By Meir Zamir for Syria Comment
Russia’s current military intervention in Syria marks a major turning point in the civil war there and in the regional and international balance of power in the Middle East. The many attempts to decode Putin’s motives are therefore understandable. Various explanations have been put forward, including: Putin’s attempts to prop up President Bashar Assad, his faltering ally in Damascus; to protect Russia’s naval base on the Syrian coast, its only connection to the Mediterranean Sea; to challenge the United States and NATO in Syria in particular and the Middle East in general; and to reassert Russia’s position as a super power. Some have pointed to domestic considerations, including Russia’s faltering economy following the economic boycott led by the United States after its intervention in the Ukraine.
While these and other explanations are plausible, the historical perspective is lacking, which might give a better understanding of Russia’s objectives. Indeed, the Russian president illustrated that in his address to the General Assembly on September 28, when he praised the collaboration between the three powers at the end of World War II, implying that it should be re-adopted now to resolve the Syrian and other crises in the Middle East and elsewhere, rather than the American policy of “exclusivity”.
The 13 documents included in this post aim to provide the missing historical dimension. These are secret Syrian and British documents obtained by the French intelligence in Damascus and Beirut between 1944 and 1948 and uncovered by the author in archives in France. (They have been selected from 400 such documents recently published in a book examining the secret Anglo-French war in the Middle East during and after World War II*). These documents, together with many others that are not given here, reveal that questions regarding Syria, which greatly preoccupied the Soviet Union in the 1940s, continue to preoccupy Russia today despite the years that have passed and the different circumstances. The similarity between the issues then and now results, to a large extent, from Syria’s unique geostrategic position coupled with its enduring internal divisions.
The first document (June 1944) is one of many relating to the Soviet Union’s recognition of Syria as an independent state. It has emerged that Soviet diplomats conditioned that recognition on the Syrian government’s assurances that the country would maintain its independence and national sovereignty. But after learning of attempts by British secret agents to expel France from Syria and incorporate it in a Hashemite Greater Syria and a union with Iraq, with the tacit support of Jamil Mardam, the acting Syrian Prime Minister, Daniel Solod, the Russian Minister in Syria and Lebanon, warned Mardam that his government would actively oppose any attempt to undermine Syria’s independence. (doc. 2) Solod repeated this warning at a meeting with President Quwatli, in the presence of Mardam and Sa’adallah al-Jabiri, the head of the Syrian parliament.(doc. 3) Details of the meeting are revealed in a report given by Muhsin al-Barazi, President Quwatli’s secretary, who was at that time operating as a British agent, to his controller, Colonel Walter Stirling from the MI6. (Barazi was to serve later as a minister in various Syrian cabinets and as Prime Minister under Husni al- Za’im. He was excuted in August 1949 after Sami al-Hinawi’s coup d’état.) It is obvious that the Russians were fully aware of Mardam’s tacit involvement in the Anglo-Iraqi plot.
