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It is my understanding that the Soviet Union supported governments in Syria during the cold-war primarily as a counter-balance to American influence over regional powers particularly Saudi Arabia and Israel. Could anyone elaborate on the relationship between the Soviet-Union and Syria, and its larger geo-political connotations? How might the relationship between Syria and the Soviet-Union (and possibly Russia after the end of the Cold-War) have influenced Syrian politics and the present popular "Arab-spring" era reaction to current dictator Bashar al-Assad?

Bonus for well-documented sources!

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    A lot of Soviet influence in the Middle East was also part of their search for "warm water ports", which was a long-term strategic goal of the USSR. – MichaelF Mar 28 '12 at 19:19
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    @MichaelF +1 for your observation on Russian foreign policy. It certainly has been a long standing desire going back to what? Peter I, Ivan III? Anyway, it seems to pop-up in many different contexts involving the Russians, including middle-east policy. – BrotherJack Mar 28 '12 at 19:41
  • What preliminary research have you done? What has it revealed?? – Mark C. Wallace Jun 23 at 19:08
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The first thing that came to my mind: Russia still holds a naval base located in Syria, which is of a special strategic value, as is Russia's the only one in the Mediterranean region. Well, how did Russians acquire it?

The desire for warm water ports, suggested by the commenters, dates back to Ivan the Terrible and Livonian War. It was satisfied after almost 150 years, when Piotr I defeated Sweden in Great Northern War. The successful wars with Ottoman Empire, which secured a safe access to Black Sea, started in the second half of 17th century and lasted through the 18th. Through all these years there were 3 main directions of Russian expansion:

  • Central Europe - holding Polish-Lithuania as a de facto protectorate, then its dissolution, then holding status quo through the 19th century, secured by cgood relations with Prussia and Austria
  • Far East - securing Siberia and Pacific Coast, trying to be an active player of Chinese politics
  • South - expansion towards Caucasus, Balkans, straits of Bosfor/Dardanele and Central Asia (dreaming of liberating Constantinople and reaching shores of Indian Ocean)

Let's consider the last one - the territory of Syria, until the early 20th century part of Ottoman Empire, did never play any important part in Russian politics, whether the rulers were tzars or pre-ww2 Soviets. The territories of importance back then were Balkans, the Straits, Central Asia, Iran, Afghanistan, Georgia/Armenia/Azerbaijan - logically, laying closer to Russia.

The situation was changed by Suez Crisis, as its result, Russians gained an alliance with president Naser, and the latter achieved and held what he wanted - Suez Channel nationalization. This events (failed intervention of Israelis and western forces) put Soviets at one of the sides of tense Middle East relations. That's IMHO the main reason for Soviet-Syriac alliance: then through the 50s, 60s, 70s USSR sent Syria large amounts of money, arms, and resources. It was a part of a larger plan - as the support (resources, arms, specialists) went also to other anti-Israeli (and anti-US) states as Egypt, Iraq, Libya.
Things changed in 70s and 80s, as Soviets were reproaching Syria's intervention in Lebanon. Besides weakened USSR of Chernienko and Gorbachev (80s) had troubles itself (Afghanistan, economy), and simply could not afford backing Syria's quarrelsome politics, its tense relations with Israel, and involvement in affairs of Lebanon.

The alliance went practically dead in 90s, the first visit of Assad in Moscow after the fall of Soviet Union took place in 99!

Putin tried to back Syria recently, as he's generally more politically active/aggresive than Yelzin (and Russia's economy is in much better condition now); tries to reconstruct the Soviet influence all over the places it was significant 20 years ago.

(I'll try to elaborate more on last 2 paragraphs later)

Some source links: http://www.jewishpolicycenter.org/833/the-syria-soviet-alliance

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  • Could anyone elaborate on the relationship between the Soviet-Union and Syria, and its larger geo-political connotations?

The relation between Syria and USSR was largely based on the cooperation in the economy, with big works like river dams or power plants, and about the weapons trade. Syria bought nearly everything to Russia, and this was a source of profits for USSR.

The USSR also learnt on the American capacities with the experience of the Israel-Arab wars, as did the Americans.

Getting a base in Syria was a huge avantage for USSR in terms of influence, in capacity to protect its interest, but also in case of a global war: Russia was able to deploy its submarines in advance of the war in this base, making the guards of the Bosphore and the GIUK line a little less important.

  • How might the relationship between Syria and the Soviet-Union (and possibly Russia after the end of the Cold-War) have influenced Syrian politics and the present popular "Arab-spring" era reaction to current dictator Bashar al-Assad?

It is difficult to speak for the arab spring, but the idea of socialist arab republics came directly from the USSR theory. This was the idea of making Syria (but also Egypt or Algeria) similar to the USSR, with a "green revolution" to give the land to the people and the development of an industry. Brejnev's speeches showed well this objective.

To achieve this, the politics of these Arab republics, including Syria, needed an important control of the administration, in order to lead the "big projects" like power plants.... But it was in contradiction with the traditionnal decentralization of the administration in this region, since the Ottoman empire. Especially in Syria, there was the problem of multiple religious and ethnic groups living in the same country. They could live together with tolerance, but they could not achieve important projects for the entire country with a simple magic formula.

This might be part of an explanation for the arab spring in Syria and the way it turns in a multi confessionnal and multi tribes war.

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