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Syria-Russia Relations

Russia maintains a Soviet-era naval maintenance site near Tartus, which is the countrys only military foothold on the Mediterranean. The Soviet-era facility is operated under a 1971 agreement by Russian personnel. Since 1992 the port has been in disrepair, with only one of its three floating piers operational. Russia's naval supply and maintenance site near Syria's Mediterranean port of Tartus will be modernized to accommodate heavy warships after 2012, the Russian Navy chief said on 02 August 2009. "Tartus will be developed as a naval base. The first stage of development and modernization will be completed in 2012," Adm. Vladimir Vysotsky said, adding it could then serve as a base for guided-missile cruisers and even aircraft carriers.

Russian warships were sent to the military base in Syria in December 2011. The fleet was led by the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. Included also are a patrol vessel and other vessels. The Russian government announced that from December, a flotilla of warships will be sent to the naval base that it has in Syria. The authorities affirmed that the fleet will be led by the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and also have a patrol vessel, an anti-submarine ship, and other vessels. "The sending of the Russian ships to Tartus should not be seen as a reaction to what is happening in Syria (...) This was already planned from 2010, when there were no such events existing there. It has not been an active preparation, and there is no need to cancel or postpone it," insisted the spokesman, who explained that the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov also will visit Beirut, Genoa and Cyprus.

Russia has been a major arms supplier to Syria since the Soviet era and political cooperation with Damascus has often been far more valuable to Moscow than money. In 2005, Russia wrote off more than 70 percent of Syria's $13-billion debt, much of which was the result of Soviet-era arms deliveries. Although financial interests now play a more important role in defining Moscow's approach to Syria than during the Cold War, political concerns still remained the cornerstone.

Russia and Syria have enjoyed friendly relationship. Syria supported Russia in its fight against terrorism. Russia and Syria used to cooperate much in construction industry, and many Syrian specialists had graduated from the Soviet universities. Over 40,000 graduates of Soviet and Russian universities live and work in Syria. Many of them hold leading positions in various spheres related to culture.

According to some, Syria remains Russia's only ally in the Middle East. But Yevgeny Satanovsky, who heads Russia's Middle East Institute, disagrees that Syria - or any other country in the region - can be considered Russia's "ally." "We have never had 'allies' [in the region]," he said. "We have just stuffed Middle Eastern countries with money, weapons and military advisors... But what has Russia, or previously the Soviet Union, ever received in return?"

The unwillingness of Russia and China, both permanent UN Security Council members, to clearly condemn the Syrian regime for its brutal onslaught against demonstrators prevented the Council from passing a strong resolution on Syria that would further isolate the Assad regime, already under U.S. and EU sanctions. Instead, the Council only issued a presidential statement - a relatively mild, non-binding document - more than four months into the uprising, calling on Assad to put an end to violence and begin talks with the opposition.

The UN Security Council won`t tolerate military intervention in Syria, Russias Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during a January 2012 press-briefing. If the opposition refuses to hold talks with the regime in Damascus, it does not mean that bombing is necessary, Mr. Lavrov said. Commenting on his country`s position on the proposed resolution, he said that Moscow did not insist on Assad to remain in power, but believed that Syrians should decide on their own whether he should step down or stay in office. Russia said that it will only support the Security Council resolution on Syria if it contains Russias principal approaches to the Syrian settlement. They include the unacceptability of any violence, the beginning of a dialogue between the authorities and the opposition, as well as the inadmissibility of outside interference in Syrias affairs and the introduction of sanctions or any threats to impose them.

During the Cold War the relationship between Syria and the Soviet Union appeared to be close and deep. Syria was clearly favored among Soviet client states in the Third World. For over twenty years, Syria had obtained most of its military equipment from the Soviet Union. In addition, there was a large Soviet military presence in Syria; by mid-1984 there were an estimated 13,000 Soviet and East European advisers in Syria. However, many of these advisers were withdrawn in 1985 during a dispute so that in 1986 between 2,000 and 5,000 remained.

Syrian-Soviet relations were upgraded and formalized in the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation signed by Assad in Moscow in October 1980. The treaty ran for twenty years and had automatic five-year extensions, unless one of the parties terminated the agreement. It provides for regular consultations on bilateral and multilateral issues of interest, coordination of responses in the event of a crisis, and military cooperation.

A secret protocol to the treaty reputedly detailed Soviet military obligations to Syria and may have mandated the dispatch of Soviet troops to Syria in case of an Israeli invasion. Syrian defense minister Tlas warned in 1984 that the Soviet Union would dispatch two Soviet airborne divisions to Syria within eight hours in the event of a conflict with Israel. Tlas's also stated that the Soviet Union would use nuclear weapons to protect Syria. Tlas' statements, however, were not endorsed by the Soviet Union. Syrian-Soviet nuclear cooperation was limited to a February 1983 agreement for cooperation and exchange for peaceful purposes.

The Soviets probably anticipated that a Syrian-Israeli war would end quickly in an Israeli victory. Their capabilities for rapid deplyment of militarily effective forces to Syria were seriously limited. Overt intervention would involve major political as well as militury risks. The USSR would concentrate mainly on diplomatic efforts to save the Syrian Army, limiting its military support to such measures as the use of the advisors already there. Through these measures, together with threats of more direct involvement, the Soviets would seek to get the fighting ended and to play a major role in subsequent peace negotiations. The Soviets would also calculate that Syria, defeated once again, would become more dependent on them and that meanwhile the Soviet Union would reap major gainsonsequence of an oil embargo and its divisive effects on Western cohesion.

