Russia Seeks Syrian Foothold in Mideast

Cold War politics are far from over in the Middle East.

Storming out of a recent Security Council meeting after China and Russia vetoed a resolution condemning Syria's ruthless clampdown on protestors, America's U.N. ambassador Susan Rice expressed Washington’s "outrage" and labeled the veto “a cheap ruse by those who would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people."

But Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin termed the threat of heightened sanctions "unacceptable" given that it reflected a "philosophy of confrontation." Churkin has criticized the United States and the EU for their previous actions in Libya—turning a UN resolution against Muammar Qaddafi, designed to protect civilians, into a bombing campaign aimed at regime change. In fact, some analysts perceived the veto on Syria as a Russian act of revenge attributable to what many have labeled a "Libyan Hangover."

But Russian policy towards the Assad regime is grounded more in Russia's strategic interest in maintaining and perhaps expanding its influence in the Middle East as part of its attempt to revitalize its international status vis-a-vis the West. This desire is not new. It drove the Soviet Union's policy towards Syria throughout the Cold War under similar circumstances.

As the Cold War set upon the Middle East, it brought together two unlikely allies—Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. Initially, the Soviet Union generated little appeal among the mostly conservative Arab states, and Nasser’s strong Arab nationalism generated skepticism about any new power with possible designs on the region. And Khrushchev generally dismissed Nasser’s Egyptian rebellion as just another military coup that lacked an appropriate hostility to the bourgeoisie.

But when Britain forged the Baghdad Pact, an alliance with friendly Muslim countries (Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan) pieced together under the guise of an anti-Soviet bulwark, Nasser became agitated. The West seemed bent on thwarting his nationalist goals throughout the Middle East. He needed arms to counter Israel’s weapons buildup. President Eisenhower had promised them but now seemed disinclined to fulfill the promise. So a seething Nasser turned to Moscow. Khrushchev was only too happy to oblige. He saw an opportunity: Ship arms to Nasser and gain a foothold in the Middle East. Such a foothold had been a Russian dream since the days of the czars.

Before long, the struggle for the Middle East centered on Syria, which became the battleground state for two regional forces—Arab nationalists supported by the Soviet Union and more Western-friendly regimes wooed and supported by the United States.

The Soviet Union viewed Syria as a key state to influence Levantine politics (Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Israel) and inflame Arab nationalist sentiment, given that Damascus had been renowned as the cradle of Arab nationalism. But Syria's polarized multi-party system impeded Moscow's efforts to hold sway over Syrian politics. Broadly speaking, the Soviet Union relied on its military aid to Syria and its charismatic and powerful communist ally Khalid Baqdash to manipulate Syrian politics. Moscow's policy on Damascus took a sharp turn when the Ba'ath party seized power in 1963. Not only did Russia try to make Syria a client state; it also attempted to use Damascus as a launch pad to enhance its regional standing at the expense of the West. In May 1967, with the United States preoccupied with Southeast Asia, Moscow delivered a false alarm to Egypt. It warned that Israel was massing troops on the Israel-Syria border in preparation for an invasion. The Soviet leadership mistakenly reckoned that an Arab-Israeli confrontation would benefit Moscow. As it turned out, Syria lost the Golan Heights to Israel, and Moscow's attempts at staving off a Syrian defeat were reduced to mere vocal threats.

The 1970 ascension of Hafiz al-Assad to Syrian leadership changed the dynamics of the Soviet-Syrian relationship. The Soviets wanted Syrian malleability and deference to Moscow, but Assad wanted national autonomy. The resulting tensions marked Soviet-Syrian relations until the early 1980s. In 1976, Assad intervened in Lebanon against Soviet wishes. Without consulting the Soviets, he massed troops on the Jordanian-Syrian border in 1980 and moved Soviet missiles into Lebanon in 1981. Only in the aftermath of Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 did Syria defer to Soviet wishes. Assad recognized that his policy of strategic parity with Israel had little chance of success without sophisticated Soviet weapons. He got them. In 1983, Moscow supplied Damascus with advanced surface-to-surface missiles, the SS-21, much to the chagrin of Washington and Jerusalem.

This relationship came to an end with the collapse of the Soviet Union. But now, Russian-Syrian relations have been revived through the efforts of former Russian president Putin, who has tried to reclaim past Soviet power in the Middle East—and particularly in Syria. This Russian interest in Damascus increased following the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the 2008 South Ossetian War. Washington, which had already secured a principal role in the Arabian Peninsula through its bilateral security agreements with Arab Gulf countries following the first Gulf War in 1990, had been angling toward expanding its power throughout the Middle East. The result was that the post-Cold War political landscape took on the contours of the Cold War landscape. And Damascus reemerged as a principal point of entry for Russian regional influence. Besides resuming arms sales to Syria at discounted prices and refurbishing Soviet-made Syrian tanks, Russia forgave billions of Syrian Soviet-era debt. Conversely, Damascus offered to convert the port of Tartus into a permanent Middle East base for Russia’s nuclear-armed warships. It should be noted, however, that Russia has declined to supply Syria with the sophisticated S-300 missile, which could give Damascus an air-defense capability against Israel's air supremacy.

Significantly, the eruption of a Syrian revolution has put Russia in an awkward position. Moscow recognizes that the Syrian opposition has broken the barrier of fear and has been gaining ground; yet it does not believe the Assad regime will fall. It entertains the scenarios that the regime may either weather the revolt or retreat into an Alawi state geostrategically located between Turkey and Lebanon and open to the Mediterranean. It also believes that neither Iran nor Hezbollah would forsake the Alawi regime. According to Moscow's calculus of power, its interests would be better served under either scenario than if a post-Assad regime emerged. Bolstering this line of thought is the fact that the revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia haven’t yet enhanced Russia’s relationships with those states. And Russia, like the Soviet Union, has often found itself stultified in the Middle East by regional and Western politics.

It is this sense of being boxed in that guides Moscow's policy on Syria. One can’t help noticing that Russian discourse regarding Syria today is eerily similar to that of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Though the regional circumstances were different in 1957, 1967 and 1973, the Soviet Union consistently wanted the major powers to renounce the use of force in the Middle East. And now Russia seeks to dismiss the growing Arab Gulf, Turkish, Kurdish and Israeli opposition to the Syrian regime, not to mention the Syrian opposition that recently announced the creation of the Army of Saladin.

Thus, while Russia’s desire to leverage its relationship with Syria in order to expand its influence in the Middle East is consistent with past behavior during the Soviet era, that effort doesn’t seem any more likely to be successful than it was in the days of old. The Assad regime is a weak reed upon which to build such a policy.

Robert G. Rabil is a professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of Embattled Neighbors: Syria, Israel and Lebanon (Lynne Rienner, 2003); Syria, United States and The War on Terror in the Middle East (Praeger, 2006) and most recently Religion, National Identity and Confessional Politics in Lebanon: The Challenge of Islamism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).