Putin’s Syria mission: Third time lucky for Assad
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.