Despite the Soviet warnings, on May 29, 1945, President Quwatli signed a secret agreement with Britain recognizing its dominance over Syria in return for its expulsion of France. Shortly after learning of the agreement, Russian diplomats in Damascus and Moscow began to openly criticize and even threaten the Syrians.(docs. 4, 5) The Russians’ concern intensified after Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Sa’id was seen to be collaborating with British agents with the aim of incorporating Syria in an anti-Russian regional defense bloc and solving the problem of Alexandretta, which had been an obstacle to improving Syro-Turkish relations. (docs. 7,8)
Aside from direct diplomatic pressure, Russian secret agents fomented opposition to the Syrian government, especially among the Kurds in the Jazira and the Armenians in northern Syria. The Syrian Communist Party under Khalid Bakdash was also involved. In fact, the Russian consulate in Damascus became a center for covert activities led by a Russian intelligence officer whom the French called “the Red Lawrence”. And then, like now, all the powers involved attached great importance to the role of the Kurds. (doc. 6)
After learning of the British and American attempts to persuade the Syrian government to accept military and economic aid, the Soviet Union in January 1946 offered to provide its own such aid to Syria to ensure its independence. (doc. 9) The Soviet proposal was rejected by Sda’allah al-Jabiri, then Syrian Prime Minister. But following renewed Anglo-Iraqi pressure on the Syrian government to acquiese to a Syro-Iraqi union, Jabiri changed his stand and at the end of 1946 agreed to negotiate a secret agreement with Russia. As a result, the British secret agents pressed President Quwatli to replace Jabiri with Jamil Mardam. (docs. 10, 11, 12) In June 1947, after King Abdallah threatened to compel the Syrian government to join a Greater Syria monarchy under his rule, the Soviet government once again offered to protect Syria’s independence. (doc.13)
This short analysis, basd on Syrian diplomatic documents from the 1940s, demonstrates that Russia, now, like before, is determined to ensure that Syria remain an independent and united state and to prevent another superpower, namely the United States, or any regional power for that matter, from taking control over Syria, as it had undermined Britain’s attempts in the past. In the Syro-Soviet defense treaty of 1970, the Soviet Union realized its long-standing ambitions and became the dominant power in Syria. From that perspective, Putin’s current military intervention, intended to secure Russia’s strategic role in Syria, is to a certain extent a continuation of Stalin’s policy in the Middle East in general, and in Syria in particular.
*Meir Zamir is the author of The Secret Anglo-French War in the Middle East: Intelligence and Decolonization, 1940-1948, (Routledge, London, 2015), 502 pp. He is Professor of Middle Eastern History at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and was the founder of its Department of Middle East Studies. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science and has taught at universities in Canada and the US.
Secret British and Syrian Documents on Syro-Soviet Relations
1. Jamil Mardam’s report on the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union
Report by Jamil Mardam Bey on the negotiations which resulted in the establishment of diplomatic relations between the USSR and Syria
Summary for the Council of Ministers
The conversations that took place between the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Members of the Political Mission, representing the Government of the Soviet Union, ended today.
I have the honor of communicating the summary of these conversations to your esteemed Council.
Above all, we kept secret the question of the Commission’s presence for fear that negotiations would fail, and that disappointment would be bitter, with unfortunate consequences.
I think it important that the esteemed Council of Ministers should know that Mr Khalid Bakdash, President of the Syrian Communist Party, has made praiseworthy efforts to bring these negotiations to a conclusion. He has shown, in all his actions, a praiseworthy patriotism which deserves thanks and appreciation.
The Soviet Political Commission has asked, above all, for the following:
- information on the history of Syrian independence
- details on the situation of parliamentary representation in Syria
- a summary of Franco-Syrian relations, and the conditions in which General Catroux proclaimed Syrian independence
- precise details on England’s degree of participation in consolidating this independence as well as the strength of political relations linking us to Great Britain
The Commission has tried to find out if a second public or secret agreement exists between us and a foreign power.
It asks for information on:
- the economic and financial situation of Syria with regard to the laws concerning production, taxes and the state of agricultural, industrial and commercial property.
It is informing itself on ethnic and religious minorities and on their origins.
It is enquiring into the government apparatus, its shape and the degree of religious representation at its center.
It asks for information:
- on the teaching and educational system of the nation
- on mining, and on industrial, agricultural or mineral monopolies
- on the Syrian oil company and its agreements
- on the reasons for the non-development of Syrian oil and on the attitude of the Syrian Government towards this. Is the Government determined to maintain the status quo or not?
The Commission discussed the financial situation and the Issuing Bank with us. We showed it the Bank of Syria’s agreement and concession.
Lastly, it asked us for guarantees, which we have provided in the name of the Syrian Republic, and a copy has been sent to your esteemed Council.
In reviewing the information that the Commission tried to obtain, it has emerged that this Ministry has had a praiseworthy success in clearly setting out the Syrian position in all its respects, allowing the Commission to pronounce itself satisfied and to recognize, in the name of the Government of the Soviet Union, our independence unconditionally and without reservation.
It is my pleasure to announce this happy news to the esteemed Council of Ministers.
