Echoes of the Cold War: Russia's Role in Syria

 /  Oct. 25, 2015, 7:45 p.m.


The situation is dire. A solemn, graying man stands before a crowded room and warns his audience of the imminent threat that Russia poses to global security. “From the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Pacific, through South Asia, into the Caucasus and around to the Baltics, Russia has continued to wrap itself in a shroud of isolation.” These are the unsettling words of Ashton Carter, U.S. secretary of defense, calculated to stir up memories of a Cold War that, in the 1970s, grew far too hot in the Middle East. It is a Cold War that, while now described in history books, may not yet be over.

On October 3, 2015, Russian warplanes violated the airspace above Turkey on their way to bomb opposition fighters in Syria, making Russia the latest nation to get involved in what has become an increasingly international civil war. In the succeeding days, Russian president Vladimir Putin has continued to test the waters of the churning whirlpool that is the Syrian civil war. On October 8, there were reports that Putin had sent ground troops to join the melee, and that there were Russian naval assets lining the Syrian shores. Russia has fired a series of missiles into Syria, allegedly at ISIS bases, and claims that each has found its mark.

In spite of Russia’s sudden, eager participation in the Syrian conflict, the global community is increasingly suspicious that the goal of Russia’s airstrikes is not in fact ISIS strongholds, but rather the US-backed opposition groups that are waging war against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. One recent revelation suggests that President Putin is holding back details about his nation’s activities in the Middle East; on October 8, unnamed US officials reported that four of the Russian missiles accidentally crashed in Iran, instead of hitting their Syrian targets. Russia had guided the missiles to Syria over both Iran and Iraq, perhaps, as the BBC’s James Robbins claims, to demonstrate that Iran and Iraq are now President Putin’s two strongest allies in the Middle East. The Russian leader certainly seems to be using any means available to shore up his nation’s position in the region. According to Defense Secretary Carter, Russia has begun a joint ground operation with the Syrian army, “shattering the facade that they’re there to fight ISIL.” As Tom Bowman suggested during a recent segment on National Public Radio, President Putin may hope to eliminate the Free Syrian Army from the playing field in order to force the United States to choose the lesser of two evils -- the ISIS terrorists or the Assad regime.

Russia has long taken an active interest in the Middle East. The cooperation between Moscow and Damascus began on February 10, 1946, when the two countries signed a secret agreement stating that the new nation of Syria would provide diplomatic and political support to the USSR in exchange for military aid and assistance in forming a national army. After Hafez al-Assad, father of current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, ascended to the presidency in 1970, his first international visit was to Moscow from February 1-3, 1971. Assad Senior gravitated toward the Soviet Union as the world power whose authoritarian system aligned most closely with his own goals. Meanwhile, Moscow sought to cultivate relations with Syria because of its strategic position on the Mediterranean as well as its potential use as a gateway through which to export Soviet ideology and influence to Asia and Africa.  

On October 8, 1980, the two nations signed a Treaty of Friendship, which remains in force to this day. This treaty provides for consultations between the two nations on issues of mutual interest, for the coordination of responses to a crisis, and for mutual military aid. Syria and Russia remained politically, diplomatically, and economically close during most of the presidency of Hafez al-Assad. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the alliance, while still in place, became much more subdued. The new Russian nation no longer provided the military and economic aid that had been a major component of the relationship between the USSR and Syria. The Syrian Arab Republic closed out the twentieth century largely independent of the superpower which had exerted such influence over its adolescence as a nation.

But the path of the two countries converged once more with the ascent to power of Vladimir Putin in Russia and Bashar al-Assad in Syria. There are several factors that encouraged President Putin to again steer Russian diplomacy toward the Middle East, including the growing, oil-driven economic value of the region, the earning capacity of arms sales in the Arab world, and, perhaps most significantly, the increasing American influence in what many consider to be the crossroads of the international economy. By now, the relationship between Syria and Russia has come to resemble their relationship during the Cold War: Putin provides Assad with military and economic aid in exchange for an ideological, diplomatic, and military point of entry to the Arab world. In fact, the current state of Russo-American relations resonates with the tensions of the Cold War on many frequencies. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg made this clear in no uncertain terms, stating on October 8 that the mutual defense organization is “implementing the biggest reinforcement of our collective defense since the end of the Cold War.” At the same press conference, which took place after a meeting of world leaders at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Secretary of Defense Carter spoke of Russia’s seemingly expansionist ambitions, demanding that the nation halt its aggression in eastern Ukraine, forgo its attempts to annex Crimea, and uphold the ceasefire agreed to in the Minsk agreements.

During the height of the Red Scare in the 1950s, Western cartoonists depicted the USSR as a scarlet octopus, with slimy tentacles creeping insidiously around the globe. Today we recognize the situation to be much more subtle--Russia’s concern over its standing in the Middle East is legitimate, the domestic subtleties and multiplicities in Syria defy simplification by outside forces, and the rhetoric of the global superpowers is driven less by ideology than by political and economic interests. However, the fact remains that the United States and Russia have essentially transformed the Syrian civil war into a proxy war, largely fueled by the Americans’ renewed fears of Russian expansionist ambitions. The relationship between the longtime sparring partners is becoming icy once again.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here

Kaeli Subberwal

Kaeli Subberwal is a fourth-year majoring in political science and minoring in physics. She has spent her summers working in local journalism at the Summit Daily News and national journalism at HuffPost, and doing archival research through the College Summer Institute in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. In her free time, Kaeli enjoys reading, hiking in the Rocky Mountains, and doing crossword puzzles instead of studying.


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