Russia–Syria relations

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Russia–Syria relations
Map indicating locations of Russia and Syria


Diplomatic mission
Embassy of Russia, DamascusEmbassy of Syria, Moscow

Russia–Syria relations are the bilateral relations between Russia and Syria. Russia has an embassy in Damascus and Syria has an embassy in Moscow. Russia enjoys a historically strong, stable, and friendly relationship with Syria, as it did until the Arab Spring with most of the Arab countries.[1] Russia's only Mediterranean naval base for its Black Sea Fleet is located in the Syrian port of Tartus.[2]

Diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and Syria were established in July 1944, and an agreement was signed in February 1946 ensuring Soviet support for Syrian independence ahead of the evacuation of French troops in April 1946.[3] During World War II, both countries were on the Allied side against the Axis powers.[4]

In 1971, under an agreement with President Hafez al-Assad, the Soviet Union opened its naval military base in Tartus,[5][6] a facility the former Soviet republic continues to use to this day. On 8 October 1980, Syria and the Soviet Union signed a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation.[7] 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.[8] The treaty remains in force to this day. In January 1992, the Syrian government recognized the Russian Federation as the legal successor to the Soviet Union.

Russia in 2011 and 2012 used its veto power in the United Nations Security Council against resolutions promoted by Western and Arab countries, to prevent possible sanctions or military intervention against the Syrian government, and Russia continued supplying large amounts of arms that Syria's government had earlier contracted to buy and which were used to fight Western-backed rebels.[9] On 30 September 2015, Russia began a military intervention in the Syrian Civil War in support of the Syrian government, consisting of intensive air and cruise missile strikes against several terrorist groups, including ISIS and Al-Nusra Front (Al-Qaeda's official affiliate in Syria).

In February 2022, the Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad announced that Syria supports the decision of its ally Russia to recognise the two breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.[10] In March 2022 Syria was the only Middle Eastern country and one of 5 countries in the world to vote against United Nations General Assembly Resolution ES-11/1, denouncing the Russian invasion of Ukraine and demanding a full withdrawal of Russian forces.[11] On June 29, 2022 Syria announced that it will recognize the "independence and sovereignty" of the two breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.[12][13] On July 20, 2022, Syria announced its formal break of diplomatic ties with Ukraine, in response to a similar move by Ukraine.[14]


Before 1944[edit]

In 1893, the Russian Empire established a consular office in Damascus, then a part of Ottoman Syria.[15] Following the October Revolution (1917), and the creation of the Soviet Union (1922), the Russian presence in Syria came to an end, which continued during the French Mandate period (1923−1946). Although the Soviet Union did not play a political role in the region, it did promote the establishment of the Syrian–Lebanese Communist Party in 1924.[15]


Hafez al-Assad meeting with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev (1977)
Joint Soviet-Syrian space flight July 22–30, 1987, as part of the Intercosmos project, USSR postage stamp, 1987

Diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and Syria were established in July 1944. The Soviet Union commenced to take an interest in the Middle East after the Second World War. The two countries signed a secret agreement on 1 February 1946,[3] with the Soviet envoy to Syria and Lebanon Daniel Solod as a signatory for the USSR, in which the Soviet Union agreed to provide military help in the formation of the Syrian Arab Army and prescribed Soviet diplomatic and political support in the international arena. The Soviet Union demonstrated its commitment to this treaty with Andrey Vyshinsky's 15 February 1946 address to the United Nations Security Council calling for the removal of British and French troops from the country.[16] The last French troops were removed from Syria on 17 April 1946. During the Cold War (1947–1991) a stronger political bond developed, and Syria was considered an ally of the Soviet Union in opposition to the Western powers.[17]

In 1949, after the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, Syria experienced a number of military coups and the rise of the Ba'ath Party. Three coups d'état occurred by 1953, ushering in military dictatorships twice in the process. A non-aggression pact was signed on 10 April 1950 further cementing Soviet–Syrian ties. During the Cold War period, each conflict and war that broke out in the Middle East acted as a factor leading Syria to form closer ties with the Soviet Union. Following the military coup d’état of 25 February 1954, the Ba'ath Party came to the fore in Syrian politics.

