Flush with billions in oil money, plus a former KGB officer in firm control of the government, where does a Russian bear first step as it wakes from a diplomatic hibernation that began with the end of the Cold War?
It appears the first step will be in the Middle East, reports the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday.
Over the last few weeks, Russia has made clear that it plans to continue supporting Iran’s controversial nuclear power program, is determined to remain an active partner in the Arab-Israeli peace process, and may renew its cold war-era role of arming Israel’s Arab neighbors as a means of assuring military ‘balance’ in the volatile region.
Punctuating this view was the visit to Russia last week by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It marked the first visit by a Syrian head of state since 1999.
Mr. Assad signed a declaration on defense ties with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. The two sides also agreed to writing off “a large portion [73 percent] of the $13 billion of Syria’s debts, mainly incurred from arms purchases during the Soviet era,” reports the Lebanon-based Monday Morning. It quoted Mr. Putin as saying “the debt forgiveness created opportunities for long-term cooperation.”
Damascus, a former Soviet ally, had been a major purchaser of Russian weapons. The Russian arms industry continues to target the Baathist regime in Syria as an “important export market,” says Monday Morning.
The visit did not go unnoticed. It “provoked a row” between Israel and Russia over plans to sell advanced Russian missiles to Syria, writes K. Gajendra Singh, a former Indian ambassador to Turkey and Azerbaijan from 1992-1996 and current chairman of the Foundation for Indo-Turkic Studies and editorial adviser with global geopolitics website Eurasia Research Center in a commentary in Asia Times.
Mr. Singh cites an unnamed expert possible explaining some of Putin’s motives:
1- ‘Moscow has been facing several problems recently. It realized that Washington had gone too far in extending its influence at the expense of Russia,’ arguing that Washington was seeking to encircle Moscow, one way or the other.
Israeli leaders are concerned that “a Russian axis including Syria, Turkey and Iran could make peacemaking with the Palestinians and regional accommodation more difficult, reports the New York-based JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency), a self-described international news service that covers events and issues of concern to the Jewish people.
2- Both US and Israeli officials have been urging Russia to “limit the scope of its missile sale to Syria” and have expressed concern the weapons “could be passed to Hezbollah or to insurgents for use against US forces in Iraq,” reports World Net Daily.
3- Putin dismissed these concerns and is quoted as saying “the missiles will not find their way to terrorists.” He assured Washington and Tel Aviv that “we have the ability to know exactly where these missiles are located,” that they are mounted on vehicles and cannot operate if they are detached from them, reports World Net Daily.
ForPutin, strengthening relations with Syria means “consolidating a Middle East foothold that was a cornerstone of Soviet policy but was lost somewhat as American influence grew,” reports the Associated Press.
When in Moscow, Assad told students at the Moscow State Institute of Foreign Relations that “these are defensive weapons, air defense, to prevent aircraft from entering our air space. … if Israel is against us acquiring them, it’s as if it was saying ‘we want to attack Syria but we don’t want them to protect themselves,'” reports Monday Morning.
Further cementing its renewed role in the Middle East, Russian officials met with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on Monday. Mr. Abbas, in Moscow on his first diplomatic trip since being elected prime minister of the Palestinian Authority last month told Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that he “had done everything to “win Moscow’s support in upcoming peace talks with Israel,” reports the AP.
Israeli officials charged this week that Hezbollah now has advanced surface-to-air missiles, reports World Net Daily. Their presence means Israeli aircraft must “fly at higher altitudes.” It also underscores fears that the “missiles Russia is selling to Syria may be handed over to terrorists.”
In an editorial, the Jerusalem Post characterized Russian efforts to renew its role in the region as a throwback to the Brezhnev era.
Russia’s planned sale of SA-18 missiles to Syria looms ominously as a throwback to the [Leonid] Brezhnev era’s most misguided attitudes. Economically, Syria is a basket case whose debt-return record must make one doubt its financial commitments.
Ideologically, Syria remains part of the terrorist internationale which has repeatedly victimized Russia. And diplomatically, arming Damascus while Washington suspects it of fueling the war on its troops in Iraq brings to mind memories of Russia’s role in the Vietnam and Korea wars.
Singh, in his commentary, characterizes Putin’s actions as a strategic mistake should arms sales, in fact, destabilize the military balance in the Middle East.
President Vladimir Putin has earned himself a reputation as a rational man out to restore Russia’s global stature. In itself, this is a worthy goal. However, by pandering to regimes such as Assad’s, not only will Putin not have restored Russia’s clout, he will convince people that he has learned nothing from his Soviet predecessors’ downfalls. He will also make people reconsider their impression of his rationalism.