In June 1772, Russian forces bombarded, stormed and captured Beirut, a fortress on the coast of Ottoman Syria. The Russians were backing their ally, a ruthless Arab despot. When they returned the next year, they occupied Beirut for almost six months. Then as now, they found Syrian politics a boiling cauldron of factional-ethnic strife, which they tried to simplify with cannonades and gunpowder.
Today, President Vladimir V. Putin has many motives in Syria, but we should keep in mind Russia’s vision of its traditional mission in the Middle East, and how it informs the Kremlin’s thinking. And not just the Kremlin: Russia’s Orthodox Church spokesman said that Mr. Putin’s intervention was part of “the special role our country has always played in the Middle East.”
Russia’s ties to the region are rooted in its self-assigned role as the defender of Orthodox Christianity, which it claimed to inherit from the Byzantine Caesars after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 — hence “czars.” The czars presented Moscow not just as a Third Rome, but also as a New Jerusalem, and protector of Christians in the Balkans and the Arab world, which, including the Holy Places of Jerusalem, were ruled by the Ottomans after 1517.
Devout peasants believed before they died that they should make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and dip their shrouds in the Jordan. Until 1917, the czars blessed the waters of “the Jordan” every Jan. 6, in the Moscow, or later the Neva, River.
Russia’s first major intervention began in 1768, when Catherine the Great went to war with the Ottomans, and Count Alexei Orlov, the brother of her lover Grigory, sailed the Baltic fleet through the Strait of Gibraltar to rally rebellions in the Mediterranean. Recruiting Scottish admirals, Orlov annihilated the Ottoman fleet at Chesme, after which Russians temporarily dominated the eastern Mediterranean.
Meanwhile, in Egypt and Syria (which spanned present-day Lebanon and Israel as well), the respective Arab strongmen, Ali Pasha and Dahir al-Umar, had collaborated to seize Damascus from the Ottomans, but then lost it. Desperate, they approached Orlov and Catherine, who agreed to back them in return for possession of Jerusalem. Orlov’s ships bombarded Syrian cities, eventually occupying Beirut.
They left in 1774, when Russia dropped its Syrian allies in return for Ottoman concessions over Ukraine and Crimea. Yet a Russian Mediterranean base was now a strategic aim: Catherine and her partner Prince Potemkin annexed Crimea, where they founded a Black Sea fleet, then tried to negotiate a base on Minorca.
Catherine’s successors saw themselves as crusaders, with Russia destined to rule Constantinople and Jerusalem. Ultimately it was this aspiration — and a brawl over the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, between Russian-backed Orthodox and French-backed Catholic priests — that led to the Crimean War.
Russian defeat in 1856 persuaded Alexander II and the last czars to back off on using military force to dominate Jerusalem, preferring diplomacy and soft power. But during World War I Russian forces occupied northern Persia and invaded Ottoman Iraq, nearly taking Baghdad. In 1916, Nicholas II’s foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov, negotiated the Sykes-Picot-Sazonov Treaty, which promised Russia Istanbul, sections of Turkey and Kurdistan, and a share of Jerusalem — a Near Eastern empire foiled by the Bolshevik Revolution.
The atheistic Soviets inherited a secular version of these dreams: At Potsdam in 1945, Stalin demanded a “trusteeship” over Tripolitania, Libya, and later recognized Israel, hoping in both cases to gain a Mediterranean base. He was rebuffed, but the Cold War made Russia a Middle Eastern power, backing Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt with 50,000 Soviet advisers.
Until the recent intervention, the closest Russia came to fighting was the Israeli-Egyptian War of Attrition from 1967 to 1970, during which Soviet pilots dueled with Israelis. When Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, expelled the Russians, they cultivated a trio of dictators, Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Hafez al-Assad in Syria. All three, running merciless, dynastic-Mafia regimes behind the facade of socialistic parties, central planning and Stalinesque cults of personality, took quickly to their new benefactors: General Assad and Colonel Qaddafi were regularly photographed in moist fraternal hugs with the Soviet general secretary Leonid Brezhnev. And General Assad, trained as a pilot in Russia, granted Moscow access to its Tartus naval base, now its last asset in the region.
After the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russian influence collapsed and Moscow came to bitterly resent the Western interventions that destroyed Mr. Hussein and Colonel Qaddafi. American retreat from the region grants Mr. Putin, who sees himself in an unbroken tradition of Russian personal leadership and imperial-national power from the czars to today, the opportunity to diminish American prestige and project Russia as indispensable world arbiter. The rescue of Mr. Assad’s son Bashar while fighting the opposition and Islamic State dovetails with Russia’s struggle against Chechen jihadis who flock to the black caliphal banners — and success will bring leverage in Iran and Turkey, where Russia once had muscle.
That said, Mr. Putin may end up channeling Catherine and trade Syrian influence to end Western sanctions and secure annexed Crimea — for this military showmanship concerns Mr. Putin’s political survival. In some ways, his defense of Syria’s autocrat is a defense of his own authority against rebellion. The power formula in Russia is this: autocracy in the Kremlin in return for security and prosperity at home, glory abroad — and for now at least, there’s glamour in the excitement of this Oriental adventure, a televised “Beau Geste” with Sukhoi bombers.
When Alexander II launched exotic Asian wars, one of his ministers, Count Valuev, wrote, “there’s something erotic about all things on distant frontiers.” Moscow lacks the resources to replace America and will find in Syria a quagmire, but Russians feel that a great imperial Russia has always been a player in the Middle East — and boldness counts for much in this wild world.
Simon Sebag Montefiore is the author, most recently, of the forthcoming book The Romanovs 1613-1918.