Memory is a curse that hexes and vexes the would-be new. As pundits rage about Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war, flip back to 1970, the year Hafez al-Assad took power in a military coup. Even then, the Soviet Union and Syria were allies. The bond tightened when once pro-Soviet Egyptian President Anwar Sadat began shifting westward after two miserably unsuccessful wars with Israel. Seeing its Middle East grip loosening, the Soviet Union went all in for Assad and Fortress Damascus.
Assad’s troops were Russian-trained, his warplanes mostly MiGs — the dozens shot down by Israeli jets in 1973 replaced by dozens more. While the Yom Kippur War fiasco didn’t soothe Assad’s unquenchable desire to destroy Israel, it did reinforce his country’s reliance on Soviet aid, which began in 1955 when the two countries shook hands on anti-Americanism and Syria was transformed into the Soviet Union’s most stalwart Middle East ally. No matter how disgraced or embarrassed, Assad knew where to turn for help.
Tension set in during the mid-1970s, when Assad sent 30,000 troops to Lebanon, ostensibly to protect Lebanese Christians but in fact to expand Syria’s own regional influence. The move provoked a civil war that saw Assad play puppet-master. Moscow chafed at this. It wanted secular Muslims to start a regional Communist state. But Assad, like Saddam Hussein after him, insisted he’d conduct his own nation building. Controlling Lebanese factions might give him another shot at Israel.
Yet the falling out over Lebanon far from curtailed Russo-Syrian friendship. Soviet military aid was essential to Assad when he crushed Muslim Brotherhood uprisings in the cities of Hama and Aleppo, this time with Soviet approval. The vicious 1982 battle for Hama presaged the ferocious enmity between Sunni insurgents and Assad’s repressive legions.
Even when reformist Soviet chief Mikhail Gorbachev slashed Syrian aid in the mid-1980s, the figures remained high. Instead of an annual aid package of $2.4 billion, cash-starved Moscow offered $1.3 billion, all of which became moot when the Soviet Union slid into semi-bankruptcy and collapse. But even after, Assad pointedly refused to warm to the West (unlike, say, Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi, who proved far more malleable).
Sick for nearly two decades, he finally died in 2000, replaced by a son Bashar, who remained loyal to family values. He linked arms with Hezbollah and, like his father, couldn’t stay out of Lebanon (Syria is still considered to have plotted the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri).
When Bashar’s modest western overtures failed — undone by 9/11 and Syria’s label as a terrorist sponsor — he turned full-throttled toward Russia, where President Vladimir Putin, a shrewd Soviet apologist, saw a chance to hike Russia’s lagging international profile by reasserting its Middle East presence. For Putin, the Assad family behaved in ways he understood and respected. It was also secular.
In a fast-changing region trapped between incoherent democratic lurches and Islamic extremism (this time no longer attached to the relatively moderate Islamic Brotherhood), Putin — facing restive Islam on several borders — chose to pick up where the Soviet Union had left off, a willingness that dates back to the earliest days of his presidency.
All of which brings us to present day Russian air strikes, the predictable fruit of concrete history, and of the Soviet Union’s humbling. The opportunist in Putin is eager to seize any opening to reassert Russian verve, and to put his much mocked military muscle on NATO-ruffling PR display. Insurgency is best met by force, Chechnya as witness (and the still-restive Caucuses and turbulent Central Asia as audience). If the West can stage air strikes against some insurgencies (ISIS) while exempting others (secular Assad opponents), then Putin — at ease with the black-and-white 1980 world order — is glad to make up the difference, defending Assad not only from Jihad baddies but pro-American goodies.
It’s a match mad in heaven, or hell, but one that first picked up steam in the mid-1950s. Once upon a time, Papa Assad’s Syria used Russian money and weapons to make Middle Eastern waves. Now, Russia is using force in support of a younger, weaker and thoroughly imperiled Assad, a strategic liaison between hard-line secularists that for those with access to memory makes all the raw sense in the world.