Nasir Khan, July 2, 2016
In his paper Luis Lazaro Tijerina fills in much-needed information to understand Russian and Syrian relationship. While discussing the salient aspects of the relationship, first, between the Soviet Union and Syria and, then, after the fall of the Soviet Union, between Russia and Syria, the author has provided a sound historical overview of the developments. To understand the present civil war in Syria in a broader historical context, his paper is of utmost importance.
In his presentation, the author has referred to some impressive and interesting material and pointed to many factors in analysing a complex political situation. Syria is an Arab country and its political and social culture is shaped by many factors. It has its ancient historical roots including the Roman rule but after the Arab conquest of Syria from the Byzantine emperor the country became a part of the expanding Arab Empire under the Caliphs. After the First World War the Ottoman Empire came to an end; its rule over the Arab provinces also ended. Western powers which emerged victorious established their colonial domination over the Middle East under the fiction of the ‘Mandatory system’. France took its share: Syria and the Lebanon.
In 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia brought into existence a new political system. Under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin the right to self-determination of the colonized people and support to the struggling masses to liberate themselves from the Western colonial rule became important pillars of the Soviet state policy. It was in this context, that the Soviet relations with Syria grew during and after the Second World war. The author has quite fairly outlined the Soviet policies towards the Middle East under Stalin. He also shows the role of the present Russian leader Putin towards Syria and his objectives in supporting the Syrian government.
The present civil war has played havoc with this once-prosperous and an old-civilised country. There are numerous factors both national, regional and international involved in the imbroglio. The Assad family, first the father and now his son, are more like the hereditary kings of Syria. But again, here we are discussing an Arab country where democracy as understood in modern political thought and practice has no roots. For kings and despots in the Middle East, political power and luxurious life-styles are the most important things; the rest is empty talk.
The Russian and Syrian Alliance
Russia and Syria have a deep and long, political marriage that is one of necessity, one of connivance at times, but also a historical relationship based on a respect that is bonded by both adversity and creative, political struggle. Before, I attempt to describe or make what I hope is a serious commentary on the relationship between Russia and Syria in the present time that we live in, and which involves the civil war in Syria, itself, I would like to quote the Roman historian Polybius who noted about history and empires and their causes both in peace and war that “For it is history alone which without causing us harm enables us to judge what is the best course in any situation or circumstance.” We should remember these wise words on history and the best course to follow for empire or nation-states in the modern world. Also, let us take a calm look of factual clarity at the history of these two countries whose political and social fates are wedded now for better or for worse in a time of war against terrorism and the interest of certain nation-states who seek out world hegemon, regardless of the cost of humanity in terms of lives lost. The historical relationship between the nation-state of Russia, formally the Soviet Union, and the nation-state of Syria is one of genuine collaboration through periods of internal, Syrian political crises and regional conflicts within the Middle East. Three coup d’ etat occurred during the period 1949-1953, until the Ba’ath came to power in Syria in 1954, which was keenly observed by the political and military leadership in the Soviet Union, and was only enhanced by the Suez Crises in 1956 with the Tripartite Aggression by Israel, France and Britain. Although there have been cordial culture interests between the Russian and Syrian peoples, it is has always been a friendship forged by pragmatic needs, both being economic and military in terms of mutual interests.
Within the current civil war in Syria it should be historically understood that Russia, by its very history with the Syrian Government and the Syrian people, have a political and moral obligation to help defend the legitimate interests of Syria in its struggle against modern terrorists such as ISIS or nation-states that seek to overthrow the current president of Syria and create a hegemony that would only enhance more dangerous instability in the Middle East. War being what it is among modern nation-states creates a dangerous mass of miscalculations and contradictions among the Western powers which seek to impose their will upon the Syrian state in terms of commerce, the selling of arms and regional control over a population whose aspirations are not considered. On the other side, there are those nation-states like Russian, Syria, Iran and Iraq, for instance, who are more interested in promoting the independent economic, social and cultural interests of their nation-states which is part of the process towards a more pragmatic form of international order throughout the world. Therefore, the profound historical civil war that is taking place in Syria it is in fact a dialectical part of that process towards self-determination and independent national liberation movements among all nations in the Middle East.
