Efraim Karsh, The Soviet Union and Syria: The Asad Years (London: Routledge, 1988.)
The Soviet Union and Syria provides a strikingly clear and compelling interpretation of the vicissitudes of strategic relations between Moscow and Damascus from 1970 to 1988. In Karsh’s view, the first years of the Asad regime saw the Soviet Union more dependent upon Syrian cooperation in pursuing the chimera of an international Arab-Israeli peace conference than Syria was upon the Soviet Union for military and economic assistance. This shifted dramatically in 1977, as severe challenges to the Syrian regime arose at home, and Moscow grew increasingly disenchanted with the inability of Syrian troops to impose a measure of order in Lebanon. As a result, the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation signed by the two governments in October 1980 “constituted an uneasy compromise, the outcome of a balance of mutual weakness. Reluctant as it was to sign a treaty at that time, the USSR could not afford to turn down its major Middle Eastern ally. Syria, for its part, unable to harness an unequivocal Soviet commitment to its national security in the form of a defense pact, had to content itself with a ‘standard’ Third World Friendship and Cooperation Treaty.”
This reflected, in fact, a fundamental Soviet advantage, which structured relations between the two countries throughout the 1980s. Whereas Damascus reacted “with considerable alarm” to the formal memorandum of strategic cooperation between Israel and the United States in November 1981 and demanded similar guarantees from Moscow, the Soviet Union began courting the Israeli leadership. Moscow left Damascus largely to its own devices in resisting the Israeli invasion of Lebanon the following summer, although during the brief Andropov era the Soviets did deliver advanced SAM-5 air defense missiles to the Syrian armed forces, along with “warnings to Israel not to take any military action against Syria.”
Such signals of support enabled Syria to defeat the US expeditionary force in Lebanon, scuttle the May 1983 agreement between Israel and Lebanon’s Maronite leadership, and disrupt a growing rapprochement between the mainstream PLO and Jordan. The trend under Chernenko to distance Moscow from Syria and open doors to other Middle Eastern capitals has accelerated under Gorbachev, who has criticized Damascus’ goal of “strategic parity” with Israel and pressed for Syrian reconciliation with Iraq and with the mainstream PLO.
Karsh’s exemplary analysis is marred only by his insistence on retaining two hoary bits of conventional wisdom concerning contemporary Syria. The first — that Damascus predicates its foreign policies upon a desire to recreate “Greater Syria” in the vast region between Egypt and Iraq — is contradicted by his own insightful remarks regarding the strategic vulnerability of Syria’s western and southern borders, which compels Syrian involvement in surrounding territories. The second — that the Asad regime continues to face severe domestic political challenges and retains only a precarious hold on power — represents a staple of Israeli and Western thinking that seemed considerably better grounded in 1981-1982 than it does today.