June 25, 1944
s/ Jamil Mardam Bey
Registered in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, No 15 – Diplomatic correspondence – the Soviet Union
2. From Daniel Solod, Minister of the Soviet Union in Syria
To the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs
I have the honor of informing you that my Government has charged me with the task of notifying you of the following:
The plan for Greater Syria, about which H.E. the President of the Council issued a denial and which he has recently repudiated publicly in the Syrian Chamber, continues to be, as far as we are aware, a reality. Certain authorities, which the Government of the Syrian Republic considers its friends and advisors, work for and lead a campaign in favor of its realization.
The Government of the Soviet Union, which has unconditionally recognized Syrian independence, does not believe that it would be in independent Syria’s interest to throw itself – thoughtlessly or after determined efforts – into an unknown and obscure future.
My Government has asked me to warn you of this. I convey this view to you above all as a friend.
Memorandum presented by Mr Solod on April 25, 1945
Registered in the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Diplomatic correspondence from the Soviet Legation, No 3517/177
3. Report by Muhsin al-Barazi, Secretary General of the Presidency of the Republic to his controller Colonel Walter Stirling
British agent no 325
Handwritten: 7 May 1945
Today the President saw Mr Solod in my presence and that of Messrs Sa’adallah Jabiri and Jamil Mardam Bey.
After the usual polite words, the President said:
“Syria wants to know how far the government of the Soviet Union will back Syrian independence.”
The conversation was long, but the reply finally made by Mr Solod is that the Soviet Union will support Syrian independence in any case, on condition that it exerts itself in favor of Syria and its people and not in favor of Anglo-American imperialism.
Mr Solod in his turn asked questions about certain correspondence exchanged between the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs and the British Minister Plenipotentiary about the Liwa of Alexandretta. Jamil Bey denied the existence of such correspondence. He said he had not discussed this matter with the English and had not been asked to by them.
Then Mr Solod asked:
“What is the current situation between you and the French?”
The President replied:
“We await the arrival of General Beynet. Be assured, Minister, that Syrian opinion generally can no longer bear the French, who make fun of us.”
“I do not believe,” said the Minister, “that the French make fun of you. Although we do not support any colonizing ambitions or attempts at exploitation, I believe that the French are correct from one point of view, because they do not want to give their place up to others.”
“And who are these others?” Jamil Bey asked.
“You know that better than me,” replied Mr Solod, “those to whom you grant privileges and with whom you reach agreements which no one knows anything about. Completely secret things.”
President Quwatli then showed his surprise about these secret things, saying that he knew nothing about them.
Mr Solod said:
“The agreement over oil for example, the agreement over the pipeline installation, the agreement on monetary unification using the standard of the pound sterling, and the civil and commercial aviation project. All these things are more dangerous and more threatening to your independence than the Mandate Charter itself.”
The banquet of honor was thus transformed into a battlefield between the two parties. The Soviet Minister tried to convince the President and his companions that they were setting little store by the rights of the country, and that just at the moment they were trying to emancipate themselves from the French yoke, it was to throw themselves into the arms of the English; that if his government did not want the French colonizers to stay in Syria, neither did he, categorically, want the English to stay here to replace them.
The meeting ended on a not very cordial note. The two parties have bitterness in their hearts.
After the Minister’s departure, the President reproached Jamil Mardam Bey and said to him,
“All the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ secrets are known to these resourceful Russians.”
From all this, Sa’adallah Bey concluded that duty demanded that all parties now in existence be suppressed and that all their members be arrested.
I believe that the Russians will quite soon make a show of a lot of activity and that this activity will cause us a lot of trouble.
Monday, May 7, 1945
Report addressed to Colonel Stirling.
Copy filed in the Political Bureau of the British Legation in Beirut, No. S 1754
After meeting with Solod, Quwatli reprimanded Mardam, telling him: “All the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ secrets are known to these resourceful Russians.”
