The Syrian army’s aging generals couldn’t believe their eyes: The Soviet Union is back. After seeing Russian tanks entering Georgia, they thought that time can be turned back two decades, to the era where the Soviet superpower backed President Hafez al-Assad; an era where Soviet advisors stayed in Syria, Soviet warships docked at the Tartus port, and Moscow transferred missiles and tanks to Damascus for free. Most importantly, it was an era where the Soviet Union provided Syria with protection against Israel.
Bashar Assad’s advisors therefore gave him the worst possible advice. The time has come to make Russia an offer it cannot refuse, they told him. And Assad, the perpetual rookie, of course took the advice. And so, the Syrian president headed to Moscow with a series of proposals, which the generals thought both sides will benefit from.
1. Syria agrees to Russian deployment of advanced ground-to-ground missiles in its territory as a counterweight to the American missile deployment in Poland.
2. Syria agrees that Russian Air Force jets will use Syrian territory and airspace.
3. The seaport at Tartus will be reopened.
4. Russia will be granted a friendly military outpost in the Middle East, at the gate to Europe, and go back to being a regional power.
In exchange, Assad intended to request advanced ground-to-ground missiles, as well as other weapons. His gut-feeling was excellent, and he mentioned his proposal in a briefing with Russian reporters ahead of his trip to Moscow.
The Syrian leader was stunned when the Russians slapped him in the face. Putin and Medvedev’s answer to his request was “not interested.” They have no interest in embarking on a new cold war. The slap was even worse because the Russians refused to sell advanced missiles to the Syrians, and added a few conditions: Firstly, they will be selling Syria defensive weapons only, rather than offensive ones. Secondly, they will not be selling Syria arms that would change the status quo of full Israeli supremacy over Syria. Thirdly, everything they sell will be paid for in cash, in advance.
The Russians know very well that Syria’s economy is unstable. They know that the Iranians help the Syrians with payments, but they also know that Iran itself is facing great difficulties. Assad swallowed the insult and returned to Damascus.
Why was there no chance for Assad’s “golden package” to begin with? Because Russia is not the Soviet Union. What Assad’s generals failed to grasp is that by invading Georgia Russia caused itself economic and political damage that would take years to repair. Russia is a capitalistic country that relies on its economy, and the economy responded with immense anxiety to the Georgia events.
Moreover, at this time Russia is closely associated with Israel no less so and possibly more so than with Syria. A million and a half former Russians reside in Israel, and Israel’s high-tech industry is highly important for the Russian economy. The world in the era of globalization (a word that Syria is still unfamiliar with) will not go back to being black and white, and no Russia babushka will be waiting for Assad with a magic solution.