The West-inspired Baghdad Pact (1955), with its ultimately unsuccessful formation of the Central Treaty Organization, brought Soviet-Syria relations closer diplomatically. In early 1956, Syria made an arms deal with the USSR. After that, in 1956, various teams of Syrians went to the Eastern Bloc countries of Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the USSR for arms, artillery, and Mig-17 training courses for pilots and ground crew. Many Syrian officers and NCOs also underwent courses led by Czechoslovak instructors in Egypt beginning in March 1956, including training for 122-mm cannons, SU-100 anti-tank guns, and T-34 tanks, among other weaponry. Meanwhile, teams from Eastern Bloc countries came to Syria to provide training to the Syrian military.[18] Syrians, however, perceived this agreement as a pact against themselves. Indeed, among the consequences of the Baghdad Pact was not only a deepening of Syrian relations with the Soviet Union but also an alignment of Middle Eastern countries into allied satellites of the Eastern and Western blocs.

Soviet Military Presence in Syria and Lebanon, December 1986

The response of the Soviet Union to the Suez Crisis (late October 1956) - threatening to use 'destructive weapons' against Britain and France - increased Soviet prestige in the Middle East. The Syrian President, then in the USSR, requested the Soviet government to intervene and send its pilots to increase the morale of the Arabs. Syrian Foreign Minister, in a talk with Soviet Foreign Minister, even requested the Soviet Union to deploy two squadron of planes along with their pilots after the Suez Crisis.[19]

Soviet aid to Syria accelerated and included military and economic agreements. Between 1955 and 1958, Syria received about $294 million from the Soviet Union for military and economic assistance.[15] Simultaneously, the Ba'ath Party in Syria increased its power and influence, culminating in the 1963 military coup which established a one-party Ba'athist state in Syria.[20] The far-left neo-Ba'athist factions that dominated the Syrian Ba'ath pursued close alliance with Soviet Union. Following the Sixth National Congress in 1963, the party publicly adopted the doctrine of ideological alliance with the Socialist Bloc:

"The Arab Socialist Ba'th Party had placed the question of the struggle against imperialism in its international and human framework and considered the socialist camp a positive, active force in the struggle against imperialism... a homeland crushed and exploited by imperialism render the fundamental starting points of the socialist camp more harmonious with the interests of our Arab homeland and more in sympathy with our Arab people."[21]


Bashar Al Assad with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev whilst on a visit to Sochi in August 2008.
Dmitry Medvedev and Bashar Al-Assad heading to the Presidential Palace, Damascus on 10 May 2010

The Syrian coup d'état of February 1966 gave the Soviet Union the opportunity to further support Syria. A new coup d’état in 1970, called the Corrective Movement, brought Hafez Assad to power in Syria on 13 November 1970.[22]

In 1971, under an agreement with President Hafez al-Assad, the Soviet Union was allowed to open its naval military base in Tartus, giving the Soviet Union a stable presence in the Middle East.[5][6] Thousands of Syrian military officers and educated professionals studied in Russia during al-Assad's presidency (1971–2000).[23]

During the Yom Kippur War, thousands of Soviet advisors and technicians assisted the Syrian army, and 20 are believed to have died. 3,750 tonnes of aid was airlifted during the war to Syria. At the end of October 1973, the Soviet Union sealifted 63,000 tonnes, mainly to Syria to replace its losses during the war.

Nevertheless, relations with Syria became strained in 1976, as the Soviets were displeased by Assad's military involvement in Lebanon. A rift between the countries emerged, as the Soviets worried about a high risk of confrontation between the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Assad regime, which were both Moscow clients. Indeed, the Soviet Union had promptly offered its resources both to Syria and to the PLO and did not approve the possibility of seeing two of its commercial partners confronting themselves on the ground, despite the existing hostility between Hafez al Assad the PLO's leader Yasser Arafat. The Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev's request for the retreat was accommodated not without agitation. Moscow had frozen weapons supplies, whereas Syria had denied Soviets the access to its naval bases. It took more than two years to see a thaw in Syrian-Soviet relations when the Arab country went through dire economic conditions and turned to Moscow for help. Again, Assad's main concern was represented by Israel. Indeed, the peace sought and achieved with Egypt posed the Jewish State to exercise more pressure on Syria. These conditions created solid grounds for further closeness to the Soviets.[24][25]

In April 1977, Hafez al-Assad visited Moscow and met with Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin among others, as a sign of improved Syrian relations with the USSR. Relevantly, Assad distanced himself from the widespread Arab opinion denouncing the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. On the contrary, he refused to condemn the act and tightened its relationship with Moscow. In October 1980, Syria and the Soviet Union signed a twenty-year Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation.[7] Throughout the 1980s, till the end of Cold War, thousands of Soviet military personnel were present in Syria, and the bulk of Syrian weapons came from the USSR and its allies North Korea, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland.