4, From Fa’iz al-Khuri, the Syrian Minister in Moscow To H.E. the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Damascus
I was summoned to the Commissariat for Foreign Affairs where I was told, with great friendliness, that, for the following reasons, the current conduct of the Syrian Government was not encouraging for the establishment of a sincere collaboration profitable to our country:
“First: They believe that we are ousting the French to replace them with the English.
Second: That we are delivering our country’s resources to the English (an allusion to the ‘Mira’ agreement).”
My interlocutor added:
“The Soviet Union will heartily support the Arabs’ position against the Zionist movement, which aims to take Palestine and chase them out of it. It is up to the Arabs to adopt a suitable position in defense of their threatened country.”
I am sending you a summary of what was said to me.
July 28, 1945
s/ Fa’iz al-Khuri
No 443/7 – Diplomatic correspondence
5. From the Minister of the USSR in Syria To H.E. the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs
My Government has asked me to enquire of your Ministry about the efforts Nuri al-Sa’id is making and which, in addition to defense of the Palestinian question, have, I believe, a bearing on other plans which threaten security in the Middle East, and which are related to high politics.
My information regarding Mr Sa’id’s plans in Syria – which are of course not on his own initiative, but for which he is authorized to act – consist of the abolition of the Syrian Republic and the establishment of a Hashemite monarchy. Does the Syrian Government know this?
As far as the formation of an Eastern Islamic bloc goes, it seems that he wants, or is asked, to work towards the creation of a cordon sanitaire around the Soviet Union. Does Syria wish to take part in that?
As for Palestine, Mr Sa’id wants to give, or is asked to give, the Jews a state at the expense of Palestine, the Arabs, the Lebanese and the Syrians. Does the Syrian Government know that?
In placing these truths before the Syrian Government, I would like to know if it is wholly aware of them and what its inclinations are with regard to accepting or rejecting these plans.
October 5, 1945
s/ D. Solod
Registered in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, No 815/42 – Diplomatic correspondence
6. From the President of the Council, the Foreign Minister To H.E. the British Minister Plenipotentiary, Damascus
The information I have and which is based on official reports proves that the Soviet Legation has so far made contact with a large number of Kurdish leaders in the various regions of the Syrian Republic.
In drawing Your Excellency’s attention to this I know that you are perfectly aware of what is happening and that your specialised departments are not unaware of the maneuvers that are being prepared despite our willingness and yours.
However, the duty that I have towards you brings me to remind you that the Syrian Government, rightly concerned about the consequences of this Soviet activity, can only continue to reject all these activities and inform you of the inability in which we find ourselves of taking any measures whatsoever against this Legation. It invites you, in your capacity as the official responsible for maintaining security and peace in this country, to take the measures you judge fitting.
The Syrian Government agrees in advance to whatever you decide.
November 12, 1945
The President of the Council ofMinisters
s/ Sa’adallah al-Jabiri
Registered in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, no 935/427
7. From the Minister of the USSR in Syria To the President of the Council of Ministers, the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Damascus
My Government wishes to know if the Government of the Syrian Republic has entered into discussion or agreements of a political or economic nature with the British Government.
Great Britain, in adopting the line it has adopted since the Franco-British agreement, whose appendices are still unknown, has arrogated to itself rights determined with regard to Syria and Lebanon. It goes without saying that it only attributed these rights to itself because the two Syrian and Lebanese Governments have granted it privileges allowing it to act in this way.
I refer in particular to the exchange of letters which took place between you and the British Government following the events of last May.
I am notifying you in the name of my Government that we will not intervene in favor of Syria unless we know that our intervention is opportune and that it will not be regarded as undesirable at a time when you have granted the British Government rights which allow it to adopt the line that it has adopted towards you.
December 22, 1945The Minister Plenipotentiary
s/ D. Solod
Registered in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, No 991 – Political reports
8. From the Chargé d’affaires of the Soviet Legation in Damascus To H.E. the Syrian Foreign Minister, Damascus
Following on from the verbal note I gave you about the future of the Liwa of Alexandretta, its current situation and the future that the Government of the Soviet Union wants for it, I draw your attention to the activities of nationalist Kurdish elements on the future they want for themselves and on the desire for unity, progress and emancipation that the Soviet Union is formulating for them.
