Relations with the Soviet Union
In 1987 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 However, many of these advisers were withdrawn in 1985 during a dispute so that in 1986 between 2,000 and 5,000 remained.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 runs for twenty years and has automatic five-year extensions, unless one of the parties terminates 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 details Soviet military obligations to Syria and may mandate 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 has 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 is limited to a February 1983 agreement for cooperation and exchange for peaceful purposes.
Although the Syrian-Soviet relationship is close, Syria is not a Soviet proxy, and the Soviet Union has gained little leverage over Syrian domestic and regional policy in return for its military support. Although Syria may be aligned with the Soviet Union, its basic orientation is toward the West. Syrian leaders have little affinity with communism, and Moscow has been powerless to prevent Syrian repression of the SCP. Syria's pursuit of independent policies has caused considerable friction with the Soviet Union. Examples of Syrian intransigence include 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.
Former 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. In early 1987, 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.
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