Between 27 and 29 April 1987, Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad, along with the Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass and Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam, visited the Soviet Union, when he asked to acquire the S-300 missile system, but Mikhail Gorbachev refused to deliver, due to U.S. and Israeli rejection and Syrian accumulated debt from previous arms deals. On 6 July 1999, Assad visited Moscow to finalize an arms deal worth $2 billion.

Hafez al-Assad died on 10 June 2000 and was succeeded on 10 July 2000 by his son Bashar al-Assad, who was elected President by referendum in which he ran unopposed, garnering 97.29% of the vote.[26]

Assad and Putin in Damascus, 7 January 2020

On 10 May 2010, Dmitry Medvedev became the first Russian president to visit Syria.[27]

Syrian Civil War (2011–present)[edit]

During the Syrian Civil War which began in 2011, Russia with China in February 2012 voted against a formal UN Security Council condemnation of the Bashar al-Assad government for alleged attacks on civilians in the city of Homs.[28] In 2018, Russia announced free military education for Syrian kids chosen on merit. The first batch of 8 Syrian kids reached St. Petersburg in August.[citation needed]

Military cooperation[edit]

Russian naval base in Tartus[edit]

The Russian naval facility in Tartus, Syria, was established during the Cold War under a 1971 agreement with Syria. It is Russia's only naval facility in the Mediterranean region and the only remaining military facility outside the former Soviet Union.

After Russia forgave Syria 73%, or $9.6 billion, of its $13.4 billion Soviet-era debt in 2005[29] and became its main arms supplier, Russia and Syria at the end of the 2000s conducted talks about allowing Russia to upgrade and expand the facility at Tartus.[30] Amid Russia's deteriorating relations with the West, because of the 2008 South Ossetia War and plans to deploy a US missile defense shield in Poland, President Assad agreed to the port's conversion into a permanent Middle East base for Russia's nuclear-armed warships.[31]

Since 2009, Russia has been renovating the Tartus naval base and dredging the port to allow access to its larger naval vessels.[32]

On January 18, 2017, Russia and Syria signed an agreement, effective forthwith, whereunder Russia would be allowed to expand and use the naval facility at Tartus for 49 years on a free-of-charge basis and enjoy sovereign jurisdiction over the base.[33][34][35] The treaty allows Russia to keep 11 warships at Tartus, including nuclear vessels;[36] it stipulates privileges and full immunity from Syria's jurisdiction for Russia's personnel and materiel at the facility.[37] The treaty was ratified and approved by Russian parliament, and the relevant federal law was signed by president Vladimir Putin by the end of December 2017.[38][39][40]

Russian air base in Palmyra[edit]

Russia had in 2013 an airbase in Palmyra (Tadmur).[41]

Russian air base at Latakia[edit]

In 2015 Russia established the Khmeimim Air Base at Latakia.

Secret Russian spy bases[edit]

The journal Jane's Defence Weekly in 2006 assumed two secret, joint, Russian–Syrian signals intelligence ‘spy’ posts to exist within Syria.[42] The biggest Russian electronic ‘eavesdropping post’ outside Russian territory was in 2012 established in Latakia.[43]

Another signals intelligence base, "Center S" ("Центр С" in Cyrillic script), jointly operated by the Russian OSNAZ GRU radio electronic intelligence agency and a Syrian intelligence agency, situated near Al-Harra in Syria close to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, was on 5 October 2014 captured by Free Syrian Army rebels during the 2014 Daraa offensive[42][44] before it was recaptured by SAA during 2018 Southern Syria offensive.

Syria's air defence with Russian equipment[edit]

After the 2007 Israeli Operation Orchard airstrikes on an alleged nuclear reactor at al-Kibar in Deir ez-Zor Governorate, and again after the March 2011 Syrian protests, Syria's air defences have been bolstered with Russian upgrades—which the Russians have repeatedly denied. According to Western experts, the Russians delivered Buk-M2 and Pantsir-S1 (also known as SA-22) mobile missile launch and radar systems. While the Syrians were not capable of using such equipment to its full capacity, the Russians also helped man the crews and train the crews. As of late 2012, Syria's air-defence command force comprised thousands of anti-aircraft guns, 130 anti-aircraft missile batteries, and an estimated 50,000 troops, and was qualified by The Guardian as "robust".[43]

