With Syria recently dominating the news, both due to its ongoing domestic conflict/civil war and the diplomatic/military tensions over the use of chemical weapons in the region, it seemed a prudent moment to briefly explore how Syria and Russia became such close diplomatic buddies over the last fifty years. It is one of the more amusing offshoots of the Cold War between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, these two states worked very hard from the 1950s until the late 1980s to cultivate allies/client states in the Middle East and Syria was part of a broader effort by the USSR to offset growing US influence in the region. Interesting the center point of this Cold War diplomatic maneuvering was Egypt under President Nasser and his efforts to create a new pan-Arabic federation in the Middle East and the temporary union he was able to negotiate turning Egypt and Syria into one nation, at least on paper.
Nasser, concerned about the rising power of the Syrian Communist party in 1957 worked with the Syrian government to create a unifying alliance between the two nations, the United Arab Republic, which legally linked Egypt and Syria into one unified nation. At the time Nasser was also courting economic and military aid from the USSR – Khrushchev in the USSR wanted to push as far as a formal military alliance between Egypt and the USSR but Nasser was not ready to go that far diplomatically in his connection with the USSR. So the merger of the two nations in 1957 was an effort to keep Communist influence in the Middle East lessened and replace it with a new unifying political center. Although the effort appealed to other Arab states in the region, including Iraq, the new United Arab Republic collapsed in 1961 when a military coup in Syria changed the government and ended the experiment. This coup, with a strong leftist lean, pursued a tighter relationship with the USSR, specifically for economic aid but, more critically for military aid. This desire for a closer military connection to the USSR, and pushing for greater Soviet aid, rested upon the Syrian goal of finding a superpower partner that would arm them to counteract US military aid to Israel. The USSR, happy for the alliance the expansion of its strategic position in the USSR – with friendly nations in Egypt, Iraq, and now Syria, through the 1960s and 1970s poured billions in military aid into Syria.
The 1967 war between Syria (among others) and Israel, ending in Syria’s defeat, further tightened links between Syria and the USSR. The 1973 war between Syria (and others) against Israel was another setback for Syria and another push for further military aid to Syria. The close ties came to an end with Syria’s intervention in the 1975 Lebanese civil war and the rise of the Gorbachev era, when the USSR focused on cultivating tighter relationships with the western powers and reducing Cold War tensions. That, followed by the collapse of the USSR in 1991, has left Syria without a superpower buddy, but the new state of Russia has worked to maintain its past influence with Syria by keeping a looser, but still present, diplomatic tie between itself and Syria.
The interesting question – which is not easily found – is how much Syria’s chemical weapons production might stem from former aid from the USSR? The question I find particularly interesting is, if an investigation into the attacks turns up chemical weapons with a distinctive chemical signature, and they were released by non-government forces, might they have been acquired from the Russian black market?