The Russian - Syrian Evolution
22 May 2014
The infamous Sykes-Picot agreement struck between Britain and France in 1920 meant that the Levant was not allowed to stay united and become independent. Instead, Greater Syria was divided into the states of Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and the name Syria itself was restricted to a land that occupied less than half the land that bore the name.
Further land theft was imposed on Syria when France gave Turkey the provinces if Cilicia and Iskenderun, an act that was followed by ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the Turks. Yet, another act of Western treachery perpetrated by the French.
But the biggest Western blow that Syria suffered from was the creation of Israel and the seemingly endless Palestinian human tragedy that followed. And it was as if it was not enough, the French and the British fought the Arabs on the side of Israel in 1956, and later on when the shuttle diplomacy of Henry Kissinger excluded every power broker other than the USA from the region, Israel became a virtual off-shore US state that receives limitless military and financial support to make sure that its military might will always be much stronger than all Arab armies combined. Kissinger went further by isolating Egypt from the Arab scene and leaving the military confrontation between Arabs and Israel restricted to the Eastern Front.
By the mid 1970’s, the audacity of Western meddling in the Levant reached a new height, and Kissinger was the master of dishing it out to all, including to the Soviets. But it was in that very same period that Syria and Russia were at least trying to form better relationships, but they had to take many stumbles and falls and learn the hard way.
A couple of decades earlier, in the 1950’s to be more specific, the Soviets had no idea what were the Syrian expectations of any collaboration between the two countries. After all, even during the first few years of the Baath rule in Syria, Communists were persecuted. The Syrian geopolitical ideology was very vague to their Soviet would be partners, and as if this was not bad enough, the multitude of Syrian “revolutions” and putsches did not exactly portray a good image of stability for Syria in the eyes of the Soviets.
In the years following the abysmal defeat of the combined armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan in 1967, the then Syrian Defence Minister, Hafez Assad realised that the only way to turn the tides to his favour was by way of forging a strong relationship with the Soviets because only and only their weapons were able to confront the military might of Israel. As a Defence Minister, his “boss” Salah Jdid was reluctant to turn Syria into a Soviet vassal (as he saw it) and Assad’s hands were tied, tied until he got in power.
Getting on top of the helms did not necessarily mean that Assad had the Kremlin up his sleeve. Reality was far from it. He had to work hard with the Soviets to prove that he was worthy of being regarded by them as a regional partner and not just an obscure provincial leader begging for arms.
Hafez Assad was still a novice in international politics back then, but he was an extremely quick learner. He knew that geopolitical partnership was based on mutual interests, and he had to be able to prove to his would-be partners that he is strong enough and with an apparatus that was stable enough to engage in reciprocal relations.
Early in the mark, credit must be given to his persuasive power as in the total lack of any track records and long-term history, the Soviets must have seen in him the spark that encouraged them to supply him with the advanced weapons of the time such as MiG21 and the heat-guided SAM-6 anti-aircraft missiles among other weapons.
In the 1973 October war, Assad was betrayed by Sadat who had an agenda and a battle plan that were different from the ones that he discussed in length and depth with his partner in war, Hafez Assad, for over two years. Sadat abandoned Assad 24 hours after the first attack, leaving Syria fighting on its own, and then when he decided to resume fighting, it was too late for both of Egypt and Syria. Israel, aided by the influx of American weaponry, took advantage of the lull on the Egyptian front and eroded most of the wins of the Egyptian and Syrian armies on the ground.
The Soviets must have watched in horror to see the regional allies Syria and Egypt falling out and realising later on that they lost their role as a negotiator and power broker in the Levant. They definitely would have blamed most of this outcome on Sadat, his hidden intentions and how he was duped by the Americans. They might have even blamed themselves for not knowing that when they went to Geneva in 1974, Kissinger had already struck secret deals with the Israelis, giving them unconditional and limitless support, and fooled Sadat to rubber stamp a peace deal with Israel independently from Syria. They truly did not know that the Geneva conference was a fait accompli and that their presence was merely to make them witness an announcement that the USA is the only unrivalled decision maker.
The post Camp-David era must have seen a huge deal of covert blame and counter-blame between the Soviets and Syria. The hapless partners had no alternative but to either accept final defeat or bolster their friendship, but it wasn’t till 1987 that the Soviets were prepared to sign a treaty of friendship with Syria. It took President Hafez Assad 17 years to reach this landmark in history; albeit perhaps tokenistic because it did not have the chance to be given the tests of longevity and putting action into words.
The USSR collapsed not long after, and Syria was virtually left alone, totally alone in a very hostile environment, not knowing if it was still able to get more advance weapons, let alone spare parts for its Soviet hardware.
As Russia sank into the doldrums of the Yeltsin era, Syria was experiencing greater stability and economic growth. Prosperity and stability were further enhanced by a new-found form of security.
