A Gelid Design: Russo-Syrian relations

In search of a fierce freeze.

As Bashar al-As’ad visits Moscow, Josh Keating worries that the peace process between Syria and Israel could be disrupted by Russia’s rise or turn the region into a stage for “East-West” confrontation. Russo-Syrian military cooperation (especially the sale of Russian SSMs and SAMs to Syria) has caused displeasure in Washington and Tel Aviv in recent years. The Russians, like the Syrian leadership itself, fear the promise of peace between Israel and Syria. As usually conceived, this would mean an end to Syria’s international isolation. The locus of the arms trade would move Westwards away from Moscow as it did when Egypt became an American client after making its peace with Israel. It would mean that Russian influence would either be greatly decreased, putting its access to Syria’s ports at risk. The Russians have a stake in keeping the Syrians and Israelis frozen between war and peace.

Still, this cooperation, and especially al-As’ad’s rhetorical support for Russia’s Georgian campaign, isn’t anything especially new or unique for a state in its position. I don’t see the region, via Syria, becoming a battle ground for a US/NATO-Russia confrontation in the Cold War or neo-Cold War sense.

Like many of the “radical” Arab states, Syria had close relations with Moscow during the Soviet period. Much of Syria’s military brass (including the late Hafiz al-As’ad) was educated and/or trained in Moscow. The Soviets backed  up Syria’s “anti-colonialist” stance against Israel (even though Ba’thism was especially loathsome of “internationalist” Soviet communism). The USSR was a means for a desperate Hafiz al-As’ad to up the stakes against Israel and its American benefactor. And it worked, and has remained a critical aspect of Syrian strategy ever since. It is doubtful that the Syrians could have sustained their geo-political stance with a leader other than Hafiz al-As’ad  or without Soviet backing. And the Soviets could not have had influence in the region without being able to back a consistently revisionist state actor, by means of which it can apply pressure on the Western led order.

Syria’s position as the region’s primary revisionist actor has been at the heart of its relationship with Moscow since the 1970’s. The radical and secular Arab regimes were a major arms market for the Soviet Union, and their reorientation towards the West over the last 30 years has come at Russia’s expense. Egypt and Jordan have had their militaries heavily furnished by the United States since the conclusion of their peace deals with Israel. Most Arab regimes are in some kind of security understanding with the United States. Those who are not are special cases, due to their support material support for terrorism, their lack of meaningful resources or geography unique geopolitical considerations, or severe disregard for human rights. These states look elsewhere for hardware and diplomatic support, with Russia and China often being obvious alternatives as nations eager for commercial profit from arms sales and the resultant influence. The deepest ties are with Syria and Algeria (and relations with Sudan and Libya are similarly based off of arms and gas), and the Russians would like to fortify these ties as much as possible, especially as their influence in their traditional spheres of influence is on the wane.

The Syrians, for reasons of actuality and ideology,  need modern weaponry capable of threatening Israel’s strategic advantage to strengthen their hand at the negotiating table. Since the Russians know that this is a sensitive issue for Washington, and due to changing dynamics in Russia’s relations with Israel, they are cautious to tip the balance of forces too far. This is why Bashar al-As’ad has so prominently linked the Georgian War to Israel. In Ba’thist understanding, most things terrible have their origins in Zionism, but in this case the Syrians are trying to justify large and expeditious arms sales. They realize that petrorubbles make Russia a much more viable patron, even if their isolation is being palliated by France’s efforts in the wake of Saudi Arabia’s failed endeavors and the Doha agreement. To make themselves useful to their patrons, the Syrians are talking up Russia’s case on Georgia and offeringup Tartous as the site of a full Russian naval base. 

Realizing that they cannot directly challenge the United States as a superpower equal, the Russians have sought to irritate and undermine the West via other means, such as selling arms to loud mouthed and democratically irreverent world leaders, threatening to and using its gas as a weapon in eastern Europe, and looking to form a natural gas cartel. The Russians view supporting Syria as a part of this asymmetrical diplomacy. Because the Syrian relationship is so grizzled, recent cooperation may be seen as a part of a broader effort for the Russians to maintain their traditional levers of influence. The Russians would not benefit from a settlement between Syria and Israel. Neither would the Syrian regime. 

As things have moved in Syria’s favor recently, irritating Washington, Syria’s desire to justify its need for armaments and Russian support is compounded on the grounds of deterring the Israelis and Americans.Playing to both Russo-American misgivings and the rhetoric of the peace process offers the Syrians a means of breaking their glacial isolation while not totally thawing it. They can enjoy just barely enough freedom of movement with the West, but, by courting Russia, not too much that it adversely affects the regime’s legitimacy, rooted in rejectionism and revisionism. 

Conscious of the improbability of regaining the occupied Golan, a sine qua non for any peace deal to be deemed “successful” on the Syrian side, the Syrians want to find a way to retain the institutional benefits of that irresolvable irritenda. Military build up coupled with dodgy peace overtures allow them to milk the conflict to the regime’s benefit. If they acquire advanced arms, they pose a greater threat to Israel and can negotiate with them on a more equal footing leading to fewer concessions on their part in Lebanon. Russian naval support would ideally provide a deterrent against direct Israeli or American attack by sea, should push come to shove. It still would not improve the operational quality of Syria’s air or ground forces which it is easy to see crumbling in the event of an armed confrontation. By reaching out to their most powerful ally, the Syrians hope to freeze both the prospects of war and peace, leading to a stasis in which the regime can maintain a strong internal grip and steady external normalization without major concessions. It’s a page of the al-As’ad family scrapbook. The geopolitical narrative between the two countries is not being revolutionized by the Georgian War. Rather, the war has made the Syrian mewl for weapons and staying power more pointed and obvious.

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