Syria reaps a Russian reward

Posted in Broader Middle East , Russia | 25-Aug-08 | Author: Sami Moubayed| Source: Asia Times

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (R) meets with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Sochi.

DAMASCUS - When the armies of Israel, France and Great Britain began a massive operation on Egypt in October 1956, to punish Gamal Abdul-Nasser for nationalization of the Suez Canal, the first world leader to visit the Kremlin was Syrian president Shukri al-Quwatli. He pleaded with Nikita Khrushchev to send in "the great red army that defeated [Adolf] Hitler".

Fifty-two years later, the Georgian army rumbled into the breakaway Georgian area of South Ossetia on August 7, with the blessing of the United States, making the Russians very angry. The "great red army that defeated Hitler" responded by large-scale bombardment, then invaded South Ossetia, driving the Georgian army out of Tskhinvali. It then advanced on Georgia, sending shockwaves throughout the world, and causing uproar in Washington.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused Georgia of committing "genocide" while President Dmitry Medvedev said that Russia's role was to "protect lives and the dignity of Russian citizens wherever they are". According to Medvedev, 90% of South Ossetians possess Russian passports and thereby qualify for protection under Article 80 of the Russian constitution.

The Georgians cried genocide as well, and accused Moscow of wanting regime change in Georgia, because of President Mikheil Saakashvili's pro-American policies. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice accused Russia of becoming an "outlaw" and threatened to isolate it politically and economically. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates tried to calm international fears by defending Georgia, yet adding, "No cold war with Russia." Georgia's South Ossetia adventure has America's fingerprints all over it. This time, as was the case in 1956, the Syrians were the first to land in the Kremlin, and shower the "great red army that defeated Hitler" with praise.

President Bashar al-Assad landed in Russia on August 20, less than two weeks after the South Ossetia war started. Sending a strong message to the Russians ahead of his trip, he spoke to the Russian Kommerstant newspaper, "On this issue [of South Ossetia and Georgia] we fully support Russia. The Americans continue their Cold War policies ... The war, which was unleashed by Georgia, is the culmination of attempts to encircle and isolate Russia." He added, "Georgia started the crisis, but the West is blaming Russia. Everywhere there is total disinformation, distortion of facts, and international attempts to isolate Russia."

He then added, "The Caucasus and Europe are impossible without Russia ... I think that after the crisis with Georgia, Russia has become only stronger." He wrapped up saying, "It is important that Russia takes the position of a superpower, and then all the attempts to isolate it will fail."

The Russians, thrilled at the statement of support they were waiting to hear from a traditional friend, reciprocated with words and lucrative offers of arms. "Our position is that we are ready to cooperate with Russia in any project that can strengthen its security," added the Syrian president. When asked if his country would accept an offer of air defense from the Russians, Assad replied, "In principle, yes. We have not yet thought about it."

Perhaps explaining Assad's strong support for the Kremlin is a statement by General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, the deputy chief of staff of the Russian army, who accused Israel of arming Georgian troops with "eighty types of military vehicles, explosives, landmines and special explosives for the clearing minefields". In his interview, Assad noted, "I think that in Russia and in the world everyone is now aware of Israel's role and its military consultants in the Georgia crisis. Before there were people in Russia who thought these forces could be friendly. Now I think no one thinks that way."

There are many in Russia who undoubtedly would love to punish the Israelis for supporting Georgia, a proxy punishment for the United States. Prime on the list is Putin. The Americans, apart from big words coming from the White House and State Department, would never confront "the great red army that defeated Hitler" for the sake of non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization member (at least not when the crisis erupted). They also have to take into account Russia's international influence, the amount of damage it can inflict if it decides to wrestle with the Americans, and the fact that it provides Europe's main oil and gas supply. For their part, the Russians realize they also have limits to what they can do in this "cold war" with the Americans.

They see a good ally in Assad, a man who realizes that the Russians are back and intends on using this strong reality to advance his own country's interests, in regard to the US and Syria's peace talks currently underway, indirectly, with Israel through Turkey.

One option might be to acquire more sophisticated Russian weapons, to scare the Israelis into the need to finalize a peace deal with Syria, even after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert leaves office in September. That would have to be done in great delicacy, since the Syrians do not want to upset the Europeans or the upcoming US administration, amid great hopes that it will be a Democratic one that will undo all the damage done to Syrian-American relations under the George W Bush administration.

