328. Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern, South Asian, and African Affairs (Allen) to the Secretary of State 1

SUBJECT

  • Syrian Collaboration With the Soviet Union

In response to your request, there is attached herewith a paper analyzing the extent of Syrian collaboration with the Soviet bloc. The accompanying chronology was prepared in OIR.2

[Page 575]

[Attachment]

SYRIAN COLLABORATION WITH THE SOVIET BLOC3

There are attached hereto: (A) a chronology of Syrian collaboration with the Soviet bloc starting with 1954 (most of these items are unclassified) and (B) an unclassified paper on Syria’s voting record in the UN for the past ten years, with a confidential annex on Syrian attitudes and policies in the UN.

General Observations

There are 60 individual items in the chronology though they are of course uneven in significance. There are 5 items for 1954, 18 for 1955 and 37 for the first half of 1956.

The items indicate a substantial and unchecked increase in Syrian collaboration with the Soviet bloc and a UN voting record which, like the Syrian Government itself, is not Communist but which increasingly, under various pressures, reflects anti-Western stands.

Syria may be described as neutralist with an anti-Western tendency, opportunistic, and chronically unstable, but not as a Soviet satellite. In contrast to the European satellites, it does not have a Communist or Communist-dominated regime put in power directly or indirectly through the agency of the Soviet army, maintained against the wishes of its people and controlled in its actions by the USSR. The country is suffering from nearly chronic governmental weakness, but it has not lost its freedom of action in the sense that Soviet bloc countries have lost theirs. To the extent that it has lost political freedom as a result of outside intervention in the past two years, this has been due primarily to Egyptian-Saudi pressures.

The Syrian Communist Party—aided by the USSR—has become a respectable supporter of the resultant Syrian anti-Western and anti-Israeli sentiment. It has an estimated membership of 10,000 and is headed by Khalid Bakdash, a Kurd who is the only Syrian Communist Deputy in Parliament and who is generally conceded to be the shrewdest and most intelligent and influential Communist in any of the Arab countries. Bakdash, who is known throughout the area as a Communist, runs for Parliament as an independent, since the Communist Party is outlawed in Syria.

How many Communists are in the Syrian Army which numbers some 40,000, is not known, but they are well organized and influential [Page 576] They work closely with the “little RCC4 (a clique of ambitious pro-Egyptian officers) and also with the leftist Arab Social Resurrectionist Party (ASRP) which holds 18 of the 143 seats in Parliament and two posts in the present cabinet—Foreign Affairs and National Economy. This combination of young Communists, “little RCC” and ASRP officers, virtually controls the Syrian Army. Syrian conservative political leaders—a fragmented group—are quick to respond to the Army’s wishes, fearing still another military coup d’état.

In general, Syrians are not so much pro-Communist as they are anti-West. For them, Moscow is not the home of international communism, but the seat of the only great power which supports the Arab cause. The form of government of that power is not germane to the Arab argument. Thus Syrian propaganda condemns the West as the friend of Israel and lauds the Soviet Union as the friend of the Arab. Soviet imperialism, with which the Arabs never have had direct experience, is ignored while Syrians imply that UK and French imperialism is as alive and active as it was in 1900 and that the US meanwhile has joined the ranks of the imperialist powers.

This state of affairs has increased the popularity of the USSR in Syria and incidentally has furthered the interests of the Syrian Communist Party. If a free election were held today, it is likely that the leftist party would gain seats in the Chamber of Deputies at conservative expense. The prospects are for increased Communist influence both politically and militarily, but so far not for Communist control. There is some argument that the USSR does not want Syria to become a satellite, since it can achieve many of its aims without setting up the alarm that this might raise elsewhere in the area and without assuming the responsibilities it would entail.

The Chronology

The chronology attached as Tab A can be broken down according to subject and commented upon as follows:

Arms: The first Syro-Soviet arms transaction (Item 7) was negotiated two months after the Turco-Iraqi Pact of February 1955. It was a “strictly commercial deal”, through which Syria received 45 German Mark IV tanks from the bloc for only £8,500 ($2,408) each. In February 1956, further Syro-Czech commercial transactions were initiated which led to the purchase of 15,000 Czech submachine guns (Items 28, 29 and 30). In March 1956, a $23 million Syro-Czech Government arms agreement was signed for heavy arms, trucks and surgical and sanitary equipment (Item 36). The Syrian Chief of [Page 577] Staff5 later said that Syria would receive 20 MIGs from Egypt, that 60 T–34 Russian tanks had arrived from Egypt, that 85mm antiaircraft guns equipped with radar had been received from Czechoslovakia under the agreement, and that three Syrian officers were in training in Czechoslovakia (Item 43). In May, following the French sale of Mysteres to Israel, our Army Attaché in Damascus6 learned that more equipment and more technicians would be required from Czechoslovakia (Item 46).

