The Russian and Syrian Alliance
Russia and Syria have a deep and long political marriage that is one of necessity, and one of convenience at times, but it is also a historical relationship based on a respect that is bonded by both adversity and a creative, political struggle. Before I attempt to describe or make what I hope is a serious commentary on the relationship between Russia and Syria in the present time that we live in, and which involves the civil war in Syria, itself, I would like to quote the Roman historian Polybius who noted about history and empires and their causes both in peace and war, “For it is history alone which without causing us harm enables us to judge what is the best course in any situation or circumstance.” We should remember these wise words about history, which explain the best course to follow for empires or nation-states in the modern world. Also, let us take a calm look of factual clarity at the history of these two countries whose political and social fates are wedded now for better or for worse in a time of war against terrorism and against the interest of certain nation-states who seek out world hegemony, regardless of the cost of humanity in terms of lives lost. The historical relationship between the nation-state of Russia, formally the Soviet Union, and the nation-state of Syria is one of genuine collaboration through periods of internal, Syrian political crises and regional conflicts within the Middle East. Three coups d'état occurred during the period between 1949 and 1953—until the Ba’ath came to power in Syria in 1954. This takeover was keenly observed by the political and military leadership in the Soviet Union, and the ultimate alliance was only enhanced by the Suez Crises in 1956 with the Tripartite Aggression by Israel, France and Britain. Although there have been cordial culture interests between the Russian and Syrian peoples, their friendship has always been forged by pragmatic needs, mainly economic and martial.
Within the current civil war in Syria, it should be historically understood that Russia, by its very history with the Syrian Government and the Syrian people, has a political and moral obligation to help defend the legitimate interests of Syria in its struggle against modern terrorists such as ISIS or nation-states that seek to overthrow the current president of Syria and create a hegemony that would only enhance more dangerous instability in the Middle East. War, being what it is among modern nation-states, creates a dangerous mass of miscalculations and contradictions among the Western powers that seek to impose their will upon the Syrian state in terms of commerce, the selling of arms, and regional control over a population whose aspirations are not considered. On the other side, nation-states like Russian, Syria, Iran, and Iraq are more interested in promoting the independent economic, social, and cultural interests of their nation-states, which is part of the process towards a more pragmatic form of international order throughout the world. Therefore, the profound historical civil war that is taking place in Syria is in fact a dialectical part of the process towards self-determination and independent national liberation movements among all nations in the Middle East.
As ancient Rome had deep political and military interests in Greater Syria so in fact does modern Russia have historical, political, economic, and cultural ties with modern Syria. In the modernist time, the Soviet and Russian experience has been to seek out international norms regarding the balance of power in terms of global politics and the need for military intervention. Since the time of Lenin, when internationalism and the thrust for revolutionary social change was part of Soviet-Russian foreign policy, Russia has had a fundamental socialist and pragmatic view to the expansionism of international law, one that ran counter to the Western perception of assessing and then forcing a hegemonic military paradigm. The United States was the nominal leader for Western political behavior. These two different views on the accepted means of considering world political crises as they arose would create not only a so-called “Cold War,” but would also be the demarcation line of rancor, distrust, and proxy wars between East and West regarding the approach and use of military force. This international rivalry became a bien établi behavior in diplomacy and war.
With these unvarnished perceptions of the inevitable harsh approach to both political and military friction between these two opposing camps, it was only natural that the Soviet Union would readjust its strategic and tactical approaches for confronting the Western powers. As the historian Roy Allison would admit in his work Russia, the West, and Military Intervention, the Soviet military mindset shifted. “After the collapse of Soviet superpower, did Russian positions on these issues continue to reverberate in the international community? Russia above all has continued to impact on global rule-making through its ‘top table’ presence as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Russia has maintained a presence also in key groupings for regional crises management, such as the contact Group for the Middle East, the Four-Party talks on the Korean Peninsula and the Six Power talks on the Iranian nuclear programme”. It is interesting to note here that in the long pageantry of human history during the time of Soviet rule in Russia, the Soviet army never invaded the Western regions of Europe. Soviet troops occupied Hungary and Czechoslovakia due to the uprising of dissatisfied elements of the inteligencia, workers and communist party officials who naively thought that certain Western powers would support their idealism for democratic liberalism, but such dreams or fantasies were short-lived, for the armies of Western Europe and the United States did not come to their aid. Therefore during the middle period of the twentieth century, the Western European bourgeois powers with its ally the United States, although interested in and preparing for world hegemony, were still using rhetoric and subtle propaganda techniques in their own ongoing Cold War with Russia and her allies. As with the Peace of Nicias, when Athens along with her allies of Greek city-states and Sparta, with her Lachmannian confederacy of allies, signed a peace treaty in 421 BC, which terminated the first half of the Peloponnesian War, so to was there an undeclared truce between the Western capitalist powers and the Soviet Union and her satellite socialist allies of Eastern Europe after the end of World War II, known to the Soviet people as the Great Patriotic War. It was during this time of a cold peace, in which proxy wars and wars of economic subversion were enacted by both parties, that the Soviet Union took a deep interest in its recognition of Syria as a rising political power in the Middle East.
