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Syria-USSR Relations

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 However, many of these advisers were withdrawn in 1985 during a dispute so that in 1986 between 2,000 and 5,000 remained.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.

Although Syria's payment record with the Soviets probably will not improve in the future, economic differences will remain secondary to both countries' need for strategic cooperation. Massive Syrian Debt

The Syria-USSR arms relationship was the most prominent aspect of their bilateral ties. Moscow had delivered about $14.5 billion in military equipment from 1980 to 1985, and Soviet arms made up more than 90 percent of the Syrian order of battle. Syria’s military debt ballooned, even though the Soviets probably delivered some arms free of charge or as a partial grant in the 1980s. Syria’s military and civilian debt to the USSR exceeded $10 billion.

The growth in Syrian debt to the USSR was paralleled by a steady decline in Syria's foreign exchange earnings. Export proceeds fell sharply last year with the decline in oil prices, and expatriate remittances had fallen almost 70 percent since 1981 to $183 million last year. Official transfers of hard currency, almost all from Saudi Arabia, dwindled 61 percent since 1981—to $669 million in 1986.

By 1987 Syria had completed the enormous military buildup initiated following its losses in Lebanon during 1982. It upgraded the quality of its equipment inventory and needs a large amount of materiel to sustain its forces. By early 1986 the flow of Soviet arms shipments had slowed to a trickle as compared with earlier years.

Soviet military deliveries in 1986 totaled $624 million, with deliveries confined mostly to spare parts and ammunition. The hiatus was due to the completion of certain contracts and Damascus's inability to pay for and absorb new weapons. Following successful financial talks during Assad's visit to Moscow in April 1987, Syria and the USSR cleared the way for a substantial increase in arms deliveries. Since the April visit, Soviet arms deliveries increased. Deliveries for 1987 total more than $1.2 billion, reflecting the shipment of 21 MIG-29 aircraft since July 1986. Moscow delivered to Syria 20 SA-2 launchers, 38 self-propelled howitzers, and multiple rocket launchers.

In addition to weapons purchases, the two countries have extensive military trade involving aircraft maintenance and repairs, technical assistance, and training. These transactions are financed by letters of credit payable in dollars. Many transactions involve shipping equipment back to the USSR for overhaul. Damascus must pay for these overhauls before Moscow will return the equipment to Syria, and Moscow often holds up delivery to force Syrian payment.

Moscow recognized that Syria’s military debt to the USSR outstrips Damascus's ability to pay. On the basis of terms common in Soviet arms contracts, Syrian obligations falling due in 1987 would total more than $1.3 billion. However, special payment agreements negotiated over the past five years have reduced current obligations by about half. Regardless of the actual debt, Damascus made only token payments on arms deliveries since 1982, confining payments primarily to downpayments, service contracts, spare parts, and technical assistance. Syria's cash payments to the USSR may have been less than $75 million annually since 1982 and much lower since 1986.

Syria's chronic financial problems have led to deeper Soviet interest in Syria's military procurement and financial management. Syria had extensive economic relations with the USSR. Moscow has concentrated economic assistance on infrastructure projects and trade credits, with over $1.1 billion extended since 1981. Soviet assistance programs were facilitated by about 1,000 economic advisers and technicians. Syrian civilian trade with the USSR was high, over $600 million in trade turnover in 1986, according to official Soviet statistics. Syria sold 45 percent of its exports to Communist countries, and the USSR is the largest buyer of Syrian textiles, raw cotton, and consumer goods. Syria's civilian imports from the USSR — primarily machinery — made up about 10 percent of total imports. Syria increasingly turned to Soviet and East European suppliers as commercial relations with the West have deteriorated.

The USSR constructed the massive 800 MW Euphrates hydroelectric project in northern Syria during the mid-1970s and is planning to build another 64 MW hydroelectric plant downstream. Power generation from the Euphrates has been disappointing in recent years because of reduced waterflow and chronic technical problems. Hydroelectric production fell 31 percent between 1982 and 1985.

Soviet involvement in Syrian industry is concentrated in the oil sector. The Soviets have assisted the Syrian Petroleum Company in developing and operating Syria's older northeastern oilfields, which produced about 150,000 barrels per day of heavy crude oil. The Soviets have also brokered Syrian crude oil and product exports and are involved in natural gas development in Syria.

Moscow concentrated on upgrading Syrian military efficiency and preparedness. The Soviets knew Syria had inadequate financial resources to absorb, pressing Syria to emphasize the quality of training increased arms imports. Damascus traditionally over quantity of personnel and equipment. The Soviets emphasized mass acquisition of technology, which almost certainly encouraged measures in 1987 to reorganize Syrian ground forces, a process intended to boost force strength of active brigades and required long-term follow-on support.

Soviet contracts for major weapons systems, however, usually include funding for spare parts, maintenance, and training only for a few years. Moscow usually required payment for additional support for weapon systems on commercial terms, at times in cash. Although these follow-on purchases account for only a small share of Syria's arms acquisitions, they were difficult for Damascus to afford, and curtailment of these imports threatened the armed forces’ operational readiness.

Despite Soviet initiatives toward other states in the region, Syria will remain Moscow's most important ally in the Middle East and received military and economic aid commensurate with this status. Moscow did not intend to support Assad's offensive concept of strategic parity, but the Soviets helped Syria keep rough technological pace with Israel. Although Moscow was troubled by Syrian difficulties in paying for military imports, Damascus made little effort to boost payments to the Soviets. Damascus counted on Moscow’s strategic concerns to override their differences and sustain the military relationship.

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Page last modified: 11-02-2017 16:28:03 ZULU