2015 Russian military intervention[edit]

Assad with Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu, February 2022
Russian sappers in Aleppo during the Syrian civil war, December 2016

On 30 September 2015, Russia began a military intervention in the Syrian Civil War in support of Bashar al-Assad's government, consisting of air strikes against Syrians who oppose the government. In addition, ISIS and Assad's forces fight against opposition groups (FSA). With Vladimir Putin's support, Assad's troops are fighting the Free Syrian Army all throughout the country.[45] Expressing Russian, Iranian, and Syrian support for each other, the Chairman of the Iranian parliament's, (aka Islamic Consultative Assembly or Majlis) National Security and Foreign Policy Committee — Heshmat-Allah Falahat Pishe — stated during an interview on Russia Today TV on February 1, 2019: "Russian, Iranian, and Syrian soldiers shed their blood together in Syria. ... I do now know why the Russians hesitate to say that our relationship is strategic. We have fought together and Russia is under American sanctions, just like us. In order to deal with that, we expect more cooperation from the Russian side."[46]

In May 2019, The Moscow Times reported that "Fifty-five percent of Russian respondents say their country should end its military campaign in Syria, up from 49 percent in August 2017, according to a poll published by Levada".[47]

Ukraine War[edit]

In May 2022, The Guardian reported that 50 Syrian specialists skilled in making and delivering barrel bombs have been in Russia for several weeks working alongside officials from the Russian military to help potentially deliver a bombing campaign similar to the Syrian barrel bomb campaign.[48]

Joint military exercises[edit]

Syria and Russia regularly conduct joint military drills. In February 2022, the two countries conducted drills a week before Russia began its invasion of Ukraine. In June 2022, the Syrian and Russian air forces conducted drills over different parts of the country including the edge of the Golan Heights. In October 2022, Syrian state media reported that Syrian and Russian troops had conducted military drills simulating attacking enemy positions.[49]

Economic relations[edit]

Russia has significant economic interests in Syria. Its investments in the country were valued at $19.4 billion in 2009, according to "The Moscow Times", and its exports to Syria were worth $1.1 billion in 2010.[50][51]

Arms sales[edit]

The Soviet Union's military sales to Syria in the 1970s and 80s accounted for 90% of all Syrian military arms imports, according to a United States Congressional Research Service Report released in 2008.[52] The report noted that Syria purchased several billions of dollars' worth of military equipment from the Soviets, including SS-21 "Scarab" short-range missiles (range 70 km).[52]

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Syria found itself deprived of arms imports but continued to seek them through former Soviet satellite states.[52] The establishment of the Russian Federation in 1992 saw the re-introduction of the patron-vendor relationship and the cancellation of almost 73% of Syria's debt.[52] According to reports, 2.4% of Russia's total exports come from defense-related sales.[53]

From 2000 to 2010, Russia sold around $1.5 billion worth of arms to Syria, making Damascus Moscow's seventh-largest client, according to Dmitri Trenin in the New York Times.[28]

In 2008, Syria agreed to purchase modern weapons including modern anti-tank and anti-air missile systems from Russia, including MiG-29SMT fighters, Pantsir S1E air-defense systems, Iskander tactical missile systems, Yak-130 aircraft, and two Amur-1650 submarines. Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said his country's sale of weapons to Syria would not upset the balance of power in the Middle East. The sales he stated are "in line with the international law" and "in the interests of strengthening stability and maintaining security" in regions close to Russian borders, Lavrov told reporters.[54]

During the 2011 Syrian uprising Russia allegedly shipped arms to Assad's government for use against rebels.[55]

Syria's arms contracts with Russia in 2011 and 2012 amounted to $687 million, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).[56] But according to The Moscow Times, Russia and Syria had in 2011 well over $4 billion in active arms contracts.[57]

Other economic sectors[edit]

Russian firms in 2011 had a substantial presence in Syria's infrastructure, energy, and tourism industries.[57] Stroitransgaz, a natural gas facility construction company, has the largest Russian operation in Syria. In 2010, it was involved in projects worth $1.1 billion and had a staff of 80 Russians working in Syria. Stroitransgaz is building a natural gas processing plant 200 kilometers east of Homs in the Raqqa region and is involved in technical support for the construction of the Arab Gas Pipeline. Tatneft is the most significant Russian energy firm in Syria. The company began in 2010 through a joint venture with the Syrian national oil company to pump Syrian oil and it planned to spend $12 million on exploratory wells near the Iraqi border.[50] Other firms with large business interests in Syria include steel pipe manufacturer TMK, gas producer ITERA, and national carrier Aeroflot.[57]