Russia took a political interest in the Middle East, including Syria or the Levant area (territory know in the modern world as Syria and Lebanon), and this interest, which was both territorial and political, heightened in stages. This process of political engagement and cultural recognition between both Russia and Syria were then of a dialectical political process that has lasted through the twenty-first century, and therefore such engagement diplomatique et politique are complex and even subtle in nature. What is seemingly viewed through a historical timeline of events between two countries does not account for the covert, even justifiable Machiavellian and warm interactions that two countries with various and even different political interests. The historian, Rami Ginat, gives in the beginning of his work Syria and the Doctrine of Arab Neutralism a very concise and clear view of how the Russian State has viewed the Middle East through the last three centuries by stating thus:
The Middle East has always attracted the attention of Russia
in its various historical phrases—Tsarist Russia, the Soviet Union,
or the present Russian Federation—because the region is the
southern gateway to Russia. The eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries saw the expansion of Tsarist Russia southward as
result of colonial conflict with the Ottoman Empire and Persia
… Following the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, Russia opted
out of the war [World War I] … In 1919 Lenin declared “pre-
War frontiers will be respected, no Turkish territory will be
given to Armenia, the Dardanelles will remain Turkish and
Constantinople will remain the capital of the Muslim world.
Russia's interests in the Middle East are long-standing. Only the British and French have a similarly long history with the Middle East, while the United States has a short history with the Middle East, at best. However, even in that short period of time, the U.S. has spread its war machine relentlessly in that region of the world.
To understand the interest that the Soviet Union had with the emerging nation state of Syria after World War II, it is important to know how Stalin viewed such a regional interest outside the natural territory of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Although this essay does include primary Russian diplomatic resources on the eventual political alignment between Russia and Syria in the modern world, I will attempt to draw some conjectures on the rapprochement of economic and culture détente between the two countries. During these early years, it was understood through diplomatic signals and diplomatic embassy exchanges among the various parties who took an interest in Syria’s future, that Stalin, the leader of the USSR, sought out a revolutionary approach to the Middle East. He was therefore more interested in the engagement of communist revolutions being nurtured, so it was only natural that he would be concerned about the buildup and sponsorship of Middle Eastern communist parties that wanted socialist governments in that region of the world. Middle Eastern scholars like Ginat have argued or mentioned that there was no major diplomatic changes to the way the Soviet Union viewed its policy to the Middle East until the death of Stalin. It can be argued that with the onset of the Second World War, Stalin certainly had his intelligence agents in the field in the Middle East, especially in Egypt and Syria, not to mention Iraq. Already as early as 1944, the Syrian government had imitated a serious interest in having direct diplomatic contacts with USSR during a time when such a move could have had dire consequences had the course of the war for the Allies and the Soviet Union had turned into defeat on the battlefield. Fortunately such was not the case, and Syrian diplomats were able to meet the first Soviet minster to Egypt, Nikolai Novikov, and although the meeting did not turn out well for the Syrian delegation, it was the first crucial step towards the official rapprochement between the Soviet Union and the nation-state of Syria. After a series of meetings through the summer of 1944, Novikov was informed from the Soviet government that as of July 19th, diplomatic relations with Syria had been attained and that a Soviet diplomatic mission would open in Damascus of that year. On July 31, the Soviet Union and Syria created formal diplomatic relations, but it was not until February 10, 1946 that official diplomatic missions between the two countries was cemented with diplomatic protocols. Thus we see that the road to diplomatic recognition between the two counties was not hurried nor seamless, as a world war had brought them together in the struggle for independence on the side of Syria, and the fight to the death against Nazi fascism by the Soviet Union. What should also be noted and not overlooked is how Stalin played a major role in the creation of healthier relationships between the countries within the Middle East and the Soviet Union. As Ginat commented in his book on the subject (and it should be understood that he was not a communist), the measure of Soviet foreign change was great:
Soviet policymakers appealed to Middle East nationalist groups
to concentrate on the task of putting an end to Western influence
in the region. To achieve that end, the Soviets nurtured relations
with governments that were already pursuing anti-Western policies.
