It has been four years since Russia got involved in Syria’s civil war. Since then, Moscow has been able to help Syria’s dictator turn the tide of war. But the historical relationship between Moscow and Damascus has often been overlooked and understated in explaining why Russian president Vladimir Putin aided Syrian president Bashar al Assad.
Cooperation between Syria and Russia predates the Cold War rivalry between Russia and the United States and the sectarian and geopolitical conflict between the Sunni and the Shia in the Middle East. Bilateral relations were actually established as Syria gained independence from the French and became an independent state.
When Syria gained independence, in part due to the Soviet Union, it was the Sunni elite who inherited the government from the French and who began to rule over the new Republic. And it was the Sunni elite who started a friendship with the Soviets. As Western colonies disintegrated, the Arab world opened itself to the influence of the Soviet Union. In 1944, during World War II, diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and the former two French protectorates were established: Syria and Lebanon.
The support of the Soviet Union provided advantages to the newly created Arab states. Proclaiming independence did not eliminate all of the former colonies’ problems, especially those stemming from their connections with their Western colonizers, who were not happy to accept geopolitical changes without due compensation. In these conditions, the newly established Arab nations became interested in the Soviet Union.
When Syria became independent, it asked for the withdrawal of Western soldiers from its territories. This was a complicated request that caused minor military confrontations. But the Soviet Union supported Syria’s demands. Both Syria and the Soviet Union's interests coincided with the desire to preserve the security of their borders. In the course of the debates of the UN Security Council, and the Soviets note of July 1, 1945, the Soviet Union insisted on the need to resolve that question, giving legitimacy and attention to Syria’s request. This posture was the first significant Soviet political action in the Arab world since the Second World War.