Trade Agreements: The popular Czech-Egyptian arms agreement was followed by a spate of trade and payments agreements between Syria and the bloc (most of them for the first time) (Items 19, 20, 22, 23, 25, 42 and 56). These were obviously political moves. Syrian trade with the seven Soviet states concerned was negligible. In each case signature of the agreement was preceded by a conspicuous visit of a trade delegation from the bloc country concerned.

Economic Offers: The principal Soviet economic aid offers have been: the offers made by the Czech and Russian Ministers in Damascus to construct Syria’s first oil refinery at prices well below what US firms can offer (Item 26), the Czech offer to construct a new international airport at Damascus (Item 26) and the Polish bid for a survey of Hejaz railroad reconstruction accepted by Syria in January 1956 (Item 24). Numerous Soviet and Communist China trade missions have made other offers (Items 27, 32, 33 and 45).

Damascus Fair: Communist country participation has been the most striking political aspect of the Damascus International Trade Fairs of the past two years. The USSR had the best location and largest exhibit in 1954 and the Communist Chinese exhibit was the largest and most elaborate of any in 1955. The Chinese and Bulgarians were given space reserved for official Government pavilions despite the fact that their Governments had not been recognized by Syria (Items 4 and 14).

Exchange of People: Official visits of Syrians to Soviet countries have increased substantially in the field of labor (Items 1, 8, 15, 39 and 41); religion (Items 3 and 31); education (Item 5); legislation—18 Syrian deputies visited Moscow (Items 10, 37 and 40); “peace conventions” including 250 Syrians to a World Youth Festival in Warsaw (Items 9 and 11); military (Items 43 and 51); trade (Item 12); and law (Item 58). Syria’s Communist Deputy, Khalid Bakdash was welcomed by the largest demonstration ever assembled in Syria on his return from Moscow on April 1, 1956 (Item 37). The welcome was organized and paid for by the Communists. The Ministry of Interior did nothing to check it. Meanwhile, there have been numerous [Page 578] Soviet trade missions to Syria as well as cultural and artistic missions (Items 16, 18, 48 and 57) and also “peace” missions—the Syrian Prime Minister gave a luncheon for the Soviet delegation which came to Damascus to present the Stalin Peace Prize to a Syrian religious leader and Partisan of Peace (Item 35). Soviet Foreign Minister Shepilov is expected to visit Syria during his current tour of the Near East (Item 60).

Diplomatic Recognition: Syria added Rumania to the list of five Soviet countries with whom it already exchanged diplomatic missions (Item 13), agreed with the USSR to raise the legations of the two countries to Embassies (Item 21), and considered a parliamentary resolution and numerous editorials calling for recognition of Red China (Item 47).

Press: The press has prominently featured statements by Soviet officials as well as pro-Soviet statements by high Syrian officials (Items 6, 38, 44, 47, 50 and 54). We are informed that the President of Syria had made commitments to Col. Nasser and King Saud that he would take steps to check pro-Soviet propaganda. He has not, however, done so effectively. Statements that Syria would choose communism over Zionism if forced to the choice appear frequently (Item 44).

United Nations

For ten years Syria’s voting record in the UN has demonstrated a pronounced “neutralist” tendency and in many instances has been parallel to that of the Soviet bloc. The basic pattern was substantially identical with that of such “uncommitted” Asian States as India, Burma, and Afghanistan, and such Arab States as Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Egypt. Syrian voting has stood in sharp contrast at times to the record of two Arab States, Lebanon and Iraq, on the critical “East-West” issues, but it has not been far from that of most other neutral uncommitted countries and it is difficult to pin a more definite or extreme label on Syria in the light of its votes in the General Assembly. (See Tab B for details.)7

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 660.83/6–2556. Secret. Drafted by Boardman, initialed by Allen, and sent through S/S. A marginal notation on the source text by Bernau indicates that Dulles saw the memorandum and its enclosures.
  2. Not printed.
  3. Secret. Drafted by Boardman.
  4. The Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) constituted the leadership of the Free Officers’ movement in Egypt which had overthrown King Farouk in 1952.
  5. General Shuqayr.
  6. Colonel Molloy.
  7. The paper, “Syrian Attitudes and Policies in the United Nations”, attached to the source text but not printed, also noted that Syrian attitudes and policies in the United Nations were frequently colored, sometimes to a very intense and pronounced degree, by the Palestine issue, even when the issues involved had no connection of any kind with the Palestine problem or the Arab-Israeli conflict.