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The story of Syrian-Russian relations

On January 17, 2014, Reuters quoted sources saying Russia has increased its supply of military equipment to Syria in the recent period. The equipment includes armed vehicles, drones and precision-guided bombs. What is the significance of this? What does this mean in the context of relations between the two countries?


The Russian wager:

Russia’s wager is currently on Syria and through Syria it plans to gain access to the Mediterranean. At the current moment, nothing is as important as the Mediterranean in Russia’s geopolitical calculations. This sea, which was named by Ibn Khordadbeh in his ‘Book of Roads and Kingdoms’, is the gateway to Europe and the Black Sea that has long been pursued by Russia because it is essential to Russian and European security alike.

International conflict on the Mediterranean landscape is one of the factors that help explain Russia’s focus on Syria since Soviet times for its strategic importance to great powers.

Since 1967, under the Soviet era, Russian watercrafts have been continually situated along the Mediterranean Sea, while another group were located in the Indian Ocean and many of these vessels have returned to the Russian navy since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Prior to the Soviet era, during the Ottoman-Russian war of the 18th century, Russian naval ships operated in the Mediterranean in support of the Russian Black Sea Fleet as they attempted to impose a blockade on the Dardanelles and Bosphorus straights and capture them. In both the current times and in the past, the security of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean are tied together.

From the perspective of the world’s greatest powers, whichever power loses in one of these two seas loses in both and this is a formula that has long been realised by the world.

It is necessary to point out that the geopolitical environment of the Black Sea has changed fundamentally since Romania and Bulgaria became considered members of NATO and Ukraine and Georgia gained independence.

Furthermore, NATO countries are now betting on the possibility that their troops will gain access to the Azov Sea. Meanwhile, the Kerch straight, which connects the Azov and Black Seas, is now subject to Ukrainian control which represents a sharp conflict between Russia and the West.

Within the same context, the United States signed an agreement with Romania on December 6, 2005, allowing the US to deploy 1,500 soldiers to American naval bases in the Black Sea.

In short, the Black Sea has become a spot of Atlantic influence where Russia’s historical standing has been damaged. This explains why Russia has been pursuing the Mediterranean and Syria in its new foreign policy.

We have observed that since 2008 Russia has responded to what it considered an Atlantic “offensive” on the Black Sea by deploying a number of warships towards the Mediterranean and carrying out a number of military manoeuvres in its waters. Many of these are unmatched in size even during the height of the Cold War. In short, international conflict on the Mediterranean can help fully explain Russia’s focus on Syria since the Soviet era until this day.

Facility of Tartus:

As part of their approach to the Mediterranean region, the Russians acquired in Tartus, a city along the Syrian coast, what they call “a point of maintenance and supply”. This stronghold is not being referred to as a military base in the internationally recognised and formal sense of the word.

The Russians are using Tartus based on flexible terms. They pay officials in Damascus a limited rent for their use of the city; however, the majority of operations taking place are carried out under the framework of cooperation between Syrian and Russian fleets.

In early 2009, the media in Moscow quoted the Russian navy’s chief of staff as saying that there was a political decision to provide the Russian navy with several bases in the Arab world and that these bases should become available within the coming years. What this meant was that these ports were intended to provide services to these vessels by providing them with supplies, water, fuel and ammunition.

During the Soviet era, the Yemeni Island of Socotra served as an advanced and official military base for the Russians and it continued to function as one until the unification of Yemen in 1990. Unlike the Soviet Union’s experience with Iraq before 1990, the Russians did not receive payments from Syria on a regular basis. Some of the weapons that the Soviet Union offered Syria were bartered for other goods or given to the country as a form of free-of-charge international supply and aid.

In principle, the establishment of foreign military facilities and bases only takes place after the host country calls an ally to do so, and signs an agreement pertaining to the legal status of forces and the free access to the bases and the various facilities.

Foreign military bases enable troops of allied nations to swiftly respond to emergency situations. These bases might disappear due to the changing circumstances or because of the allied nation’s reorganisation of their troops to address unforeseen threats.

