That Time America Worried About Russian Troops in Syria — In 1983
A short history of a superpower flashpoint
by PAUL IDDON
There is a now-obscure moment in the United States’ relationship — or lack thereof — with Syria under the rule of the Assad family. In an early October 1983 radio address, U.S. President Ronald Reagan sought to justify the deployment of hundreds of Marines to civil-war-wrecked Lebanon as a necessary move to counter the Soviet Union’s military presence in Syria.
Syria “today has some 5,000 Soviet advisers and technicians and a massive amount of new Soviet equipment in its country — including a new generation of surface-to-surface missiles, the SS-21,” Reagan said, going on to ask, rhetorically, if the “United States or the free would” could “stand by and see the Middle East incorporated into the Soviet bloc?”
The SS-21 Scarab is a short-range ballistic missile. Also known as the 9K79 Tochka, the earlier Scarab A models the Soviet Union deployed to Syria had a maximum range of 43 miles and could carry nuclear ordnance, 264 pounds of conventional high explosives or 50 cluster bombs each.
The influx of Soviet advisers and equipment into Syria resulted in the United States viewing events in Lebanon, at least partially, through a Cold War lens. Since Syria had also occupied Lebanon, the United States therefore sought to demonstrate that it wasn’t reluctant to use military power to force Syria’s troops out.
There was precedent for U.S. intervention in Lebanon, as the United States having done so in 1958 when the Western-aligned Baghdad Pact and pan-Arab nationalists led by Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser were engaged in a regional cold war.
At the behest of Lebanon’s Christian government, U.S. Marines took over Beirut’s airport and port under the pretext of forcibly preventing the United Arab Republic from annexing that small country. The short-lived UAR, headed by Nasser, consisted of Egypt and Syria.
In the early 1980s, Syria supported Druze and Shiite paramilitaries in Lebanon, while Israel — which launched a massive campaign targeting the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1982 — supported the right-wing Christian government of President Amine Gemayel.
The United States deployed Marines as part of a multi-national force to Beirut to try and quell the conflict following the negotiated withdrawal of the PLO and Israeli withdrawal from the Lebanese capital. However, the Marines found themselves under attack by Syria’s proxies in Lebanon, which included the nascent Hezbollah militia.
This culminated in a devastating Oct. 23, 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks at Beirut International Airport which killed 241 U.S. troops including 220 Marines — an attack which constituted the Marines’ largest loss of life sustained in a single incident since the Battle of Iwo Jima. Fifty-eight French troops lost their lives.
The United States withdrew, leaving only a residual force to guard American assets in Lebanon, and instead relied heavily on naval firepower and air strikes to put pressure on Syria. George Shultz, the U.S. Secretary of State, retrospectively summed it up as leaving “with our dobber down.”
After Syria fired at a U.S. reconnaissance plane in early December 1983, the United States responded by launching 28 naval strike planes to bomb Syrian positions. The raid was ill-prepared and sloppy, and Syrian anti-aircraft guns shot down two American planes.
“Inexplicably, the attacking squadrons also massed their planes for the attack — a tactic that made them further vulnerable to ground fire and that had been discredited years before in the Vietnam War,” New York Times military correspondent Bernard Trainor wrote in 1989.
To add insult to injury, Syria detained a surviving pilot for a month until Rev. Jesse Jackson visited Damascus and secured his release. The result was a fiasco for the Reagan administration, which wondered aloud how Israel managed to avoid a similar incident. The year before during Operation Mole Cricket 19, Israel’s shiny new fleet of F-16 fighters devastated the Syrian Arab Air Force over Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley and knocked out several Soviet-made surface-to-air missile batteries, all without losing a single warplane.
Then again in December 1983, Syrian anti-aircraft guns targeted U.S. planes but failed to shoot any down. In response, the reactivated Iowa-class battleship USS New Jersey fired 1,900-pound shells at Syrian positions east of Beirut.
Given the advisory role the Soviets were playing to the Syrian military, especially when it came to helping maintain and operate hardware, the bombardment ran the risk of killing embedded Soviet advisers who had slipped into Lebanon proper. This could have resulted in a tenser standoff between the two superpowers.
But the Soviet presence — at least of that size — would not last. Less than three years later, the Soviet Union withdrew half of its approximately 5,000 advisers in Syria, including an air-defense unit and the USSR’s only combat unit in the region.
The Soviet-Syrian relationship had its low points. “The relationship really has its rough edges,” a Western diplomat remarked in 1986.
Syria resented the Soviet Union’s reluctance to provide more advanced weapons to compete with Israel after the humiliating defeat in the skies over the Beqaa Valley. The two countries also did not see eye-to-eye regarding a larger strategy for the Middle East. During the later Gorbachev years, Syrian leader Hafez Al Assad resented the Kremlin’s attempts to try — unsuccessfully — to maneuver him into making peace with Israel.
Perhaps one striking example of one of the relationship’s “rough edges” was an incident that took place in Syria itself in 1989. David W. Lesch, a scholar who has written extensively on Syria under the Assads, recalled that Syrian helicopter gunships fired on a Soviet cruiser off the port city of Latakia in 1989 and killed two sailors. It remains unclear what motivated the attack.
“Whatever the reason, that incident, now largely forgotten, revealed in dramatic fashion the complexity of the relationship between Syria and Russia over the decades,” Lesch noted.
Merely a year later, the United States — in an 180-degree policy change — essentially permitted Syria to occupy Lebanon in return for its support against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq following the invasion and annexation of Kuwait.
That action essentially brought the Lebanese Civil War to an end with the massacre of Oct. 13, 1990, in which the Syrian army killed hundreds of Lebanese soldiers after they surrendered. By then, world attention fixated on the looming confrontation between Saddam and the U.S.-led coalition in the Persian Gulf, in which Damascus participated on the side of the coalition.
Fast forward to today, and the Russian military is back in Syria, and is preparing for a more permanent air and naval presence in the country. While there are not quite as many Russian military personnel in the country today as there were in the early 1980s, the current deployment consists of much more sophisticated weapons and heavier firepower and is direct — not advisory — and therefore much more significant.
Russia is fielding advanced S-300 and S-400 long range air defense missile systems that are capable, in theory, of rendering most of Syria’s airspace a highly formidable no-fly zone. Furthermore, an Israeli-built satellite revealed that Russia deployed SS-26 Iskander nuclear-capable ballistic missiles capable of striking surrounding regional powers — including Britain’s air base in Cyprus.
The deployment of such weapons in a war against ragtag armed groups opposed to the Syrian regime is clearly Moscow’s way of warning off any outside power, including the United States, from trying to hinder its operations.
But unlike the 1980s, the United States and Russia are not locked in a similar Cold War-sized struggle. Nevertheless, there have been tense periods. In June 2016, American and Russian jets had a brief but tense showdown after the latter bombed anti-Islamic State militants backed by the former near the Jordanian border.
In September 2016, U.S. warplanes mistakenly killed scores of Syrian soldiers in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, leading the Kremlin to accuse the United States of aiding and abetting the Islamic State and throwing the ceasefire both powers had forged into question.
These incidents, and the aforementioned precedent in the early 1980s, are striking reminders that Syria runs the eternal risk of becoming a lethally dangerous flashpoint between world powers.