Saturday, September 6, 2008

Syria and Russia




With an eye to winning more support from Russia, Damascus has enthusiastically backed Moscow as it spars with the international community over the conflict with Georgia, according to Syrian political analysts.

Syria was one of the few countries to offer strong public backing to Russia as it came under fire from the United States and the European Union for its military intervention in Georgia last month.

The growing relationship between Damascus and Moscow, which encompasses talk of arms purchases and increased trade, has raised concerns in western countries and Israel about Russia's intentions in the region.

"The relationship is very important to Syria for two reasons - firstly, to acquire weapons, because Russia is the only country in the world that will supply arms to Syria. Secondly, to gain Russia's political support, especially in the [United Nations] Security Council," said Damascus-based writer and political analyst Husain al-Odat.

President Bashar al-Assad reportedly asked for anti-aircraft and surface-to-surface missiles, as well as other weapons, in a meeting with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev last month. Analysts believe their meeting, which occurred during Russia's short battle with Georgia, was strategically timed.

According to al-Odat, Assad chose this moment to visit the country because he was "banking on the rise of Russia" in the wake of the conflict over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Stronger ties with Damascus would "reinforce Russia's role in the Middle East and throughout the world", he added.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow was only prepared to give Syria "defensive weapons that would not upset the regional balance of power".

But his assurances did not ease concerns in Israel, and the country's prime minister Ehud Olmert will head to Moscow later this month to discourage the Russians from selling weapons to Syria.

In an interview with the French news agency AFP on September 3, Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor accused Syria of "exacerbating the diplomatic tension between Russia and Europe".

Australia this week delayed the finalisation of an agreement to sell one billion US dollars' worth of uranium to Russia, in part because of concerns that the nuclear material might be sold on to Syria and Iran.

Political analysts in Damascus say that as Moscow's relations with European Union, the United States and NATO sour over Georgia, Syria has thrown its weight behind Russia in the hope that it will rise again as a superpower to counter US influence in the Middle East.

Official and pro-government media newspapers have backed the idea of Russia regaining its role as a world power, and Assad has indicated that Syria would welcome a greater Russian role in Middle East peace negotiations.

Analysts say that realistically, Damascus is not expecting the balance of global power to shift in Russia's favour in the near future, although Russian support could prove useful as Syria tries to defend itself against accusations that backs terrorism and is attempting to build nuclear weapons.

This week, Syria is hosting a four-nation summit involving Qatar, Turkey and France. President Nicolas Sarkozy's visit will be the first paid by a western head of state in five years.

Sarkozy will then visit Russia on September 8, as the European Union considers what measures to take against the country.

Analysts in Syria say that despite Moscow's confrontation with the West and the improvement in Syrian-Russian ties, neither country has an interest in building a bilateral axis at the expense of its ties with the west.

One writer, who did not want to be named, argued that Syria would need the support of both the West and Russia if it was to have a political and economic future. In addition, he noted that Russian support had not saved Damascus from international isolation in the past.

He argued that both Moscow and Damascus were using the current pre-election limbo in the US to manoeuvre for more power.

Al-Odat commented that for its part, "Russia has no illusions about its military and economic capacity, and doesn't want to get involved in hostile policies towards Europe and the US. Nor does Syria want to ruin its newly-revived relations with Europe, and also a potential relationship with the US after the presidential election."

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists.)

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