Today’s Russia has lost all of its former Soviet military bases, including those in Cuba and Vietnam. The Syrian base in Tartus is the only exception, which helps explain why Syria is so significant when considering Russian geopolitics.

Today, there is a wide range of multi-tasking foreign military bases situated around the world and the majority of them belong to Western countries. At the moment there is a shift from establishing large military bases that require a great amount of support to establishing smaller bases that require very little support, which usually comes from the host country.

Going back to Tartus, defining it within a small and technical framework does not diminish its importance in any way. This is due to the fact that Tartus’ potential to carry out a military operation remains possible when a decision is made to do so.

Furthermore, the Russian Navy’s radar operating has coverage that ranges thousands of miles, which perhaps helps explain Israel’s repeated objection to the Russians establishing a military base in Tartus. According to some Israeli studies, Israeli defence analysts see the presence of Russian battleships on the Syrian coast promote espionage and reconnaissance.

The path of military support:

The importance of Syria within Russia’s current and historical political accounts cannot be limited to its geographic location and its ability to potentially provide Russia with access to the Mediterranean Sea. There are also large stakes associated with Syria’s regional geopolitical position.

Syrian-Russian relations have developed over a long course of history, like the Soviet era, which lasted decades. The very first economic, cultural and military interactions between Syria and Russia occurred during the Soviet era. The Soviet Union, and the rest of the socialist bloc to a much lesser extent, represents Syria’s first source of weapons.

Syria is the only Arab country that continued to reinforce its military resources from the East, unlike Egypt, which began to look to the West for military support since the 1970s.

As for Libya and Iraq, western weapons entered these countries late compared to the rest of the region and despite the West’s success in penetrating the region.

If we were to engage in a preliminary comparison between the history of weaponry in Syria and Iraq, we would find that the arms corporation affected both countries a great deal. The air defence systems advanced more in Syria than they did in Iraq; however, the Iraqi Air Force as a whole progressed more than its Syrian counterpart.

As previously mentioned, prior to 1990 the Soviet Union did not accept money from Syria on a regular basis; however, it did receive money in exchange for its weapons in Iraq. Syria was the Soviet Union’s bet for advancing its major geopolitical calculations and finances were not the primary factor in the grand scheme of things.

Presence in all sectors:

Syria, like Iraq, did not represent as big of a wager for Soviet ideology as that which existed in countries of the socialist bloc or South Yemen since 1978. On the contrary, there was an ideological conflict between the Soviets on the one hand and Syria and Iraq on the other. Because the geopolitical calculations were more advanced than others, the Syrian Communist Party was not a priority in Syrian-Soviet relations.

When the Soviets tried to make the Iraqi Communist Party the gateway of their relationship with the Iraqi state, a quick reply came from Baghdad telling Moscow that the relationship is between two countries and not between two parties. At that time the Iraqi Communist Party was represented by the Iraqi Progressive National Front and did not have any conflict with the Iraqi state under the leadership of the Baath Party.

In Syria during the seventies and eighties the communists did not have any significant role, at home or abroad. Similar to their fellow Iraqis, this situation reflected itself on many of the options and wagers. This may actually be at once a cause and effect of some of the Soviet policies with regards to Syria.

Whatever the case, one must stress that Soviet- Syrian relations were complicated by nature, despite their advanced state; ideological contradictions remained a pressuring factor and an undeclared fear.

Since the days of the Soviet Union to the today’s Russia, Syria appeared to maintain its position in the geopolitical calculations of the Russian state. The new Russia chose a pragmatic approach in dealing with international relations and issues; however, close Syrian-Russian relations remained puzzling to some parties.

Today, we do not find any political or military Russian support offered to any country in the world comparable to what is being offered to Syria. This may seem puzzling at first glance but we are dealing with a situation that is completely tied to Russian geopolitical options.

Russia’s large presence in Syria today is mostly based on standards of security. It is also Syria’s largest international supporter, its most important energy provider and a source of different types and forms of aid given to Syria.

The author is a Bahraini academic. This article is a translation of the Arabic version which appeared on Al-Jazeera Net on February 4, 2014.

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