As ancient Roman had deep political and military interests in Greater Syria so in fact does modern Russia would have a historical political, economic and cultural ties with modern Syria. In the modernist since, it has been the Soviet and Russian experience to seek out international norms regarding the balance of power in terms of global politics and the need that causes for military intervention. With this historical perception in mind, especially since the time of Lenin when internationalism and the thrust for revolutionary social change was part of Soviet-Russian foreign policy, there was a fundamental socialist and pragmatic view to the expansionism of International law and that ran counter to the Western perception of assessing and then forcing a hegemonic military paradigm as would be advocated by Western nation-states, with the United States being Its nominal leader for such political behavior. That these two different views on the accepted means of considering world political crises as they arose, would create not only a so-called “Cold War”, but would also be the demarcation line of rancor, distrust and proxy wars between the two views regarding the approach the use of military force. This international rivalry became a bien établi behavior regarding diplomacy and war. With these un-varnished perceptions of the inevitable harsh approach to both political and military friction between these two opposing camps, it was only natural that the Soviet Union and then post-Soviet Russia would readjust her strategic, not to mention her tactical approaches, towards confronting the Western powers. As the historian, Roy Allison would admit in his work Russia, the West, and Military Intervention “After the collapse of Soviet superpower did Russian positions on these issues continue to reverberate in the international community? Russia above all has continued to impact on global rule-making through its ‘top table’ presence as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Russia has maintained a presence also in key groupings for regional crises management, such as the contact Group for the Middle East, the Four-Party talks on the Korean Peninsula and the Six Power talks on the Iranian nuclear programme”. It is interesting to note here in the long pageantry of human history that during the time of Soviet rule in Russia, there was never an invasion by a Soviet army into the Western regions of Europe. There was an occupation of Soviet troops in Hungry and Czechoslovakia due to the uprising of dissatisfied elements of the inteligencia, workers and communist party officials who naively thought that certain Western powers would support their idealism for democratic liberalism, but such dreams or fantasies where to be short live, for the armies of Western Europe or the United States did not come to their aid. Therefore during the middle period of the twentieth century, the Western European bourgeois powers with its ally the United States, although interested and preparing for world hegemony as their imperial quest, were still using rhetoric and subtle propaganda techniques in their own going ‘cold war’ with Russia and her allies. As with the Peace of Nicias, when Athens along with her allies of Greek city-states and Sparta, with her Lachmannian confederacy of allies, signed a peace treaty in 421 BC which terminated the first half of the Peloponnesian War, so to was there an undeclared truce between the Western capitalist powers and the Soviet Union and her satellite socialist allies of Eastern Europe after the end of World War II, known to the Soviet people as the Great Patriotic War. It was during this time of a cold peace in which proxy wars and wars of economic subversion were in acted by both parties, that the Soviet Union took a deep interest in its recognition of Syria as rising political power in the Middle East.
There were many stages in which Russia took a political interest in the Middle East, including Syria or the Levant area (territory know in the modern world as Syria and Lebanon). These interest were both territorial and political in their conceptions by the Russian monocracy, then the Soviet Union and the present Russian Federation. This process of political engagement and cultural recognition between both Russia and Syria were then of a dialectical political process that has lasted through the twenty-first century, and therefore such engagment diplomatique et polticalical are complex and even subtle in nature. What is seemingly viewed through a historical timeline of events between two countries does not account for the covert, even justifiable Machiavellian and warm interactions that two countries with various and even different political interests, will have in an international relationship. The historian, Rami Ginat, gives in the beginning of his work “Syria and Doctrine of Arab Neutralism” a very seemingly view of how the Russian State has viewed the Middle East through the last three centuries by stating thus:
The Middle East has always attracted the attention of Russia in its various historical phrases—Tsarist Russia, the Soviet Union, or the present Russian Federation, because the region is the southern gateway to Russia. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the expansion of Tsarist Russia southward asresult of colonial conflict with the Ottoman Empire and Persia.… Following the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, Russia opted out of the war [World War I] … In 1919 Lenin declared “pre-War frontiers will be respected, no Turkish territory will be given to Armenia, the Dardanelles will remain Turkish and Constantinople will remain the capital of the Muslim world”.
