**This is the second of a two-part article series, covering Syrian-Russian relations prior to the present conflict. The first part covered the years 1919-1958, while this article deals with the early Baath years and bilateral relations under Hafez al-Assad, who contrary to his predecessors, saw the Russians as ideological allies in Cold War politics, rather than simply arms-merchants.
In February 1958, 14 Syrian army officers boarded a charter flight to Egypt, pleading for union with its charismatic young president, Gamal Abdul Nasser. Syria’s political elite supported the move, hoping that Nasser would put an end to communist activity in their country, just like he had done in Egypt.
Over a ten-year period, the communists had become extremely strong, electing a member of parliament, recruiting soldiers into their ranks, and threatening to bring down Syria’s budding notability. Cold War politics was one thing but allowing the communists to overrun the country was quite another. Under the United Arab Republic, the Syrian Communist Party was abolished, and its leaders thrown in jail.
That regime lasted for three and a half years and was dissolved by military coup in September 1961. In March 1963, the Baath Party came to power in Damascus, and – galvanized by radical Marxist thought – its leaders eagerly set out to strengthen relations with the Kremlin, seeking Soviet arms to deter rising Israeli military power in the region. The exiled communist leadership was invited back home and given charge of transport in the Baath government.
The USSR saw the Syrian Baathists as potential allies, providing them with plenty of economic assistance, but gave only limited military support.
The USSR saw the Syrian Baathists as potential allies, providing them with plenty of economic assistance, but – perceiving them as young, wild, and erratic – gave only limited military support, trying to avoid a regional confrontation. Military assistance amounted to no more than US$19,000 for the entire period of 1955-1985— a substantially low number considering Syria’s military spending had risen from US$71 million under Shukri al-Quwatli in 1955 to US$3.1 million in 1985.
The Degree of Sovietification
Within the Baath Party, there was constant dispute on how far socialism and Marxism ought to spread in Syrian society. One group, led by military strongman Salah Jadid, favored full integration and a total revamp of Syria, along Soviet lines. He envisioned collective work plantations and a Great Leap Forward like that of China’s Mao Zedong. The second, headed by Air Force Commander Hafez al-Assad, was reluctant, preferring a more nuanced approach.
Jadid was taken aback by the USSR’s loud, yet essentially ineffective support during the Six Day War of 1967. He had visited Moscow in May that same year, asking—or rather begging— for arms, but was politely rejected. The Soviets had only suspended relations with Israel in June of that year, albeit temporarily, at the good advice of their Yugoslav ally and friend, President Josip Tito, which may have been a factor in their choice not to supply military aid to Syria. Three years later, Salah Jadid and his team were toppled by Hafez al-Assad, and one of their last acts before leaving office was issuing a postal stamp with the image of Vladimir Lenin – leader of Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution – on the 100th anniversary of his birth.
“Friendship Needs No Treaty”
Just ten weeks after coming to power, in February 1971, Hafez al-Assad paid a state visit to Moscow. He knew the city well, having briefly trained in air flight at a base near Moscow while still a student back in 1958. Assad wanted a strategic partnership with Moscow, seeing the Soviet leaders as useful allies in his war against Israel, not just arms-merchants. They approached him about signing a friendship and cooperation agreement with Syria, which he declined, saying: “Friendship needs no treaty.”
Alert to the sensitivities of Cold War politics, Assad originally did not want to take sides against the United States. Egypt agreed to sign a treaty with the Soviet Union that May and was followed by Iraq in 1972. When Assad visited Moscow again in July 1972, Soviet leaders tried seducing him with a US$700 million arms deal, which included MIG-21s, SAM anti-aircraft missiles, and highly sophisticated FROG surface-to-surface missiles. In May 1973, they sent a delegation of experts to Damascus, headed by Marshal Pavel Kutakhov, commander of the Soviet Air Force, to assess the needs of the Syrian Army. It was upgraded with 300 combat aircraft, more than 100 SAM batteries, and 400-500 missile launchers. Though in exchange for their largess, the Soviets got little in return.
Assad still refused to sign a friendship agreement and instead, much to the displeasure of his Soviet counterparts, restored diplomatic relations with the US in June 1974. Earlier in October 1973, Assad had gone to war against Israel with his Egyptian counterpart Anwar al-Sadat, the man who had expelled over 7,000 Soviet advisers from his country, ostensibly, because they were slow at delivering arms and were causing friction with the United States.
The Syrian-Soviet relationship reached a new low in May 1976, when the USSR criticized Syria’s entry into the Lebanese civil war.
The Syrian-Soviet relationship reached a new low in May 1976, when the USSR criticized Syria’s entry into the Lebanese civil war, claiming that this was encouraged by then-US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Perhaps it was no coincidence that Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin was visiting Damascus on the very same day Syrian tanks crossed the border into Lebanon, an act of which he was neither consulted nor even informed. This was part of a series of events that Assad had taken without consulting with his Soviet friends, which included inviting Western companies to drill for oil in Syria. Assad described that situation as “differences between friends.”
