Russia–Syria relations

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Russia–Syria relations
Map indicating locations of Russia and Syria



Russia–Syria relations (Russian: Российско-сирийские отношения) refers to the bilateral relationship between the two countries, Russia and Syria. Russia has an embassy in Damascus, 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]

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 had earlier contracted to buy.[3]

Political relations[edit]

Before 1946[edit]

In 1893, a consular office of the Russian Empire was established in Damascus.[4] The October Revolution (1917), more or less the creation of the Soviet Union (1922–1991), essentially brought an end to Russian presence in Syria for a brief period. Although the Soviet Union did not play a large political role, it helped establish the first Syrian Communist Party in 1925.[4] The relationship was restored with diplomatic links established with Syria in 1944, shortly before Syria was formally recognized as an independent state on 17 April 1946.


Further information: Syrian Republic (1930–58)

Relations between Syria and the Soviet Union (USSR), which had taken an interest in the Middle East, were initiated by a secret agreement signed on February 10, 1946, just before the declaration of independence of Syria. Syria gained independence from France on 17 April 1946, but could not attain stability for a long period. The 1946 Russo-Syrian agreement prescribed diplomatic and political support from the USSR in the international arena and Soviet military help for the foundation of the Syrian national army. During the Cold War (1947–1991), Syria served as an ally to the Soviet Union in opposition to the western powers, and a stronger political bond grew.[5]

Political life in Syria, relatively calm during the years 1945-1949, entered total turmoil and disorder beginning in 1949. Three coups d'état occurred during 1949-1953, ushering in military dictatorships twice in the process.

A non-aggression pact signed on April 10, 1950 further cemented Soviet–Syrian relations. Looking at the Cold War period, we see that each conflict and war that broke out in the Middle East acted as a factor leading Syria to form closer ties with the USSR.

Following the military coup d’état of February 25, 1954, the Ba'ath Party came to the fore in Syrian politics.

The Baghdad Pact, also known as the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) (1955), with its ultimately unsuccessful formation of CENTO, brought the USSR and Syria again closer diplomatically. 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 USSR but also a separation of Middle Eastern countries into allied satellites of the Eastern and Western blocs.

The response of the Soviet Union to the Suez Crisis (late October 1956) increased Soviet prestige in the Middle East and enhanced a rapprochement between USSR and Syria. 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.[4] Simultaneously, the Ba'ath Party in Syria increased its power and influence.[6]


The Syrian coup d'état of February 1966 allowed the Soviet Union the opportunity to further support Syria. In 1970, a new coup d’état brought Hafez Assad to power in Syria.[7]

In 1971, under an agreement with the Ba'athist Syrian government’s 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.[8][9] Thousands of Syrian military officers and educated professionals studied in Russia during President Hafez al-Assad's presidency (1971–2000), and such connections have resulted in many marriages and mixed families.[10]

In April 1977, President 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. In October 1980, Syria signed a twenty-year Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union.[11]

Hafez al-Assad died on 10 June 2000, after 30 years in power. The Parliament amended the constitution, reducing the mandatory minimum age of the President from 40 to 34, which allowed Hafez´ son, Bashar al-Assad, to become legally eligible for nomination by the ruling Ba'ath party. On 10 July 2000, Bashar al-Assad was elected President by referendum in which he ran unopposed, garnering 97.29% of the vote.[citation needed]

Since the Syrian Civil War (2011)[edit]

Russia's association with the ruling Assad family goes back to 1970 (see above).[12] 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.[12]
In 2015, Russia suggested that the Syrian Civil War had partly been caused by the US and Western allies pushing for a "so-called" democratic revolution by "so-called" moderate Syrian opposition groups, and called for a united front with Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Military cooperation[edit]

Bashar Al Assad with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev whilst on a visit to Sochi in August 2008.

Russian naval base Tartus[edit]

The Syrian port city of Tartus hosts Russia's only naval facility in the Mediterranean region and only remaining military facility outside the former USSR: the Russian naval facility in Tartus.

The base was established during the Cold War to support the Soviet Navy's fleet in the Mediterranean Sea, under a 1971 agreement with Syria.

