Optimism is growing inside the beltway that Syria can partner with the United States to achieve regional peace in the Middle East. The 2006 Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton, called for “unconditional” talks with Damascus. Similar refrains are now heard outside the beltway. University of Oklahoma Professor Joshua Landis argues that “Diplomacy has worked in the past; it can work in the future.” He asserts that success is possible because “Syria’s diplomacy has been marked by pragmatism.”
Those who argue for engagement with Syria further believe that warmer relations can be achieved now that George W. Bush, a polarizing figure in the Arab world, has left office. To this end, Institute for Policy Studies fellow Farrah Hassen described Bush’s Syria policy as “nutty” and blames his administration for isolating Damascus.
This approach takes a dangerously short view of history. The animosity that exists between Syria and Washington is not a result of recent policies. Rather, it is the product of a series of Syrian decisions to ally with U.S. foes. Syria’s recent decision to join forces with Iran is only the latest blunder. U.S.-Syria tensions began almost 60 years ago, when Syria elected to join the Soviet Axis during the Cold War.
The First Syria-Soviet Ties
In the aftermath of World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the two strongest world powers that competed covertly and overtly for influence around the globe. The Middle East, a vital source of oil, was of strategic importance to both camps.
In 1955, Moscow invited Syria, along with Egypt, to join a pro-Soviet pact. Turkey, a U.S. ally, mobilized troops along its southern border in an attempt to dissuade Syria from joining this pact. Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov threatened Turkey not to use force against Syria, prompting Ankara to back down. The Syria-Soviet relationship was soon cemented. From 1955 to 1960, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev provided Syria with more than $200 million in military aid to solidify the alliance and to counter U.S. influence in the region.
Soviet support to Syria was part of a greater regional strategic battle playing out in the Middle East. The Kremlin supported likeminded Arab nationalist and socialist governments including Egypt, Libya, and Iraq. The pro-Western governments of Israel, Iran (prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution), Jordan, and Saudi Arabia comprised the U.S. bloc.
In May 1967, Syrian and Egyptian provocations against Israel brought the Middle East to the brink of war. However, the Soviets never came to the aid of their clients when Israel launched a two-pronged, blitzkrieg pre-emptive strike. In just six days in June 1967, Israel defeated the armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. In the aftermath of the Arab’s military debacle, the Soviet Union pledged $2.5 billion in military aid to Syria from July 1967 until December 1968, and severed ties with Israel to defy the West.
In 1971, when Air Force Commander Hafez al-Assad became President of Syria by way of a coup, he elected to maintain a strategic policy of close cooperation with the Soviet Union. In February 1972, Syria signed a peace and security pact with the Soviet Union as a means to strengthen its defense capability. During that year, Moscow delivered more than $135 million in Soviet arms to Damascus.
In October 1973, Syria and Egypt simultaneously launched another war against Israel. Initially taken by surprise, the Israelis battled back and even crossed the Suez Canal into Egypt. When Israel gained the upper hand, the Soviets panicked. Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev threatened to send Soviet troops into the theater of war. A Soviet naval vessel allegedly baring nuclear arms awaited his instructions in the Egyptian port of Alexandria. In response, U.S. President Richard Nixon reportedly increased the national security warning to DEFCON 3 and placed the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet on high alert in the Mediterranean Sea.
With U.S. assistance, Israel emerged victorious. To maintain leverage in the region, Moscow agreed to compensate Syria (and Egypt), replacing destroyed armor and weapons with long-range missiles and high-tech aircraft. In exchange for this aid, Syria pledged not to turn to the U.S. for assistance.
The Lebanese Divide
In April 1975, civil war erupted in Lebanon, pitting Christian, Sunni, Druze, Shiite, and Palestinian against one another. In June 1976, Assad ordered 30,000 Syrian troops into Lebanon to protect the Christians. The move revealed fissures in the Syria-Soviet alliance. The Soviets, who supported the PLO and other leftist Muslim groups, openly criticized Syria’s intervention. The Soviet newspaper Pravda stated that Syria harmed the Palestinian and Lebanese “national patriotic forces” and demanded that Syria withdraw its troops from Lebanon. Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev told Assad that his reckless, unilateral behavior could compromise Syrian-Soviet relations. He believed that a leftist Muslim victory could transform capitalist Beirut into a communist-friendly state.
Syria was unmoved, however. As political scientist Rajan Menon noted, “That the Syrian army was equipped with Soviet weapons did little to deter Assad or enhance Moscow’s influence.”