Right now I can give the Syrian Government the assurance that these elements, which are dispersed among a number of states and which enjoy the Soviet Union’s sympathy, will never adopt a position unsatisfactory to the government and people of Syria.
Thus, I will have unequivocally expressed to you, from now, the reality of our intentions.
December 30, 1945
The Chargé d’affaires of the Soviet Legation
Registered in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, no. 10a
9. From the Chargé d’affaires of the Soviet Legation in Damascus To H.E. the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Damascus
In the name of its Government, this legation had told the Syrian Government of the strong sympathy it had towards its demands for independence and the desire it had to support it and to give it complete support in everything to do with its development and its social progress.
My Government would be happy to see the Syrian Government officially requesting help, not only politically but also militarily and economically.
This is why my Government has asked me to indicate to it the wishes of the Syrian Government, its desire for this help and the conditions it puts on it.
January 3, 1946
For the Soviet Legation
Registered in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, No 926 – Documents
10. Sa’adallah al-Jabiri to Mr Fares al-Khuri Through the intermediary of the Syrian Minister Plenipotentiary in Washington
The Syrian Government is wholly in agreement with opening negotiations on an agreement with the Soviets.
It is important that these negotiations take place without the English being informed of them. It would also be good to know what our interlocutors are inclined to grant us and what they want.
November 2, 1946
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Registered in the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, No 3,311/381 – Diplomatic correspondence
11. Fares al-Khuri to the Syrian Foreign Minister, Damascus
Novikof, ex-Minister Plenipotentiary in Cairo has had a conversation with me. They want the following: that we do not support Turkey; that the Arab League does not become a defensive tool in the hands of British imperialism; that we reject the division of Palestine; that we inform them of the terms of our agreement with the English. In exchange, they will grant us all the help we can ask of them without conditions.
November 9, 1946
Signed: Fares-al Khuri
Registered in the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, No 1,311 – Diplomatic documents
12. The Minister Plenipotentiary in Turkey To the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Damascus
The atmosphere here is becoming more and more sombre, and although Russia is not openly applying pressure, the pressure on the Turks continues and with some force. The English encourage the Turks each day in a new way and the latter refuse to concede anything to Russia.
On the other hand, what is certain is that they refuse to recognise that we have any claims on Alexandretta.
I am convinced that our interest now forces us to reach an understanding, even if it were with the Russians, to preserve our rights, as long as our friends the English refuse to help us, for in fact they would leave Alexandretta with the lion’s share.
The Soviet ambassador here has, in conversations with me, expressed the desire of the Soviet Government to persuade the Arabs that no danger threatens them from their side and that the Moscow Government is inclined and even wants to help us take back from Turkey the rights it has snatched from us with the help of France and England.
I am convinced that an intention from this side will never be detrimental and that if it cannot be used to persuade the English of our importance, it can, however, not do us any harm.
November 26, 1946
The Minister Plenipotentiary in Turkey
Registered in the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, No 1325 – Political reports
13. The Soviet Legation to President Quwatli
My Government asks the Syrian Government to take note of the fact that it does not give its agreement to the maneuvers that King Abdullah is carrying out for avowed colonialist principles.
At this time when the threat of these maneuvers has become a constant, my Government feels itself inclined to provide the necessary aid to protect and safeguard Syrian independence.
My Government considers that the current situation as a whole in Syria, which is the basis of security in the Middle East, is a fact that must be respected and guaranteed.
The information I have allows me to confirm the existence of a continuing plot directed by British military officials under the command of King Abdullah and in complete agreement with the Iraqi and Turkish governments.
A complaint lodged with the Security Council by the Syrian Government would be viewed favorably and this would then win the complete support of my government. We are also disposed to provide material aid as well as military experts should the Syrian Government so wish.
June 2, 1947 Seal of the Soviet Legation
Oral memorandum given by the Soviet Minister to the President of the Syrian Republic
Registered in the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, No 1734 – Political documents