Since Russia forgave Syria of three-fourths, or $9.8 billion, of its $13.4 billion Soviet-era debt and became its main arms supplier, Russia and Syria have conducted talks about allowing Russia to develop and enlarge its naval base, so that Russia can strengthen its naval presence in the Mediterranean.[13] 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.[14] Since 2009, Russia has been renovating the Tartus naval base and dredging the port to allow access for its larger naval vessels.[15]

In 2012, a commentator called the use of the deep-water port at Tartus Russia’s greatest strategic and geopolitical interest in Syria,[16] and some critics saw the position of the naval facility as a chief motivating factor for Russia to speak out in favor of the Assad government.[clarification needed][17][18]

In June 2013, the Deputy Russian Foreign Minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, stated that the Russian naval base at Tartus had been evacuated. Bogdanov stated, that "Presently, the Russian Defense Ministry has not a single person stationed in Syria. The base does not have any strategic military importance".[19][20] But on 1 October 2015, the Russian Defence Ministry said that the Russian air fleet in Syria included over 50 warplanes and helicopters at their depot in Tartus.[21]

Russian air base Palmyra[edit]

Russia had in 2013 — and presumably still has today — an airbase in Palmyra (Tadmur).[22]

Russian weapons sales[edit]

See under section Economic relations ; Arms contracts.

Secret Russian spy bases[edit]

Main article: Center S

The journal Jane's Defence Weekly in 2006 assumed two secret, joint, Russian–Syrian signals intelligence ‘spy’ posts to exist within Syria.[23] The biggest Russian electronic ‘eavesdropping post’ outside Russian territory was in 2012 established in Latakia.[24]

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 Daraa offensive (October 2014).[23][25]

Syria’s air defence with Russian gear[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".[24]

2015 Russian military intervention[edit]

On 30 September 2015, Russia started a military intervention in the Syrian Civil War, consisting of air strikes against militant groups opposed to the Syrian government.[26]

Economic relations[edit]

Russia’s exports to Syria were worth $1.1 billion in 2010 and its investments in the country were valued at $19.4 billion in 2009 according to The Moscow Times.[27][28]

Arms contracts[edit]

Further information: Syrian Armed Forces § History

The Soviet Union’s military sales to Syria in the 1970s and 80's accounted for 90% of all military arms exports from the Soviet Union, making the Soviet Union a main supplier of arms for Syria, according to a United States Congressional Research Service Report released in 2008.[29] 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).[29]

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Syria found itself deprived of arms imports, but continued to seek them through Soviet satellite states.[29] The establishment of Russian Federation in 1992 saw the re-introduction of the patron-vendor relationship and the cancellation of almost 73% of Syria's debt.[29] According to reports, 2.4% of Russia's total exports come from defense-related sales.[30]

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.[12]

In 2008, Syria agreed to purchase modern weapons including modern anti-tank and anti-air missile systems from Russia: 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.[31]

During the 2011 Syrian uprising, Russia has allegedly shipped arms to Assad's government for use against rebels.[32]

Syria's arms contracts with Russia in 2011 and 2012 amounted to $687 million, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).[33] But according to The Moscow Times, Russia and Syria had in 2011 well over $4 billion in active arms contracts.[34]

Other economic sectors[edit]

Russian firms in 2011 had a substantial presence in Syria's infrastructure, energy and tourism industries.[34] 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 Al-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.[27] Other firms with large business interests in Syria include steel pipe manufacturer TMK, gas producer ITERA, and national carrier Aeroflot.[34]

