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Re-Establishing The Cold War Connection? By: Stephen Brown
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, September 01, 2008

With its victory sealed over Georgia, Russia is starting to make life uncomfortable for another American ally.


Last week’s two-day meeting in the southern Russian city of Sochi between Syrian leader Bashir al-Assad and Russia’s President Dimitri Medvedev is causing Israel no little concern. Syria was the second country after Belarus to publicly support Russia for its actions in Georgia, and Assad pulled no punches in backing its former Cold War ally.


“I want to express my support for the Russian position in Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” said the Syrian president. “…We oppose attempts to tarnish Russia’s position.”


As his reward, Assad hurried to Russia, his third trip there since taking power in Syria in 2000, to negotiate an arms deal for the modern weapons his military so desperately needs. During his visit, he told a Russian newspaper he intended, above all, to push for armaments purchases. But while a Russian spokesman admitted weapons sales were a topic of discussion between the two leaders, no firm commitment was allegedly made.


Medvedev had phoned Olmert before Assad had arrived at the Russian president’s Black Sea residence, most likely to reassure the Israeli prime minister about the upcoming meeting. And Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last Thursday his government was prepared to supply Syria only with “defensive weapons.” Despite Russian assurances, however, Olmert appears to be to taking no chances and is now planning to travel to Russia himself in early September.


The reason for Israel’s disquiet is that it fears Russia may sell Syria the surface-to-surface Iskander missile. Israel is still technically in a state of war with Syria, and both Israel and America believe Syria’s possession of such an advanced weapon would upset the balance of power in the region, since all of Israel would now be within the new missile’s striking range. Moreover, unlike the old Scud missiles currently in the Syrian arsenal, the Iskander is reported to be extremely accurate.


Russia probably regards selling arms to Syria as a form of retribution against Israel. Moscow was angry Israeli companies, with government approval, had been training Georgian troops before the war and providing them with vehicles and explosives. Israel claims, however, it refrained from selling tanks to Georgia at Russia’s request and hopes Moscow will reciprocate in respect to any of its requests concerning Syria.


Russia had already concluded a $900 million arms sale agreement with Syria last year. While it did not include any Iskander missiles, probably due to Israeli and American warnings, Syria received 50 of the modern Pantsyr-SIE anti-aircraft missiles. This Syrian purchase is not surprising since, in 2006, the Israeli air force had humiliated Assad by buzzing his seaside summer house to pressure Syria and its ally, Hamas, to release Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, whom Hamas had kidnapped.


Israel has good reason, though, to block any Syrian purchase of conventional Russian armaments, defensive or otherwise, because Syria is a close ally of Hezbollah, Israel’s enemy in the 2006 Lebanon war. In that conflict, Israel believes anti-tank missiles Russia had sold earlier to Syria were then transferred to the Shiite terrorist organization. In Hezbollah’s hands, they wound up costing an estimated 50 Israeli soldiers their lives.


Currently, Syria’s military consists of aging equipment from the Soviet era and poses no great threat to Israel’s forces. The Syrian economy is almost as decrepit as its army, preventing any great modernization program. Along with last year’s arms sale, Russia also forgave most of Syria’s US $13.4 billon Cold War debt, which it probably could not repay anyways.


This time round, it is believed Syria will pay for any arms Russia is willing to sell by granting the Russian navy a base on its Mediterranean coast, like it did during the Cold War. Moscow had already expressed an interest in having its navy return to the Mediterranean.


By seeking Russian weapons and inviting Moscow back into the region it had vacated in 1991, Syria is hoping to offset from the strong, Israeli-American nexus. European and American pressure had forced Syria to withdraw from Lebanon in 2004. A revived Kremlin would provide Syria with leverage in such events and in peace negotiations with Israel. Indirect peace talks between the two countries are currently underway under Turkish government supervision. 


Syria is also taking advantage of the recent American-Polish anti-missile agreement, and Russian antagonism, to re-establish a Russian presence within its borders. In protesting the accord that would see American missiles based in Poland, Medvedev used perhaps the strongest language of any Russian leader since the end of the Cold War, saying there will be a military response. Spotting an opportunity, Syria immediately offered to allow Moscow to deploy missiles on its territory.


Medvedev was undoubtedly happy that Syria rushed to offer its support to Russia in the Georgian war, defying Washington’s threatened attempt to isolate it. In befriending Syria, Russia is continuing its policy of developing relations with countries that are not part of the perceived American “hegemony”, such as those that belong to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Russia also expects SCO support for its Georgian war actions at its meeting this Thursday in Tajikistan.


But with the Moscow Peace Conference coming up in November, Russia probably will not make any rash moves involving Syria that could jeopardize its outcome. Achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace, the subject of the conference, where so many have failed in the past would be a coup Moscow could not resist, especially so soon after the Western-led, international condemnation it had incurred from the Georgian conflict.


Selling arms to dictatorships like Syria is a questionable move for Russia. Besides making a close American ally nervous, it also calls into question Syria’s commitment to the current peace talks with Israel. But since Vladimir Putin made it clear in the Georgian war he intends to follow his own path internationally, uncomfortable days for American allies have probably just begun.

Stephen Brown is a contributing editor at Frontpagemag.com. He has a graduate degree in Russian and Eastern European history. Email him at alsolzh@hotmail.com.

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