Hafez Assad had always lived with the nightmare of how to be able to confront Israel militarily. His initial hopes of fighting a conventional war alongside Egypt were soon dissipated, and in the post-Camp David era, his nightmare became even worse. If he was unable to win a conventional war against Israel, he could perhaps win an unconventional one; one that relies on popular resistance.
Eventually, what tipped the balance of power to his favour was a least likely partner, an initially small group of Lebanese resistance fighters by the name of Hezbollah. With his genius diligence and strategic planning, by virtue of his support, Hezbollah was able to score the first true unconditional Israeli defeat when Israel made a humiliating retreat from Lebanon on the 25th of May 2000.
Hezbollah was no match for Israel’s might, but it had the deterrence of missiles that can hit Israel in its depth, something that Arabs were never able to do in the past. More importantly, by arming and training Hezbollah fighters, Hafez Assad gave Israel a subtle message about his own strike power.
But as usual, Hafez Assad had always kept his best war secret close to his chest. In the skirmishes that predated the Oct 1973 war, the SAM-6 batteries were hidden and only put into action when the full-on battle broke out. Syria had always played the game of keeping the element of surprise for the enemy. Even now, all the limited Israeli intimidations of Syria did not tempt Bashar Assad to expose to the Israelis what his air defence arsenal is comprised of.
Finally, by the year 2000, Assad was able to say to Israel that if you attack us, we can retaliate. The balance of power has never seemed better. Hafez Assad died a few weeks after this colossal victory. He must have died with a smile on his face. He has finally been able to find an effective deterrent against Israel.
By the time Vladimir Putin came to power, Syria had already found a way to protect itself and its stability and prosperity were on the rise. In more ways than one, Syria was in a much better situation than Russia, and in as far as the bilateral relationship between Russia and Syria was concerned, in a surprising reversal of fate, more onus rested on Russia to prove its worth.
It was perhaps by accident that two new fresh faces appeared on the scene in both of Russia and Syria almost at the same time. Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin found that they had a lot in common and a gargantuan past experience to learn from, both in as far as their bilateral as well as international relationships.
Syria’s fight was not over. Bashar Assad knew well that the only way for Syria to reach higher achievements was by rounding up more allies, mainly Russia. On the other hand Putin knew well that for Russia to re-enter the gates of the Levant, he needed Syria. Both leaders had to learn the hard way that the key was in bolstering their ties and friendship. The so-called “New World Order” in which America was the only superpower was one that marginalized Russia, eroded its global stature and shrunk is territory and sphere of influence. Russia lost most of its access to the warm waters of the Baltic. Former allies of the Soviet Union were coerced to join NATO and their soil was turned into bases hosting missile launch pads poised at Russia. Russia sat and watched as its former ally Serbia had to weather NATO strikes, and then sat in silence and watched America spread its dominance over Iraq.
It was in Ossetia where Russia drew a red line in 2008 for the first time since the fall of the USSR, but again, Russia endorsed the NATO intervention in Libya reportedly a decision that was highly regretted later on.
When the war on Syria began in early 2011, it became clear to the Russians that this war was not at all intended to only bring down Syria, its secular status, and its position as the bastion of resistance against the Israeli/American roadmap. The aim was to also push Russia and its sphere of influence from the Eastern Mediterranean, the Port of Tartous, and also the huge untapped Syrian gas and oil wealth. That was a red line that Russia was not and is not prepared to allow the USA to cross.
Despite some business deals that Russia struck here and there in the Levant, including some with Israel itself, Russia has been out of the political equation of the Levant since the mid 70’s when the Soviets trusted Kissinger not knowing that he had only invited them to see them getting humiliated. Russia is intent to get back in, and it cannot do this without Syria, pretty much like how Syria cannot alone escalate it fight further against Israel, get more gains, support the resistance and retake the Golan without Russia’s technical and diplomatic help.
Much is at stake, and both parties know that they can both count on each other’s stability and trust.
The current Russo-Syrian relationship is not one that was forged yesterday in a hurry. It is one that has been more than six decades in the making. It developed and grew as both nations learnt how to better understand each other and each other’s needs and expectations. It had to weather the test of time and its ability to turn negativity, failure, deceptions and the meddling of traitors into lessons to be never repeated. It has developed from a relation of a beggar and a donor to one of two partners, not perhaps equal by size and might, but equal with their importance and viability to each other.
Every school kid in Syria learns about Sykes-Picot and the long history of Western treachery and deception. Every man woman and child know about the role of the West in the creation of Israel and its rise to power. If anything, as a result of the current war on Syria, those stories are replaying in every household of all Syrian patriots and the young children and youths are hearing those stories again.
With the imminent decline of the West and colossal rise of the BRICS axis, the time has never been better for Syria to undo the Western injustices perpetrated on its soil for over a century. Its alliance with Russia has come to age and matured at the right time, and in its forthcoming war win, Syria has proven to its Russian partner that it is a nation that is strong, by-and-large united, and one that is bent to play its role in creating a new poly-centric world.