Putin’s Syria mission: Third time lucky for Assad

Price paid by Russia in Syria is not high for a country desperate to reposition itself as a superpower.

Russian soldiers patrol ancient Syrian city of Palmyra


2016/10/09 Issue: 76 Page: 9


The Arab Weekly
Sami Moubayed



BEIRUT - Russian President Vladimir Putin has staked much on his bold military inter­vention in Syria to save the regime of long-time ally President Bashar Assad, even risking a collision with the West.

But it is the result of links be­tween Moscow and Damascus that go back to 1919, when a Syrian par­liamentarian-turned-revolutionary named Ibrahim Hananu implored Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin for Bolshevik assistance to fight the co­lonial French.

When the armies of Israel, Brit­ain and France launched the Suez war against Egypt in October 1956, then-Syrian president Shukri al- Quwatli travelled to the Kremlin to plead for help.

He was the first Syrian head of state to visit Moscow since bilateral relations were established in 1944. Addressing Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, Quwatli thundered: “Send in the great Red Army that defeated Hitler!”

Neither Lenin nor Khrushchev complied, of course, but in the early 1940s, Quwatli corresponded with Joseph Stalin, who sent his foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molo­tov, to Damascus with clear instruc­tions to recognise leaders of the anti-French resistance as the de facto representatives of Syria and to ignore anyone associated with colonial France.

On Bastille Day 1944, Molotov snubbed mandate officials by refus­ing to attend French Army celebra­tions on Salhieh Street in central Damascus. In February 1946, he vetoed a French draft resolution at the United Nations aimed at ex­tending France’s mandate in Syria.

Ten years later, Quwatli visited Moscow during the Suez war and Syria cuddled up to the Eastern bloc. It signed an arms deal with Czechoslovakia, exchanged diplo­matic relations with Communist China, trade agreements with Bul­garia, Romania and Hungary and a student exchange programme with East Germany.

In August 1957, Defence Minister Khalid al-Azm signed a long-term interest-free economic and military package with the Soviets, shortly after the US and British embassies closed in Damascus, thrusting Syria firmly into the Cold War.

Moscow’s support for Damas­cus during the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 took the relationship to new heights and, in 1970, the Soviet Un­ion opened a naval base in the port city of Tartus, the first in the US-dominated Mediterranean.

In October 1973, the Soviets sup­ported Syria during the third major Arab-Israeli war.

In October 1970, Syria’s then-president Hafez Assad signed a Treaty of Friendship and Coopera­tion with Moscow. Over the follow­ing 45 years, thousands of Russian military personnel were sent to Syria, along with technicians to op­erate the Euphrates High Dam.

Syrian arsenals were packed with Soviet arms and heavy military equipment. Syrian students were given grants to Moscow colleges. By the mid-1990s, the majority of all public sector company direc­tors, cabinet ministers and senior Ba’athists had received their uni­versity education in the USSR.

They created a shadow lobby for the Soviet Union in the upper echelons of power in Damascus. The Soviets objected when Syrian- US relations improved during the Clinton administration in the 1990s but, for five decades, never once did Syrian state-media criticise the Soviet Union, even during its final disintegration.

When the Georgian Army rum­bled into the breakaway state of South Ossetia in August 2008, the Kremlin responded with a full-scale invasion of South Ossetia, on the orders of Putin, then the prime minister.

Bashar Assad was the first inter­national leader to pay a solidar­ity visit to the Kremlin, a fact often overlooked by Syria watchers. He told Russia’s Kommersant newspa­per: “Everywhere there’s total dis­information, distortion of facts and international attempts to isolate Russia. It is important that Russia takes the position of a superpower.”

Asked if Syria would accept air defence systems from the Rus­sians, Assad replied: “In principle, yes.” That was seven years before Putin sent Russian warplanes to intervene in the Syrian civil war in September 2015 to aid Assad.

During those years, the world mistakenly believed that Syrian- Russian relations were history, giv­en Assad’s frequent meetings with French president Nicolas Sarkozy, Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdog­an and a colourful assortment of US congressmen.

He only visited Moscow three times from 2000 to 2008 and then- Russian president Dmitry Med­vedev visited Damascus once in late 2008, while Putin has made no visit at all. Although the ”great Red Army that defeated Hitler” was never a match for the American one that ended the second world war, it was apparently always ready to stand by its Syrian ally.

Syrian-Russian relations were never the product of the current war and trying to understand them through the narrow prism of that conflict will never explain why Pu­tin has intervened militarily in Syria and seems in no hurry to disengage anytime soon.

Historically it was Syria, not Egypt, that was Moscow’s gateway to the Arab world and Putin used it to return to the global stage as an international heavyweight.

Although Syria is costing him about $3 million a day, the military losses have been negligible com­pared to other wars — four Russian aircraft shot down and ten person­nel killed.

That is hardly a high price for a country desperate to reposition it­self as a superpower via Syria.


Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and author of Under the Black Flag (IB Tauris, 2015). He is a former Carnegie scholar and founding chairman of the Damascus History Foundation.


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