**This is the first of a two-part article series, covering the greatly understudied early Syrian-Soviet relationship. Part two will cover the post-1958 period to the present Russian military support to the Syrian regime.

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Syrian secular pundits did not hide their admiration for the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which brought the communists to power, toppling Tzar Nicolas II. Ordinary Syrians, however, knew little to nothing about the faraway country, other than the fact that the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Damascus, Gregory IV Haddad, had recently traveled to St. Petersburg in March 1913 to attend the 300th anniversary of Romanov family rule in Russia. The trip received front-page coverage in the handful of Syrian newspapers coming out at the time, in both Arabic and Ottoman Turkish.

Secular observers were applauding the news coming from Moscow, impressed by Vladimir Lenin’s assault on the churches of Russia and his persecution of their clergy. They sincerely hoped that if they managed to come to power in their part of the world, then they could get rid of the Muslim caliphate system, through which the Ottoman sultans had ruled them for decades. Syrian Christians were unimpressed with the Russian communists though, and so were Muslim scholars who accused Lenin of being an atheist. Syrian officialdom did not know what to make of Lenin, however, and it took the country’s post-Ottoman rulers months to formulate a statement, which was published in the official government mouthpiece in August 1919, saying:

“We judge the Bolshevik Revolution through what reaches us, whether from the Russians themselves or from Europeans who have visited Bolshevik Russia. If we were to believe them—and we have no reason not to—then Bolshevism is the biggest plague for any peoples. Russia today has become a prey to both chaos and hunger and the country has witnessed enough oppression and injustice to make its peoples long for the rule of the Tzar.”[1]

Reaching out to Lenin

Damascus Moscow

Syrian rebel commander Ibrahim Hananu

When French troops landed on the Syrian coast and started making advances on Damascus to occupy the country by force, Syria’s leaders turned to Lenin—the very same man they had disparaged —asking for arms to fight off the French. The man to handle the talks was parliamentarian-turned rebel commander Ibrahim Hananu, who corresponded with Lenin between April-September 1919, addressing him as the “Bolshevik Hero.”

Hananu launched a revolt against the French troops from the countryside of Idlib in April 1920. He wrote a letter to European diplomats stationed in Syria, threatening: “We will die, Bolishify [turn Soviet], and transform the country to ashes before submitting to the rule of [French] injustice.” The exchange with Lenin amounted to nothing, however, and no arms came from the Kremlin. Lenin was too busy getting his domestic house into order to mind what was happening in Syria. By 1921, the Hananu revolt had been suppressed and its leader exiled to British Transjordan.

The Damascus-Stalin Connection

When the French Mandate was imposed on Syria in July 1920, the country’s foreign ministry was abolished and all foreign relations were handled by colonial France. France suffered a series of setbacks during World War II, starting with the occupation of Paris by the Nazis, forcing it to yield to British pressure in the Middle East, which among other things, led to an election victory for Syrian nationalists, headed by Shukri al-Quwatli, a Damascus notable. In 1944, he dispatched an envoy to Cairo for talks with the Soviet Ambassador Nikolai Novikov, asking whether Joseph Stalin was willing to provide military or political aid to the anti-French movement in Syria.

On July 11, 1944 Novikov arrived in Damascus for talks with the Syrian president, carrying a message of good-will from Comrade Stalin. Ten days later, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molatov telephoned Quwatli, expressing a desire to open a Soviet embassy in Damascus. Stalin sent a senior delegation to Damascus, charged with setting up the embassy. They stayed in the Syrian capital for 15 days, and restricted their meetings to Quwatli and his team, not calling upon any of France’s men in Syria. One of Charles de Gaulle’s diplomats remarked: “Novikov passed two weeks in the Levant without contacting the Delegate General of France. This is clearly not agreeable for us. The misfortune of times, however, does not allow us to complain.[2]

The Soviet Union supported extending an invitation to Syria to attend the founding conference of the United Nations in May 1945.

The Soviet delegation’s visit coincided with the annual French celebrations of Bastille Day on July 14, 1944. The mandate regime had previously celebrated this holiday with grand festivities, giving the Syrians a day off. Quwatli contacted French authorities and requested that the festivities be cancelled, demanding to celebrate only Syrian holidays from there on. De Gaulle’s Damascus envoy, Olivia-Roget, promised to call off the celebrations, but then did the exact opposite, staging a military parade at the gates of the Syrian parliament, and hoisting French Flags on government buildings. Quwatli, of course, boycotted the parade, as did the Soviet guests. The Soviet Union then supported extending an invitation to Syria to attend the founding conference of the United Nations in May 1945 and used its veto power at the UN Security Council in February 1946 to abort a French attempt at keeping troops in Syria. It was the first veto in the history of the United Nations, which was to be followed by many others under Vladimir Putin.

Post-Mandate Relations

The French eventually evacuated from Syria in April 1946, not under Soviet pressure, however, but rather, due to American-British lobbying with the French. Relations between Damascus and Moscow briefly soured in May 1948 when the USSR, along with the United States, immediately recognized the State of Israel. During demonstrations that broke out throughout all Syrian cities and towns, young students attacked and torched the Soviet Embassy in Damascus.

In March 1953, Stalin died and was eventually replaced by Nikita Khrushchev, a main pillar of Cold War politics. One year later, Syria got its first communist MP, Khaled Bakdash, leader of the Syrian Communist Party. During the premiership of Said al-Ghazzi (September 1955-June 1956), the Soviet mission in Damascus was upgraded to a fully accredited embassy and a ranking member of the Damascus clergy, Sheikh Mohammad al-Ashmar, was decorated with the Stalin Peace Prize. Premier Ghazzi hosted Soviet Foreign Minister Dmitri Shepilov in Damascus, who remarked that the USSR was a “sincere and honest friend, without greed or private designs and with no desire to usurp the riches of others.”

