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.
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.