Syria is often called Russia’s last remaining ally in the Middle East, and Moscow’s continuing refusal to support the United States, the European Union, and the Arab League in condemning the Assad regime certainly appears to support that claim. The reasons cited for Russia’s allegiance to Damascus are many: Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are said to have a sort of autocratic solidarity, with Putin afraid that the Arab Spring encourages challenges to his own rule; at the same time, Russia is thought to have major economic interests in Syria, including arms contracts, a Russian-leased naval base, and plans for nuclear energy cooperation.
There are elements of truth in all these assertions -- but they offer only glimpses of the broader picture. Moscow’s position on Syria is shaped even more by the recent experience of Libya, strong doubts concerning the Syrian opposition, and suspicions about the motives of the United States.
Damascus was Moscow’s ally in the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was engaged in a confrontation with the United States, Israel, and “imperialism” writ large. Under Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, the Soviets equipped and trained the Syrian military. Although the elder Assad was difficult to control and managed to get more from the Kremlin than the other way around, he could be relied upon not to bolt to Washington’s side, as did Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Beginning in 1973, after Egypt’s disastrous defeat in the war against Israel and Sadat’s embrace of U.S. mediation, Syria became the centerpiece of the entire Soviet position in the region, remaining so through the end of the Cold War.
The Russia that emerged from the Soviet collapse had hardly any geopolitical ambitions in the Middle East. In 1972, preparing for his political break with Moscow, Sadat sent home 20,000 Soviet military advisers and their dependents. Four decades later, in February 2011, as Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, was toppled, some 40,000 Russian vacationers
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