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The West Worried About Russian Escalation and Proxy War in Syria — in 1957

Newly released files show that 58 years ago, British diplomats predicted that Russia would use Syria's civil war to "arouse antagonism" against America.

by Katie Engelhart
Oct 30 2015, 3:55pm

Image via UK National Archives

What, the British Prime Minister wants to know, will the Russians do?

The United States has engaged in Syria — and is pushing for regime change. Moscow is bristling, and has responded with a display of Russian air power outside Damascus and warships in the Mediterranean Sea. A shadowy cabal of Russian "volunteers" has arrived in Syria and Turkey has sent a flood of troops to the border. Saudi Arabia is on edge. Iran and Egypt have been dragged in. And NATO officials are speaking of an all-out war.

And so it may have unraveled — in 1957.

The above is not a play-by-play of Syria's ongoing and seemingly intractable civil war, though may read as such. Rather, it is an eerily prescient scenario dreamed up more than half a century ago by British intelligence officials in a "TOP SECRET" report that was made public for the first time this week.

Related: Iran is Now a Part of the Conversation to End The Syrian Civil War — But Don't Hold Your Breath

Back in 1957, things were heating up in Damascus. The Syrian government — ostensibly non-aligned, in a Cold War-divided world — seemed to be moving further into the Soviet camp. Washington and London feared that Syria would become a Soviet client state, and began secretly plotting to overthrow the Syrian government and assassinate Syrian officials. Turkey moved troops to the border and the Soviets threatened to launch missiles at Istanbul.

In the autumn of 1957, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan called in his foreign secretary and asked him to write a report — that was part facts-on-the-ground and part imagination — of what Moscow might do next.

A few weeks later, the report appeared on the prime minister's desk; it warned that if America engaged further in the Syria conflict, Russia would commit itself to reinforcing the "terrorist apparatus" in Damascus.

Along the way, the report predicted, Russia would use the Syria conflict to stir up Arab opposition to America via an "intense propaganda campaign." Soviet propaganda would allege that Syria was "the innocent victim of a threatened aggression by the United States, United Kingdom and France, who were using reactionary Arab regimes to serve their imperialist aims of crushing Arab nationalism in the interests of the oil companies and Israel."

The document — classified "TOP SECRET" and for "U.K. EYES ONLY" — was released this week to the National Archives, along with some 400 formerly classified British intelligence files. VICE News viewed the files prior to their release.

Depending on one's interpretation, the secret report either demonstrates the tremendous foresight of British intelligence officials in the mid-20th century — or is a stark reminder that Syria has long been at the center of Great Power contests for regional influence.

Related: Britain's Most Infamous Spies Were Loose-Lipped and Drunk, Newly Released Files Reveal

On September 10, 1957, the British Cabinet had held a discussion about American policy towards Syria — and Macmillan had ordered his advisors to prepare "an appreciation of the possible Soviet reactions in the Middle East." The briefing was written by diplomats and intelligence officials.

But later that month, the prime minister decided not to share the document with his cabinet — in view of its "special secrecy" and the chance that it might provoke "undesirable speculation."

Read today, the report's findings seem remarkably farsighted. British diplomats predicted that Moscow would perceive the possible overthrow of the Syrian regime as "a serious reverse for [Russia] in the Middle East." As a result, Russia reaction "could be expected to be strong and determined, and they would try to frustrate [American efforts in Damascus] by every means short of those which, in their judgment, would be likely to involve them in a war with the West."

The report also assumed that, "were the Great Powers to engage militarily in Syria," their efforts would be thwarted by "logistical difficulties." It would prove difficult to coordinate air strikes or to transport weapons into the country.

Related: MI5 Spied on a Nobel Prize Winning Author for Over a Year, New Files Reveal

There are, to be sure, minor variations between the 1957 and 2015 scripts. Iran is no longer an ally of the West, for instance. Russia is no longer anticipated to offer portions of Iraq to Saudi Arabia — or to threaten Britain with atomic missiles.

Russia launched the first of its airstrikes in Syria on September 30 — in support of Syrian government offensives. It has since hit targets in 10 of Syria's 14 provinces, including several strongholds of the Islamic State (IS). But its efforts are concentrated in areas far from IS bases and where Bashar al-Assad's government is being directly threatened by an array of other jihadist and opposition groups.

Moscow has conceded to using a variety of warplanes, military helicopters, and warships to support Assad's ground offensive.

The US has been supporting various factions of Assad's rebel opposition for years. Washington has since admitted that its plan to train and equip Syrian rebels was largely unsuccessful, and marred by "failures."

On Friday, a new round of negotiations opened in Vienna — with the aim of ending bloodshed in Syria as the country's civil war enters its fifth year.

In 1957, the UK Foreign Secretary predicted that Russian efforts to undermine support for America in the Middle East would prove increasingly effective over time — as Western efforts to end the conflict stalled.

Follow Katie Engelhart on Twitter: @katieengelhart

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