in which the Soviet Union becomes committed to the defense of Syria in case it is attacked by a third party. Such treaty demonstrates the strategic importance of Syria for the USSR, establishing nearly equivalent relations that Moscow had with Poland or Czechoslovakia. Interestingly enough due to this “upgrade” Syria sent to space in 1987 one of its own citizens under scientific cooperation.

Nevertheless in the 1990s relations would become reduced due to the internal problems of Russia and the difficulty of maintaining a strong foreign policy. The rupture of relations between the United States and Syria in 2003 coincided with the rapprochement between Moscow and Damascus. Relations between Russia and Syria, especially economic ones, had also been strained due to the huge debt of around 13 billion dollars which was owed to Moscow by Damascus. In 2005 an agreement would be reached between both parties that would forgive nearly 80 percent of the debt, and thereby removing many of the obstructions in the relations between both nations.

Soviet political policy united a moral foundation with foreign policy objectives to expand their political influence, objectives inherent in every great power, especially in the case of open conflicts with powerful adversaries. On the one side the Soviet Union made an effort to support the liberation movements of the Arabs. This support came from the moral creed of the USSR, whose histories and experiences induced it morally to be on the side of nations for the struggle of their independence. On the other side, the Soviet state, whose totalitarian character and ambitions in its foreign policy had expanded after their victory over Nazi Germany, appropriated that morale and concealed their expansionist objectives, which were growing exponentially.

As the colonies of the West disintegrated and new independent states were born, the Arab world was opening itself more to the influence of the Soviet Union. In 1944 during the war, diplomatic relations were established with two previous French protectorates: Syria and Lebanon. In the next 25 years similar relations would be established with a dozen of other Arab states. The support of the Soviet Union provided many advantages to the Arab world, especially to the newly independent countries. The fact of proclaiming independence for a particular country did not automatically eliminate all of its problems which were derived from the connection with their Western colonizers, especially when the latter were not willing to abandon their positions without due compensation. In these conditions the Arab countries had in their interest to count on the USSR.

When Syria became independent it asked for the withdrawal of foreign troops from its territories, something which was not simple and which even caused a few skirmishes. Yet the Soviet Union supported Syria’s request, whose interests coincided with them: to preserve the security of their borders. In their note of the 1st of July of 1945 and in the course of the debates in the UN Security Council, the USSR insisted of the need to resolve this question, thereby giving legitimacy and weight to the Syrian requests. This posture was important, since it was the first political action of scope from the USSR in the Arab world since the Second World War.

When relations between the Soviet Union and Egypt became cold under Sadat, Syria would become the primary partner of the USSR in the region. Given Syria’s more staunch position with respect to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the USSR would become associated with less flexible positions. Yet at the same time specialized Soviet advisors would attempt to moderate the discourse and action of their new most important ally.

The position of Syria as a primary Soviet partner in the region in the first half of the 1970s had a background of strong cooperation in the 1950s and an expansion in the following decade. From 1967 new links would be established at the level of political parties between the Baath party and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. While the coup d’├ętat in Damascus that brought Hafez Assad to power was initially perceived with preoccupation and caution by the Soviets, these worries would quickly dissipate.

During the visit to the USSR of the Syrian Prime Minister Yusuf Zuayyin in April 1966 both nations agreed on a strong opposition to imperialism and later an accord would be reached for the formation of Syrian political and technical cadres in the USSR. Over 40 thousand Syrian citizens would be given titles in the Soviet education system by 1990. Many of them would occupy key posts in Syrian governance and in the state. Of the 8 members that made up the general direction of the Baath Party prior to 2011 half of them spoke Russian. The presence of people with education in the USSR is prominent in the Syrian Military. Likewise an institute for higher learning was established in Damascus in the image of one in Moscow.

Syria supported the USSR in all topics of the bipolarity of world affairs, it was decisively in favour of bilateral economic cooperation (the first hydropower stations in the Euphrates were concluded in 1973) and especially interested in military cooperation (requiring equilibrium in arms with Israel), but also in other topics of the Arab world.

While the Cold war has been over for decades, and the rules which dictated power relations back then do not apply any longer – it is important to not ignore the historical relationship between Damascus and Syria which grew even before the start of the Cold war, but became intensified by it. It would be foolish to ignore the connection that Moscow has to the formation of Syria as a modern nation-state, as well as ignorant to forget about the political and cultural connections that were developed between these two countries. There is a reason as to why Assad’s son is learning Russian – and it is not because of the current Russian military escalation in the country. To cease to remember decades of personal, family, group and state level relations between both countries would be for an analyst to dictate blind and misperceived forecasts. While there have been many problems in the relations between Damascus and Moscow, and they have been poor at the level of commerce, there has nevertheless remained a sense of an important continuity of friendship and alliance for both countries. Their history gives tremendous weight to the policies being taken at the moment.

Reprinted from The Huffington Post with author’s permission.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

AFP: “Russia and Syria’s historical ties”

Posted in Russia,Syria | 4 Responses | Print |

4 Responses

  1. Overall, a good article that emphasizes the long term bilateral relations between the former Soviet Union and the Syrian Baathists.

    Additional points:

    (1) most of the Christians in Syria are Orthodox, as are most Russian Christians, and the Syrian Christians have been a generally – though not always – a source of support to the Baathists, and thousands of Russian women have emigrated to Syria to marry in recent years;

    (2) Russia has educated in its universities a large number of Syrian professionals and has been a major source for providing the expertise in creating the civil infrastructure for Damascus and other urban areas in the country;

    (3) the Syrian Arab Army is heavily supplied, and to a large extent, trained with the assistance of the Russians;

    (4) the article above makes brief reference to the P.L.O. – the 4,500-member Palestinian Liberation Army, the “official” army of the P.L.O., is integrated as an distinct arm of the Syrian Arab Army under the leadership of Major General Tariq Khadra and is currently fighting alongside Syrian government troops in support of Assad;

    (5) even though the U.S. has a trade embargo against Syria, many European-based corporations have operations within Syria – including Mercedes-Benz, Royal Dutch Shell, and the Swiss-based Nestle.

  2. Although I am in support of America not freaking out so much about Russia’s involvement in the war, I must point out things that matter to mainstream Americans.

    First, it is as historical to say that Russian rulers crave the status of a Great Power as it is to say that they have a longstanding relationship with Syria. You can’t act as though that naval base doesn’t matter in the larger scheme of things.

    Second, defending Russia as having a right to continuity with the Soviet Union could be argued as justification for a continuation of the Cold War. Most Americans, who know nothing about Russia except leftover stereotypes of the Soviet era, will see it that way. If we want to prevent the re-establishment of the Cold War, then we must emphasize the differences between the current strongman and the previous aspirant to world revolution. They can’t just paint “Russia” over “CCCP” and then behave the same way overseas.

    It’s going to be impossible to teach the American people to accept a multipolar world of Great Powers replacing the American superpower if we pretend that Putin is all flowers and unicorns. Being even a Great Power is an ugly business, but several somebodies will be doing it for the rest of our lives.

  3. The points made by Prof Cole are all valid, but the close relationship of Russia with the Christians of the middle east was a driver of Tsarist foreign policy, and is a potent sub-theme in the stance Russia has taken on the Syrian war from the outset. This is salient for conservative opinion in Russia.

    • Yours are all fair points, in my view — Is it Professor Carlo Caro, not Professor Cole, to whom you’re responding?

    • That article was not written by Juan Cole. It was written by someone else. But there is a huge divergence in national and foreign interests as well as motifs and drivers between Tsarist and Soviet Union Russia.

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