Over the last 40 years, any mention of Syria by world leaders or politicians almost always referenced the name Hafez al-Assad in the same conversation. During the height of the Cold War and beyond, they all considered Syria to really mean Hafez al-Assad.
But no other country associated its fate in the region with the Assads like the Soviet Union. The Assad legacy was forged in black iron under the watchful eye of the Soviet bear in every sense of the word. Ever since Assad’s ascension to power in 1970, the Soviet Union has nurtured its long-standing influence over him as an incubator of the Soviet model in Syrian life and beyond.Â Â
The frame of that influence began in 1957 when Hafez al-Assad, still a yearling of 27, traveled to the Soviet Union to receive his training as a pilot in the Syrian Air Force for the Mig-15’s and the MIG-17’s that were soon to be delivered under the second-term of Shukri al-Quwatli presidency. Assad was the first Alawite to rise to this level of confidence in the Syrian armed forces.
The Soviet influence continued long after Hafez al-Assad returned to Syria through direct and indirect contacts (Mentioned in Akram al-Hourani 4-volume book about his life). The Russians were aware that Assad’s father appealed to the French to split the Alawite region from Syria, which played into their strategy of breaking regions away from western influence.
If Hafez al-Assad had any virtue, it was loyalty to those who were loyal to him. That virtue applied to people, groups, sects, and nations as well. So when the Soviets nurtured Hafez, his response was to tie the knots with a willing and able superpower who taught him how to rule, how to strike fear into the hearts of his enemies, and how to survive political risks and upheavals.
Upon his successful coup of 1970 achieved with Russian help, Assad continued to rely heavily on his ally. The Soviets not only delivered massive military and security capabilities but also assisted in building the societal elements for life in Syria for Assad to control his destiny. These capabilities included establishing a Police State modeled after theirs with a network of 15 intelligence agencies all led by men who hated each other and all competing in the field of spying on Syrians and striking the Stalinist fear in the hearts.Â
The Soviets also heavily invested in establishing an agricultural economy through construction and large infrastructure projects like building the Thawra dam on the Furat River (Euphrates), which to this day our agricultural fiefdom system depends upon.
From the Soviet perspective, the Kremlin saw Assad as a reliable partner who remained loyal –until the Soviet Union collapse in 1989 and unlike Egypt in post-1973 war. That loyalty was generously rewarded at every turn and to this day Russia views the Assads, under the tutelage of a Soviet-era Putin, with the same advocacy and guardianship the Brezhnev Kremlin did.
As an example, after the 1973 Assad losses in his war against Israel, the Soviets invested $2B in Syria ($2B in 1973 is worth $20.8 in today’s Dollars) in new weapons and equipment, which included 800 T-72 tanks fresh off newly minted production lines. In January 2005, as a gesture of goodwill and as a reward to the Assad loyalty, Russia canceled $13B in Syrian debt, some of which goes back to the post-1973 war.
The only time Assad broke his lock-steps with Russia was during the 1990 Desert Storm war against Saddam Hussein. Two reasons prompted him to take that painful decision: With the collapse of the Soviet Empire, Assad needed to play games with the Americans to stay in power. He also supported Desert Storm because he knew it would help his brethren in Iran gain a political and strategic advantage if Saddam was weakened.
As a result of this timely harvesting, billions in investments flowed from Kuwait into Syria, Iran became bolder, and the new Russia remained as committed and as friendly. The US, however, under the Clinton administration, was disappointed when it failed to convince Assad to strike peace with Israel. The talks went nowhere because Assad knew his role as a spoiler in the region for the new rising Russia was essential to his survival.
After the Soviet collapse, the Russians left the room but did not leave the building. Subsequent to the era of the pragmatism of Gorbachev, which was followed by the inebriated Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin, a new face in the old guard, became the 3rd President of the Russian Federation on New Year’s Eve of 2000; just 6 months before Hafez al-Assad succumbed to his cancer and Baschar al-Assad inherited Syria as planned. The Assad Jr.-Putin era was almost synchronized and the Russians entered the room again determined to spoil America’s interests by re-investing boldly with the new Assad.
Since 2000, the Russian aid and support of Junior has been unabated. The bear awakened from hibernation to find in Assad as willing a partner as his father was. In return for the debt forgiveness and the military support, Assad offered the Russians the right for their Navy to dock in Tartous to impose a new diktat upon the region by a leaner Russia.
The long history of mutual investment between Syria and Russia is as solid as the mutual investment is between the US and Israel. Russia is not about to let go of a relationship, started in 1957, which helps its interests immensely in the region and provides Russia with a window to watch the party and a doorway to break the party.
Further, the Christian Orthodoxy in Syria is deeply rooted in our history dating back to AD 37 in the Antioch region. Russia’s strategic obligations of fighting extreme Muslims, protecting the Syriac community, and spoiling American plans all meet in Syria.
Syrians getting killed is a nuisance but not as much as the exasperation the Russians are experiencing from the international community sticking its nose in Syrian affairs. As far as Putin is concerned, there is no alternative to Assad, especially not from some Muslim Brotherhood opportunists who will freeze, because of the Chechnya war, all the agreements signed by Assad, including the Tartous Russian fleet docking rights. You don’t give-up on a 54-year old investment yielding beyond expectation high returns so easily.
In my humble opinion, Russia won’t let go of Assad and any opposition group who believes it can replace Assad or diminish Russian support just because the people are rising against his rule need not bother. That’s the missing bracket many of us tried to compute without, only to fail and I am as guilty as anyone in discounting Russia in its zeal to protect Assad from harm. The price the Arab Sheikhs and the west have to pay to replace Assad is too high and too far in the future.Â Â
Russia’s Stalin once said “Death is the solution to all problems. No man — no problem”. Assad, today, is just putting Stalin’s words into practice and the Russians are patting themselves on the back for being such good teachers. Â