Syria’s intervention in Lebanon became a lasting occupation that irked Moscow to no end. In September 1982, during a meeting of the Soviet Afro-Asian Solidarity Committee, Moscow condemned Damascus for undermining Lebanese sovereignty and creating divisions within the Arab world. A Soviet statement announced, “Syrian troops on Lebanese territory harms not only the Lebanese people, but the entire struggle of the Arab peoples.”
The Gorbachev Era
The rise of Mikhail Gorbachev as the next Soviet premier in November 1985 marked a radical departure in Syrian-Soviet relations. Gorbachev openly denounced Assad for his adventurism in Lebanon and called for a significant reduction in economic and military aid. He also perceived Syria’s obsession with fighting Israel as a liability.
During their first meeting, Gorbachev told Assad that the Soviet Union would not support Syria’s efforts to achieve military parity with Israel. Gorbachev, who sought a diplomatic solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, also scolded Assad for intervening in Lebanese and Palestinian affairs. In April 1987, at a state dinner in Moscow, Gorbachev chided Assad for fanning the flames of the Arab-Israeli conflict, calling the Syrian leader’s approach “completely discredited.”
Gorbachev’s frustration with Syria had an immediate impact on the patron-client relationship. Soviet arms shipments to Syria dropped off dramatically. Indeed, Gorbachev reduced Soviet arms shipments to Damascus from $2.4 billion annually from 1980-1984 to $1.3 billion annually from 1985-1989. The number of Soviet advisors in Syria was also reduced to 1,800 from 4,000 in 1986. Finally, the Soviets began demanding that Syria pay for arms with cash.
For nearly four decades, Syria had been the greatest Middle East recipient of Soviet economic, military, and political support. By the late 1980s, that relationship was effectively finished.
Gorbachev’s downgrading of ties with Damascus prompted Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Diyaullah al-Fattal to reach out to the United States. “Our economic links in the region are with the West. We are not allies of the East,” he stated.
Sensing opportunity, U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz proposed a new Middle East peace initiative in 1988 based on the principles of U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338, calling for Israel to withdraw from territories captured during the 1967 war in exchange for Arab-Israeli peace and security. Assad, however, rejected the offer, claiming Shultz’s plan did not meet the collective interests of the Arabs and benefited only Israel. Echoing his Soviet strategy, Assad further insisted that Syria’s ability to maintain military parity with Israel was critical to achieving regional peace. Assad also told U.S. Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) in February 1988 that Syria would be willing to enter negotiations if Israel withdrew from the Golan Heights.
With his demands made public via Syria’s state-run media, Assad stated, “If Schultz wants a peace, the door is well known and he can enter it peacefully.”
With the end of the Cold War in 1989, the Soviet Union began to unravel. Warmer ties between Moscow and Washington eventually led to warmer ties between Russia and Israel. In September 1990, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy met at the U.N. Full diplomatic relations between Israel and the Soviet Union were restored in October 1991. This effectively drove the final wedge between Damascus and Moscow.
In December 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved and became known as the Commonwealth of Independent States. With only one super power remaining, Syria had no choice but to turn to the United States for an alliance. That relationship, however, would never come to fruition. Syrian support for terrorist groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad prevented Damascus-Washington rapprochement throughout the 1990s.
Although a Syrian-Israeli peace deal was a priority during the presidency of Bill Clinton (1992-2000), Syria never compromised. Indeed, in 2000, after years of Washington-brokered peace overtures, Assad snubbed Clinton at a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, when he flatly refused to engage in further Israeli-Syrian peace talks. This exacerbated tensions with Washington.
After Clinton left office, Syria’s missteps continued. Damascus’ support for the Iraqi insurgency, in which thousands of U.S. soldiers have been killed or maimed, coupled with its warm alliance with Iran, a state determined to acquire nuclear weapons for regional domination, has further derailed realistic chances of mending U.S.-Syria ties.
Learning From History
Learning the lessons of history, dating back to 1955, Syria has consistently demonstrated that it is not a friend of the United States.
Throughout the Cold War, Syria chose to ally with the Soviet Union. From the rise of Khrushchev through the Brezhnev years, Syria played a role in the Soviet strategy to undermine U.S. interests in the region. Even during the Gorbachev years, leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Syria failed to grasp a golden opportunity to broaden ties with Washington. During the heyday of Washington-brokered peace deals of the 1990s, Syria failed yet again to mend relations. Today, Syria’s dangerous policies continue to demonstrate that it is a duplicitous regime.
Michael Sharnoff is a research associate at the Jewish Policy Center.