… Stalin begin to follow the line of realpolitik in his international
affairs program. Foreign policy was, first and foremost, based on
utilitarian considerations derived from the USSR’s growing inter-
ests in certain parts of the world … what mattered more to him
[Stalin] was that they pursued anti-Western policies.
In other words, Stalin was keenly intelligent to pursue a more pragmatic course of diplomatic relationships with Middle Eastern countries, to protect not only the frontiers of the Soviet Union, but also to consolidate the victories already achieved on the battlefield. When a leader combines military achievements with diplomatic accords that bring about regional and global stability, then that leader is remembered for his rare talent. In the twenty-first century, such talent by a world statesman is yet to be seen. However, Vladimir Putin took a page from Stalin regarding knowing when to pursue war. When it came to directing the Russian Air Forces in their engagement with targeting Daesh, also known as ISIS, and the al Nursa Front in Syria, Putin knew when to reach out to the diplomatic table among all the parties involved in the regional conflict. Russia and the United States brokered a truce, which took place in February of 2016, during the Syrian Civil War, which had begun on March 15, 2011.
We see, therefore, that from the middle of World War II to the early years of the twenty-first century, the political historical era about which this author writes could remind one of what took place with imperial Rome and Syria in ancient times. Except both regional forces, meaning Russia and Syria, are neither hegemonic in outlook nor force a direct submissive behavior from their allies like those Roman leaders who used their Roman legions unsparingly against foe and friend alike, and those Syrian governors of Greater Syria who submitted to Roman rule without question. Modern Russia, who is wedded to the revolutionary Soviet Union, is a nation that ultimately forges peace or is forced to play a role on the world’s stage in fighting modern fascism and American imperialism whether they are reluctant or not about their role. Syria is still going through its birth pangs of being a regional world power through the process of the classical civil wars that Thucydides and Tacitus wrote about so boldly.
Within the modern history of the Russian and Syrian alliance, there have been tensions that have worked themselves out through a pragmatic understanding, so as to continue the historical process of independence of not only Syria’s domestic and foreign policy agendas from outside interference, especially from Western hegemony, but to insure the security of other Arab countries as well. With this in mind, when it comes to the reactionary deeds of Daesh, we must understand where the seed of such a viscous terrorist organization emerged from, that is, its’ root of growth. As Yevgeny Primakov, who was not only once the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, but also was the Foreign Minister and Prime Minister of Russia, the terrorism that expanded in the Middle East and spread outside that region should be understood as such:
But the terror inflicted by both sides in the Middle East conflict was not the breeding ground for the international terrorism seen at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. For starters, Middle Eastern terrorism was by its nature political, not religious.
Primakov’s succinct observation of the core of terrorism not only in the Middle East, but throughout the world, is a rational and understood historical understanding of how modern aggression and wars is not one of a spiritual nature,
but one of conflicting ideologies that emerge from economic and class contradictions. But Primakov goes further in his analysis of the “war against terrorism” in the twenty-first century by stating emphatically that “the network known as Al-Qaeda did not arise from the Palestinian movement. Al-Qaeda was a religious extremist catalyst used the United States during the cold war—with, as it turns out, no thought to the consequences. It came into being with the aid of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for the purposes of fighting the Soviet army in Afghanistan”. Now, in the times that I am writing this essay, we are reaping the terrible violence of the whirlwind we created, which in turn is creating the implosion of the Western world, including that of the United States as well.
The former USSR did not pander or always take sides with Syria regarding issues like the Lebanese Civil War or the struggle of various political parties and military forces that desired to control the Palestinian resistance. In fact in 1983, Yuri Andropov, the general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, attempted to reconcile Syrian leadership with the Palestinian ranks who supported Arafat within the Palestinian enclave. Therefore, if one attempts to see the foreign policy of the Soviet and Russian alliance with Syria, throughout the decades of the modern era, one will notice that there was always an ebb and flow between the two nation-states. The underlying destructive force of the war in the Middle East and its regional terrorism, therefore, is not due to Soviet or Russian policy. Like the Trotskyites during and after the Russian revolution, American foreign policy was mitigated by the various United States presidential regimes, which fanatically tried to “export” its American view of democracy into the borders of nation-states throughout the world. Today, the modern American Manifest Destiny includes spreading democracy in Syria through its historic civil war, an attempt that could further enflame other regions of the Middle East or provoke World War III. In Syria, the people will manifest themselves in the battle against Islamic terrorism, and in Syria, the world’s fate will be decided regarding such a war.
In this short paper, I have attempted to show in a subtle way how history is not created by simply the whims of individuals or the capriciousness of nation-states without consequences. If we do not understand the nature of alliances, which are like a find and subtle thread from the beginning to the end, then we cannot create a political course of action that brings about a period of peace; instead, we will only bring on the holocaust of war.