Quwatli in Moscow

Damascus Moscow

Inside one of the decadent Kremlin cathedrals, a room dedicated to the Order of Saint-Alexandre Nevsky shimmers with gold. During his visit in 1956, former Syrian President Shukri al-Quwatli was awed by its magnificence.

At the height of the Suez War of 1956, President Quwatli landed in Moscow for talks with Khrushchev, becoming the first head of state to visit the USSR. At the Kremlin, Russian hospitality was gargantuan. Quwatli had seen plenty of splendor in his life, from the palaces of Egyptian royalty to the mansions of the Damascus aristocracy (of whom he was a ranking member) but nothing like this. The magnificence of the meeting rooms, with golden domes and cut-glass chandeliers, along with the dazzling banquet halls impressed him and his team. Quwatli frantically appealed to Soviet leaders, shouting: “Israel, Great Britain, and France want to destroy Egypt! It’s a conspiracy!”[3]

Calmly, Khrushchev asked him what was expected of the Soviet Union. Seated across the roundtable were KGB security officials, army officers, and top members in the Communist Party. Quwatli looked at them and said: “Send in the large Red Army that defeated Hitler!”[4] Marshal Georgy Zhukov was called into the meeting. Zhukov, a legend in the Red Army, had personally overseen the conquest of Berlin. Zhukov took out a map and placed it before the Syrian leader. He explained that for his army to move into Egypt, it had to pass through Iran, Iraq, Israel, and Syria: “This, Mr. President, will ignite World War III.”

After returning, the Syrian president declared that “[t]housands of Soviet Muslims have announced their readiness to come to the Middle East to rid the Holy Land of imperialist aggression.”[5] Under his tenure, not only had Syria established full diplomatic ties with the USSR, but similar exchanges were made with Eastern Bloc countries like China, Czechoslovakia, and Romania.[6]

Syria Russia

President Shukri al-Quwatli with Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin in Moscow in October 1956.

Something serious had to be done about Syria, reasoned the Eisenhower White House, and it had to be done quickly, before the country transformed into a fully-fledged Soviet satellite. International news wires carried photos of Quwatli arm-in-arm with Marshal Zhukov and Chief-of-Staff Marshal Vasily Sokolovsky, a member of the Higher Soviet War Council during World War II.[7]

On September 4, 1956, 17 Soviet ministers came to Syria, touring the countryside and promoting communism to villagers and townsmen. On October 1, 1956, the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union (TASS) opened an office in Damascus. Then came the historic visit of Syrian Defense Minister Khaled al-Azm to Moscow in August 1957, where he signed long-term economic and military agreements with the USSR, securing US$570 million in Soviet credit for weapons, to be financed by future grain production in Syria. It was to last for 12-years.[8] The Soviets had already given Quwatli US$60 million worth of military aide since 1955.[9] They had provided Soviet-built ships for the young Syrian Navy and sent technicians and officers to their air and naval bases on the Syrian coast. Also, they pledged two dozen sophisticated MiG jets, with Soviet trainers.

During the historic visit of Syrian Defense Minister Khaled al-Azm to Moscow in August 1957, he signed long-term economic and military agreements with the USSR.

In addition to providing arms, the Russians pledged to buy Syria’s textile and agricultural surplus, and to develop hydraulic infrastructure, transportation, and mechanized farming. Although a hardcore capitalist and landowner, Syrian Defense Minister Azm was nicknamed from thereafter “The Red Millionaire.” He never liked the Soviet system, arguing that if implemented in Syria, it would lead to chaos and an economic and social collapse.[10]

As Syrian relations improved with Moscow, they deteriorated sharply with the US, leading to the closure of the Syrian Embassy in Washington and the expulsion of the Syrian Ambassador, Farid Zayn al-Din. The Syrians reciprocated with closing the American embassy in Damascus, and also shutting down the offices of the Ford Foundation, which was providing small grants to village dwellers in the Damascus countryside. Earlier, both the French and British embassies had also been shut down, leaving one embassy standing in Damascus, being that of the USSR.

That, along with progress in the Cold War, led to a blossoming of relations between Damascus and Moscow, taking them from one height to another. The arms and assistance that were requested in 1919 and 1956 were eventually sent to Syria, first during the Six-Day War of 1967, as we will see in the second part of this series, covering the post-1958 period.

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[1] Al-Asima newspaper (August 19, 1919).

[2] Mardam Bey, Salma. Syria’s Quest for Independence 1939-1945 (Ithaca Press, 1997), p. 127.

[3] Haikal, Mohamad H. Cutting the Lion’s Tale: Suez Through Egyptian Eyes (Arbor Press, 1987) p. 192.

[4] Ibid

[5] Seale, Patrick. Struggle for Syria: A study in post-war Arab politics 1945-1958 (IB Tauris, 1987), p. 288.

[6] Al-Ahram (February 19, 1956)

[7] Public Records Office (PRO) 371/121867 – British Embassy in Moscow (November 5, 1956).

[8] Azm, Khaled. Muzakarat, vol. III (Al-Dar al-Mutahida, 1972), p. 5.

[9] Sanders, Bonnie F. The United States and Arab Nationalism: The Syrian Case 1953-1960 (Praeger, 1996), p.  61.

[10] Azm, Muzakarat, vol. III, p. 49.

 

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