Old Friends, Best Friends: Russia and Syria

Posted in Broader Middle East | 01-Feb-05 | Author: Manuela Paraipan

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad during a signing ceremony in Moscow's Kremlin.

Syria's President Bashar Assad has realized that US pressure and warning signals will only end if Syria seriously commits to fully withdrawing its army from Lebanon, stops using Lebanon as an extension of Syria, cuts its unconditional logistic and financial support for the militant Islamic Hezbollah and puts and end to harboring Palestinian militants.

President Assad must have thought that President Bush would be too busy with the unstable situation in Iraq to think about what the US demands from Syria. Tough luck. UN Resolution 1559 is the testimony that President Bush and the Lebanese lobby for a free Lebanon did not forget about Syria's maneuverings in the region.

At this point, Syria is looking toward Moscow for a partner in its opposition to US and EU policy. However, Russia may not be willing to endanger its relations with the US for the sake of Syria, a weak and very vain country. While it is true that Russia still has a lot to say with regards to global foreign policy, it no longer has the capacity to vehemently oppose US sanctions against its old friend and ally, Syria.

President Assad's visit to Moscow had two purposes: To strengthen relations with Russia and to negotiate the sale of next-generation Iskander-E missiles and SA-18 surface-to-air missiles that could help Syria strike any target in Israel. It is not clear whether Russia will go ahead with the transaction as planned; however, US and Israeli pressure might change President Putin's plans.

President Assad's visit to Moscow was a success if one takes into consideration the fact that Russia wrote off $10 billion of Syria's debt. Russian Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko and Syrian Oil Minister Ibrahim Haddad discussed several projects including the development of known resources and the construction of several pipelines, including the Syrian portion of the Pan-Arab pipeline project.

Another business agreement is the plan for Russia's Soyuz Nefte Gaz and the Syrian Oil and Natural Resource Ministry to explore and develop two oil and gas deposits in Syria over a period of 25 years.

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov held talks with President Assad and afterwards declared that Moscow was ready to cooperate with Syria on both an economic and political level, in order to face together the new challenges and threats in the Middle East region. It is evident that Moscow is interested in keeping its line of communication open with Syria, since Russia badly needs a partner in the region and Syria needs a friend in the UN Security Council.

President Assad is aware of the regional and international political arena. Despite this, he is constantly trying to ally Syria with an influential partner to be able to lean against while waiting or simply just improve the conditions for negotiations. It is for this reason that President Assad called for a stronger role for Russia in the Middle East and in the UN Security Council. President Assad's quest to strengthen his relations with Russia will eventually be determined by Russia's interests in the global political arena.

In this context, Syria's future actions regarding Lebanon, Iraq and Hezbollah may be influenced to a great extent by its relations with Russia.