As we see the long standing interests with Russia and the Middle East are one of a long history, only the British and French have such a long memory of history regarding their own relationship with the Middle East, while the United States has a short history with the Middle East at best, however one that has long history of spreading its war machine in Tanium in the that region of the world in modern times.
To understand the interest that the Soviet Union had with the emerging nation state of Syria after World War II, it is important to know how Stalin viewed such a regional interest outside the natural territory of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Although this essay does include primary Russian diplomatic resources on the eventual political alignment between Russia and Syria in the modern world, I will attempt to draw some conjectures on the rapprochement of economic and culture détente between the two countries. During these early years, it was understood through diplomatic signals and diplomatic embassy exchanges among the various parties who took an interest in Syria’s future, that Stalin, the leader of the USSR sought out a revolutionary approach to the Middle East, and therefore was more interested in the engagment of communist revolutions being nurtured, so it was only natural that he would be concern about the build-up and sponsorship of Middle Eastern communist parties that wanted socialist governments in that region of the world. It has been argued or mention by such Middle Eastern scholars like Ginat that there was no major diplomatic changes to the way the Soviet Union viewed its policy to the Middle East until the death of Stalin. It can be argued that with the onset of the Second World War, Stalin certainly had his intelligence agents in the field in the Middle East, especially in Egypt and Syria, not to mention Iraq. Already as early as 1944, the Syrian government had imitated a serious interest in having direct diplomatic contacts with USSR, during a time, when such a move could have had dire consequences had the course of the war for the Allies and the Soviet Union had turned into defeat on the battlefield. Fortunately such was not the case, and Syrian diplomats were able to meet the first Soviet minster to Egypt, Nikolai Novikov, and although the meeting did not turn out well for the Syrian delegation, it was the first crucial step towards the official rapprochement between the Soviet Union and the nation-state of Syria. After a series of through the summer of 1944, Novikov was informed from the Soviet Government that as of 19 July, that diplomatic relations with Syria had been attain, and that a Soviet diplomatic mission would open in Damascus of that year. It was on July 31, that the Soviet Union and Syria created formal diplomatic relations, but it was not until February 10, 1946 that official diplomatic missions between the two countries was cemented with diplomatic protocols. Thus we see that the road to diplomatic recognition between the two counties was not hurried nor seamless, as a world war had brought them together in the struggle for independence on the side of Syria, and the fight to the death against Nazi fascism by the Soviet Union. What should also be noted and not overlooked is how Stalin would play a major role in such a creation of healthier relationships between those countries of the Middle East and the Soviet Union. As Ginat commented his book on the subject, and it should be understood that he was not a communist was the measure of Soviet foreign change, when he wrote:
Soviet policymakers appealed to Middle East nationalist groups to concentrate on the task of putting an end to Western influence in the region. To achieve that end, the Soviets nurtured relations with governments that were already pursuing anti-Western policies. … Stalin begin to follow the line of realpolitik in his international Affairs program. Foreign policy was, first and foremost, based on Utilitarian considerations derived from the USSSR’s growing interests in certain parts of the world… what mattered more to him [Stalin] was that they pursued anti-Western policies.
In other words, Stalin was keenly intelligent to purse a more pragmatic course of diplomatic relationships with Middle Eastern countries, including the Middle East to protect not only the frontiers of the Soviet Union, but also to consolidate the victories already achieve on the battlefield. When a leader combines military achievements with diplomatic accords that bring about regional and global stability, then that leader is remembered for such a rare talent in history. In the twenty-first century, such talent by a world statesman is not be seen as yet. However, Vladimir Putin took a page from Stalin regarding knowing when to pursue war, when it came to directing the Russian Air Forces in their engagment with targeting Daesh, also known as ISIS, and the al Nursa Front in Syria, and when to reach out to the diplomatic table among all the parties involved in a regional conflict, as when Russia and the United States brokered a truce which took place in February of 2016 during the Syrian Civil War which had begun on March 15, 2011.