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. ^ Why Russia is willing to sell arms to Syria By Fred Weir|| 19 January 2012
  4. ^ a b c Kreutz, Andrej (2007). Russia in the Middle East: friend or foe?. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group. 
  5. ^ Trenin, Dmitri (5 February 2012). "Russia's Line in the Sand on Syria: Why Moscow Wants To Halt the Arab Spring". Foreign Retrieved 15 March 2012. 
  6. ^ A History of the Middle East, Peter Mansfield, Penguin 2010, 3rd edition, p.293 ISBN 978-0-718-19231-0
  7. ^ Historical Background and the Present State of the Russian-Syrian Relations
  8. ^ International New York Times, 3 October 2015.
  9. ^ Breslauer, George W. (1990). Soviet Strategy in the Middle East. Boston, Massachusetts. 
  10. ^ Peel, Michael; Clover, Charles (9 July 2012). "Syria and Russia's 'special relationship'". Financial Times. Retrieved 11 July 2012. 
  11. ^ Lea, David (2001). A Political Chronology of the Middle East. London, United Kingdom: Europa Publications. 
  12. ^ a b c Trenins, Dmitri (9 February 2012). "Why Russia Supports Assad". New York Times. Retrieved 9 February 2012. 
  13. ^ Weitz, Richard (2010). Global security watch--Russia : a reference handbook. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Praeger Security International. p. 30. ISBN 978-0-313-35434-2. 
  14. ^ "Big Russian flotilla led by Admiral Kuznetsov carrier heads for Syrian port". DEBKAfile. August 21, 2008. Retrieved August 22, 2008. [dead link]
  15. ^ "INSS: Syria Report" (PDF). Institute for National Security Studies. Retrieved 3 September 2011. 
  16. ^ Sayginer, Ozge (20 June 2012). "Why Russia will never back down? Reasons behind supporting the Assad regime". The European Strategist. Retrieved 13 October 2015. 
  17. ^ "The Long Road to Damascus". The Economist 402 (8771): 25–28. 11 February 2012. 
  18. ^ Sharp, Jeremy M.; Christopher M. Blanchard, eds. (26 March 2012), "Unrest in Syria and U.S. Sanctions Against the Asad Regime", CRS Report for Congress, Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service 
  19. ^ "All personnel withdrawn from Russian navy base in Syria – diplomat". RT, 26 June 2013
  20. ^ "Russia reports pullout from small base in Syria". The Washington Post. 26 June 2013
  21. ^ "Russian Air Force in Syria deploying over 50 planes & choppers – Defense Ministry". RT English. Retrieved 18 October 2015. 
  22. ^ "Syria: Russia evacuates nationals, remains close to Assad". Beirut: ANSAmed. 25 January 2013. Retrieved 27 January 2013. 
  23. ^ a b "Russian spy base in Syria used to monitor rebels and Israel seized". 8 October 2014. Retrieved 14 October 2015. 
  24. ^ a b Julan Borger (23 December 2012). "Russian military presence in Syria poses challenge to US-led intervention". The Guardian. Retrieved 15 October 2015. 
  25. ^ "Captured Russian spy facility reveals the extent of Russian aid to the Assad regime". spioenkop. 6 October 2014. Retrieved 15 October 2015. 
  26. ^ Fred Weir (14 October 2015). "Why isn't Russia singling out ISIS in Syria? Because it never said it would". Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 17 October 2015. 
  27. ^ a b Amos, Howard (2 September 2011). "Billions of Dollars of Russian Business Suffers Along With Syria". The Moscow Times. Retrieved 17 September 2011. 
  28. ^ "Syria: EU Bilateral Trade and Trade with the World" (PDF). European Commission. Retrieved 18 September 2011. 
  29. ^ a b c d Sharp, Jeremy M. (1 May 2008), "Syria: Background and U.S. Relations", CRS Report for Congress, Washington, DC 
  30. ^ Meyer, Henry (20 April 2012). "Putin Pins Hope on Syria Cease-Fire to Combat U.S. Supremacy". Team Soldier. Retrieved 2015. 
  31. ^ ‘Russia defends arms sales to Syria’., 29 September 2008.
  32. ^ Barry, Anya (9 February 2012). "Adding Fuel to Syria's Fire". FPIF. Retrieved 16 February 2012. 
  33. ^ "SIPRI Arms Transfers Database". Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Retrieved 17 November 2013. 
  34. ^ a b c Amos, Howard (26 August 2011). "News Analysis: Russia Damages Image in Arab Spring". The Moscow Times. Retrieved 17 September 2011. 

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. 

External links[edit]

Diplomatic missions