Assad then visited Moscow twice, in October 1974 and October 1975, hoping to rally Soviet support against the Egyptian-Israeli Sinai Agreement. The signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace accords at Camp David in September 1978 brought Syria even closer to the USSR, prompting Asaad to finally sign the much delayed “Friendship and Cooperation Agreement” on October 8, 1980. Syria then became a recipient of one of the largest packages of the latest Soviet military technology and equipment, and thousands of military, technical, and economic advisers. Years later, it was the clauses of that agreement, inked four decades before, which was used to justify the 2015 Soviet intervention in Syria’s civil war.
The Proactive Andropov
During the early stages of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), Moscow watched passively as the Syrian Army entered into a direct confrontation with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), not lifting a finger to help. Former Soviet General Leonid Brezhnev was too busy with events in Afghanistan and Poland to pay much attention to both Syria and Lebanon. Furthermore, apart from lip service, he had no real plan for the region.
In September 1981, Syrian Defense Minister Mustapha Tlass went to Moscow, asking for arms, to be followed by Foreign Minister Abdul Halim Khaddam in January 1982. On both occasions, they returned home empty-handed, raising serious doubts about the logic behind the Friendship Agreement. Even the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights in December 1981 did not help push military relations forward.
Yuri Andropov embarked on a far more proactive approach towards Syria, authorizing the sale of SAM-5 missiles in January 1983.
Matters improved significantly when Brezhnev died on November 11, 1982, bringing Assad to Moscow for the funeral, where he renewed his acquaintance with Brezhnev’s successor, Yuri Andropov. Andropov embarked on a far more proactive approach towards Syria, authorizing the sale of SAM-5 missiles in January 1983, despite strong objection from his Defense Minister Dmitry Ustinov and Foreign Affairs Minister Andrei Gromyko. When they warned that they had no arms to spare for their allies, he snapped: “Take them from the Red Army stock!”
It was the first time that such weapons were deployed outside the USSR but Andropov made a point that he would determine exactly when, where, and why they were used, sending a small contingent of Russian soldiers to man—and protect—those missiles. With Soviet assistance, Syria’s army grew from 3,200 to 4,400, and its aircraft fleet was raised from 440 to 650. The Russians were allowed a naval squadron at the port city of Latakia, enabling Moscow to project the power of the Soviet Navy into the Mediterranean, all of which fell within the framework of the Friendship and Cooperation Agreement.
The fall of the USSR in 1991 took Syria by surprise, prompting Assad to reach out to the Americans, establishing a cordial relationship that lasted for an entire decade under both the Bush and Clinton administrations. He met with President George Bush in 1992, received Bill Clinton in Damascus in 1994, and then met him again in Geneva in March 2000, to discuss the Syrian-Israeli peace process, three months before the Syrian leader’s death that June. Meanwhile, during that period and throughout the first years of the new century, the Russians were mostly absent from Syria, too busy piecing their country back together after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
During his first ten years in power, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad (Hafez al-Assad’s son) showed little interest in Russia, preferring relations with Turkey, France, and the United States. Things changed, however, in August 2008, when the Georgian army rumbled into the breakaway area of South Ossetia, reportedly with the blessing of the United States, infuriating Russia’s post-Soviet leadership. They responded by large-scale bombardment, then invaded South Ossetia, driving the Georgian army out of Tskhinvali. On August 20, 2008 and just two weeks after the South Ossetia war had started, Bashar al-Assad landed in Russia for a meeting with Vladimir Putin.
Speaking to the Russian Kommerstant newspaper, Assad expressed his support. “On this issue [of South Ossetia and Georgia] we fully support Russia. The Americans continue their Cold War policies. . . . The war, which was unleashed by Georgia, is the culmination of attempts to encircle and isolate Russia.” Adding, “It is important that Russia takes the position of a superpower, and then all the attempts to isolate it will fail.”
Thrilled at the statement of support they were waiting to hear from a traditional ally, the Russians reciprocated with congenial words and lucrative military aid offers. “Our position is that we are ready to cooperate with Russia in any project that can strengthen its security,” the Syrian president went on. When asked if his country would accept an offer of air defense from the Russians, Assad replied, “In principle, yes. We have not yet thought about it.”
That, of course, was seven years before Russian air defenses were brought to Syria, along with troops, tanks, and military aircrafts, launching the Russian military intervention in Syria’s civil war that still remains underway as of early 2021.
 Ma’oz, Moshe. Asad: The Sphinx of Damascus (Weidenfiels & Nicholson, 1988), pp.58-59.
 Ma’oz, Moshe. Asad: The Sphinx of Damascus (Weidenfiels & Nicholson, 1988), p. 58.
 Van Dam, Nikolaos. The Struggle for Power in Syria (IB Tauris, 2011), p. 63.
 Seale, Patrick. Assad: The Struggle for the Middle East (IB Tauris, 1988), pp. 188-189.
 Seale, Patrick. Assad: The Struggle for the Middle East (IB Tauris, 1988), p. 57.
 Dupuy, Trevor. Elusive Victory: The Arab-Israeli Wars 1947-1974 (Harper & Row, 1978), p. 441.
 Ma’oz, Moshe. Syria under Assad (Croom Helm, 1986), p. 227.
 Ma’oz. The Sphinx of Damascus, 136.
 Ma’oz. The Sphinx of Damascus, 79.
 Seale, Patrick. Assad: The Struggle for the Middle East (IB Tauris, 1988), p. 398.
 Ma’oz, Moshe. Syria under Assad (Croom Helm, 1986), p. 234.