Trade relations[edit]

In recent years, Russia has emerged as a vital supplier of essential commodities to Syria, including wheat, which is crucial for Syria's food security, and steel, pivotal for reconstruction efforts. The export basket also includes a variety of industrial goods, pharmaceutical products, and technology.[58]

Syria's exports to Russia traditionally include agricultural products, textiles, and minerals. These exports are vital for Syria's economy, providing essential revenue streams and supporting the livelihoods of those involved in the agricultural and mining sectors. The trade dynamics between the two countries reflect a synergistic relationship that benefits both economies.[58]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Russia clings on to last outpost in West Asia| Pionner| 3 February 2012
  2. ^ contribution to ‘What Should the United States Do About Syria?: A TNR Symposium.’| Daniel W. Drezner|| 9 February 2012
  3. ^ a b Ginat, Rami (Apr 2000). "The Soviet Union and the Syrian Ba'th Regime: From Hesitation to Rapprochement". Middle Eastern Studies. 36 (2): 150–171. doi:10.1080/00263200008701312. S2CID 144922816.
  4. ^ Aron Lund, "From cold war to civil war: 75 years of Russian-Syrian relations." (Swedish Institute of International Affairs, 2019) online
  5. ^ a b International New York Times, 3 October 2015.
  6. ^ a b Breslauer, George W. (1990). Soviet Strategy in the Middle East. Boston, Massachusetts.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
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  8. ^ Relations with the Soviet Union
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  29. ^ А.Кудрин: Россия простила Сирии $9,6 млрд долгов: Россия спишет 73% от суммы долга Сирии, который с учетом встречной задолженности и обязательств России составляет 13,4 млрд долл., сообщил сегодня министр финансов РФ Алексей Кудрин по итогам российско-сирийских переговоров в Кремле. RBK Group, 25 January 2005.
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  37. ^ Соглашение между Российской Федерацией и Сирийской Арабской Республикой о расширении территории пункта материально-технического обеспечения Военно-Морского Флота Российской Федерации в районе порта Тартус и заходах военных кораблей Российской Федерации в территориальное море, внутренние воды и порты Сирийской Арабской Республики // ″Статья 9 Иммунитеты и привилегии″,
  38. ^ Подписан закон о ратификации соглашения между Россией и Сирией о расширении территории пункта материально-технического обеспечения ВМФ России в районе порта Тартус, 29 December 2017.
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Further reading[edit]

  • Allison, Roy (2013). "Russia and Syria: Explaining Alignment with a Regime in Crisis". International Affairs. 89 (4): 795–823. doi:10.1111/1468-2346.12046. S2CID 154221279. online
  • Allison, Roy. Russia, the West and military intervention (Oxford University Press, 2013)
  • Averre, Derek, and Lance Davies. "Russia, humanitarian intervention and the Responsibility to Protect: the case of Syria." International Affairs 91.4 (2015): 813-834. online[dead link]
  • Baev, Pavel K. "Russia as opportunist or spoiler in the Middle East?." International Spectator 50.2 (2015): 8-21. online
  • Crosston, Matthew D. "Cold War and Ayatollah residues: Syria as a chessboard for Russia, Iran, and the United States." Strategic Studies Quarterly 8.4 (2014): 94-111. online
  • Lund, Aron. "From cold war to civil war: 75 years of Russian-Syrian relations." (Swedish Institute of International Affairs, 2019). online
  • Phillips, Christopher. The battle for Syria (Yale University Press, 2020).
  • Pieper, Moritz. "‘Rising Power’ Status and the Evolution of International Order: Conceptualising Russia's Syria Policies." Europe-Asia Studies 71.3 (2019): 365-387. online
  • Souleimanov, Emil Aslan, and Valery Dzutsati. "Russia's Syria War: A Strategic Trap?" Middle East Policy 25.2 (2018): 42-50. online
  • Trenin, Dmitri. What Is Russia Up to in the Middle East? (Polity Press, 2018).
  • Van Dam, Nikolaos. The Struggle for Power in Syria: Politics and Society under Asad and the Ba’th (I. B. Tauris, 4th ed., 2011)
  • Van Dam, Nikolaos. Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria (I. B. Tauris, 2017)
  • Vasiliev, Alexey. Russia's Middle East Policy: From Lenin to Putin (Routledge, 2018).

External links[edit]