After many years of stagnation, the Europeans opened a new chapter with the Syrians, via French President Nicolas Sarkozy, in July. Any initiative with the Russians must clearly not upset the Europeans. Syria might want to purchase defensive weapons from Russia, as it has done in the past, and in response, work hard at making the Moscow Peace Conference (scheduled for October) a success. The Russians want it to succeed, to counterbalance the failed attempt at bringing the Arabs and Israelis together at Annapolis in the US in November 2007. If the Syrians attend and put full weight behind it, the Moscow Conference will overshadow - by far - the American one in Annapolis.

The Syrians want to finalize peace with Israel and although they have called on the French, the Indians and the Russians to support the talks, both they and the Israelis realize that peace is impossible without the Americans. According to former US president Jimmy Carter, 85% of critical issues had been solved by both parties even before the current talks started in April 2008. The rest need American sponsorship and guarantees. And to date, although the Bush administration has not vetoed the Istanbul negotiations, it has also, repeatedly, refused to bless them.

This administration believes that Syria is more interested in a peace process than a peace deal, aimed at ending the isolation imposed on Syria by the US since 2003. A closer look, however, shows that even without a peace deal, the US-led boycott of Syria has ended, thanks to the Doha Agreement and the courting of Syria by Sarkozy, who plans on visiting Damascus in early September. Meaning, if the right strings are pulled, the Americans might be convinced to "bring the Syrians and Israelis into one room, and sit with them, for the sake of peace".

That would certainly drown the Moscow conference, which the Americans were never too pleased with. That would also turn the world's attention from America's inability - due to the reasons mentioned above - to punish the Russians for what happened in South Ossetia. It would also overshadow America and Georgia's foolish attempts at challenging the Russian army in the backyard of the former Soviet Union.

It would divert the world's attention from the repeated failures in Iraq (contrary to the rosy picture being painted by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki) and the mess that continues to unravel with Iran. America threatens and sets deadlines for the Iranians. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad grins and ignores the deadlines, continuing his nuclear ambitions in complete disregard for the US. America sets more deadlines while Iran continues to smile, and throws them out the window.

Assad's previous visit to Moscow was in December 2006, and since then he has managed to keep strong relations with the Russians, who were allies of his father, the late president Hafez al-Assad, since 1970. Although Hafez al-Assad refused to sign a friendship agreement with them throughout the first 10 years of his presidency, he nevertheless relied on Soviet experts to train and arm the Syrian army, build roads, bridges and the famous Euphrates Dam.

Relations became less warm after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but were jump-started by Bashar al-Assad after he came to power in 2000, paying three state visits to Moscow.

The most recent trip comes after the Syrian leader mended fences with the French last July, after helping solve the presidential and cabinet crisis in Lebanon, and visited Paris under invitation of Sarkozy. Medvedev will also visit Syria before the end of 2008.

A Russian company is currently working on two gas factories in the Syrian midland, with a production capacity of 10 billion cubic meters of gas per day, while a Russian oil company is undergoing excavation works in the Abu Kamal region. More is to come after the Moscow visit of the Syrian president.

The Russians need little convincing from the Syrians. They realize how involved both the United States and Israel are in the situation in the Caucasus. The fact that Syria is being courted by the French, the Turks, the Germans and the Qataris makes it even easier for the Russians to cooperate with Damascus.

They are already furious at the threats to "isolate" Moscow by Washington and the invitation to Georgia to become a member of NATO. This week, Rice arrived in Europe to sign a deal placing a US interceptor missile in Poland, a former Soviet satellite, further angering the Kremlin. Speaking to Fox News, Rice added insult to injury saying, "We are going to help rebuild Georgia into a strong Georgian state. The Russians will have failed in their effort to undermine Georgia", and repeated that Moscow had "used disproportionate force against a small neighbor".

American media have speculated that the US might veto Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization, or bar it from the Group of Eight. Putin and Medvedev responded by deploying several missile launchers to South Ossetia, within striking range of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

Overall, the crisis is playing nicely into the hands of Syria, which is using it to strengthen its ties with an old and resurrected friend, send messages to a traditional foe (Israel, and pressure the United States into changing course over Damascus.

Although the "great red army that defeated Hitler" was never a match for the American one that ended World War II and helped bring down the Soviet Union, it was always an influential player in the complex web of Middle East politics, and seemingly signals one thing: the Russians are back, and the Syrians are making the best out of it.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

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