The Soviets might have developed plans to go further. If they did, they might focus on on air defenses and a limited ground presence. The first SAM regiment airlifted to Syria could go into operation two days after a decision to send it. SAM units arc air transportable, and the first new Soviet battery could arrive and go into operation within two days. A more potent force, such as an entire air defense regiment, would require several more days. Within three days, an entire fighter division could fly in and some of its aircraft could be ready for combat soon thereafter. Fighters could be disassembled and shipped in by air, but this would take longer. An airborne regiment could reach Syria within one or two days and a division within four days. Airborne units could not stand up to Israel, armor, and the Soviet purpose in sending them would be to intensify the crisis and promote a cease fire by political means.

Although the Syrian-Soviet relationship was close, Syria was not a Soviet proxy, and the Soviet Union gained little leverage over Syrian domestic and regional policy in return for its military support. Although Syria was aligned with the Soviet Union, its basic orientation was toward the West. Syrian leaders had little affinity with communism, and Moscow had been powerless to prevent Syrian repression of the Syrian Communist Party. Syria's pursuit of independent policies caused considerable friction with the Soviet Union. Examples of Syrian intransigence included its 1983 rebuff of Soviet requests for a naval base at the port of Tartus and its deviation from Moscow with regard to the Palestinian issue.

Soviet leader Yuri Andropov appeared to be a staunch advocate of Syria, and the Soviet Union acquiesced to many of Syria's demands. However, after Mikhail Gorbachev succeeded Konstantin Chernenko in March 1985, the Soviet Union reassessed its relationship with Syria. Assad made a brief visit to Moscow in May 1985 and restated Syria's plea for a stronger Soviet military commitment. However, the Soviet leadership reprimanded him for Syria's hostility toward the PLO and Iraq and reminded him that Syria was not its only Middle Eastern ally.

In June 1985, Assad again met Gorbachev in Moscow to debate the Palestinian issue, but there was no resolution. Shortly thereafter, the Soviets withdrew a significant number of their military advisers from Syria. It was not known whether Assad expelled the Soviet advisers in retaliation for his cold reception in Moscow or whether the withdrawal occurred at Soviet behest; however, the strain in relations was clear. Syria's persistent refusal to accede to Soviet desires regarding the PLO was becoming a test case of the relative power of the patron state and its client. At the same time, the Soviet Union could not afford to appear to abandon Syria.

In May 1986, Gorbachev renewed Soviet promises to supply Syria with military equipment and excoriated Israeli and American pressure on Syria. Yet Gorbachev, unlike his predecessors, appeared prepared to pressure Syria for concessions in return for Soviet military aid. Gorbachev expected Syria to support his embryonic new agenda for the Middle East, which revived the longstanding Soviet plan for an international Middle East peace conference attended by all parties, including Israel.

Syria, which was the Soviet Union's main strategic ally in the Middle East throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, was simply dropped out of the list of Moscow's foreign policy priorities in the early 1990s. Damascus perceived the break-up of the U.S.S.R., along with Moscow's decision to renounce global confrontation with Washington and the restoration of Russian-Israeli diplomatic relations in 1991, as a betrayal of the Arab world's interests and as a global Zionist conspiracy.

Damascus believed this 19 years ago, and many Syrians still think the same way. However, the most pragmatic members of the Syrian political elite headed by President Bashar al-Assad have always aspired to have business and military cooperation with Moscow and have counted on Russia's political support on the Middle East peace settlement. Syria's main demand within this peace process is for the return of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967.

The ice in Russian-Syrian relations in the 1990s began to thaw in January 2005, after Bashar al-Assad paid his first visit to Moscow, which resulted in Russian then-President Vladimir Putin writing off 73% of Syria's former Soviet debts ($9.8 billion) in exchange for new guaranteed Russian weapons contracts.

Russian-Syrian bilateral trade almost doubled over the next five years, reaching $1 billion in 2009. Apart from the Russian military, oil and gas companies and other businesses are also interested in the Syrian market. A month ago, Russia's oil and gas company Tatneft and its Syrian partners started developing the South Kishma oilfield in the province of Deir ez-Zor. In December 2009, Stroytransgaz, the oil and gas engineering and construction company, built and commissioned a large gas refinery near the city of Hims, located 160 km from Damascus.

Syria and Russia signed a cultural cooperation program for 2010-2012 in Damascus on 21 March 2010. The document signed by Russian Culture Minister Alexander Avdeyev and his Syrian counterpart Riyad Naasan Agha is based on a basic intergovernmental agreement on cultural and scientific cooperation concluded between Moscow and Damascus in 1995. President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev, who was on a 2-day visit in Damascus in May 2010, said that Russia is seeking more active trade cooperation with Syria. Though the global economic crisis has affected our bilateral trade turnover, we hope to improve the situation, the Russian leader said speaking in the Syrian capital.

Assad's main objective is to enlist Moscow's political support on the issue of returning the strategic Golan Heights, a plateau 60 km long and 25 km wide, from which the Syrian capital can be clearly seen.

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