We see, therefore, that from the middle of World War II to the early years of the twenty-first century, the political historical era which this author writes about could remind one much like what took place with imperial Rome and Syria in ancient times. Except both regional forces, meaning Russia and Syria are neither hegemonic in outlook nor force a direct submissive behavior from their allies like those Roman leaders who used their Roman legions unsparingly against foe and friend alike, and those Syrian governors of Greater Syria who submitted to Roman rule without question. Modern Russia who is wedded to the revolutionary Soviet Union, is a nation that ultimately forges peace or is forced to play a role on the world’s stage in fighting modern fascism and American imperialism whether they are reluctant or not about their role. Syria is still going through its birth pangs of being a regional world power through the process of the classical civil wars that Thucydides and Tacitus wrote about so boldly.
Within the modern history of the Russian and Syrian alliance, there have been tensions that have worked themselves out through a pragmatic understanding, so as to continue the historical process of independence of not only Syria’s domestic and foreign policy agendas from outside interference, especially from Western hegemony, but to insure the security of other Arab countries as well. With this in mind, when it comes to the reactionary deeds of Daesh, we must understand where the seed of such a viscous terrorist organization emerged from, that is its’ root of growth. As Yevgeny Primakov, who was not only once the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, but also was the Foreign Minister and Prime Minister of Russia, the terrorism that expanded in the Middle East and spread outside that regions should be understood as such:
But the terror inflicted by both sides in the Middle East conflict was not the breeding ground for the international terrorism seen at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. For starters, Middle Eastern terrorism was by its nature political, not religious.
Primakov’s succinct observation of the core of terrorism not only in the Middle East, but throughout the world, is a rational and understood historical understanding of how modern aggression and wars is not one of a spiritual nature, but conflicting ideologies that emerge from economic and class contradictions.
But Primakov goes further in his analysis of the “war against terrorism” in the twenty-first century by stating emphatically that “The network known as Al-Qaeda did not arise from the Palestinian movement. Al-Qaeda was religious extremist catalyst used the United States during the cold war—with, as it turns out, no thought to the consequences. It came into being with the aid of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for the purposes of fighting the Soviet army in Afghanistan”. Now, in the times that I am writing this essay, we are reaping the terrible violence of the whirl wind we created, which in turn is creating the implosion of the Western world, including that of the United States as well.
It is known through various sources that the former USSR did not pander or always take sides with Syria regarding issues like the Lebanon civil war or the struggle of various political parties and military forces that desired to control the Palestinian struggle of statehood. In fact, it Yuri Andropov, then the general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, who in 1983, attempted to bring about a more conciliatory relationship between Syria and the Palestinian ranks that were at odds with Syrian leadership regarding the tempestuous leadership of Arafat within the Palestinian enclave. Therefore, if one attempts to see the foreign policy of the Soviet and Russia alliance with Syria, throughout the decades of the modern era, one will notice that there was always an ebb and flow between the two nation-states. The underlying destructive force therefore can be seen elsewhere regarding the war in the Middle East and regional terrorism, in that like the Trotskyites during and after the Russian revolution, American foreign policy is mitigated by the various United States presidential regimes, who have a fanaticism to “export” its American view of democracy into the borders of nation-states throughout the world. Such a modern American manifest destiny includes Syria with its historic civil war in our time which could further enflame other regions of the Middle East or provoke World War III. It is in Syria that the people will manifest themselves in the battle against Islamic terrorism, and it is in Syria that the world’s fate will be decided regarding such a war.
It is with this short paper that I have attempted to show in a subtle way how history is not created by simply the whims of individuals or capriciousness of nation-states without consequences. If we do not understand the nature of alliances which are like a find and subtle thread from the beginning to the end, then we cannot create a political course of action that brings about a period of peace, but will only bring on the holocaust of war.