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     Jan 28, 2005
Russian bear makes Israel jittery
By K Gajendra Singh

While Syrian President Bashar Assad denied that he was in Moscow to shop for weapons, he defended his country's right to acquire surface-to-air missiles from Russia. He said during his four-day visit that was due to end on Thursday that "these are weapons for air defense, meant to prevent aircraft from intruding in our airspace".

"If Israel objects to our acquisition of these defensive weapons, it is as if it is saying, 'We want to attack Syria but we do not want them to defend themselves.' That's not logical," concluded Assad while addressing the State Institute for Foreign Relations. But Assad reiterated an earlier denial of a deal for SA-18 missiles and long-range Iskandar-E missiles that could reach targets all over Israel.

Ever since the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, Syria has been threatened both by Israel and the US. Assad was furious when Israeli jets recently buzzed him in his palace.

To mark the historic Syrian visit, Russia announced that it would write off 73% of US$13.4 billion in debt owed by Syria from the days of the USSR. Russian President Vladimir Putin said this created "opportunities for long-term cooperation".

A joint statement issued on Wednesday included a conciliatory message to the US that both countries "vehemently condemn terror in all its forms and expressions, and affirm the strong need of the international community to channel its effort to fight effectively this dangerous challenge to the human race".

But Assad invited Russia to the region because "Russia has an enormous role, and has a lot of respect from Third World countries ... which really hope that Russia will try to revive the positions it used to hold". He added that US foreign policy on Iraq was "disastrous".

Russia seems to be returning to the Middle East. At the time of the first Gulf crisis and war in 1990-91, when then Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev made moves for a peaceful settlement, he was brushed aside by US president George H W Bush.

The other main points of the statement are as follows. 

On Iraq, the two sides, while stressing commitment to Iraq's territorial integrity, sovereignty and security, asserted support to the political process under way in Iraq to achieve reconciliation and secure the rights of all Iraqis regardless of their religious or ethnic belonging in line with United Nations Resolution No 1546, whose implementation creates the proper conditions for foreign troops to pull out from the country.

Regarding the United States' unilateralism, they expressed confidence that the 21st-century world system should be built on international law, taking into consideration the interests of all countries and mechanisms of formulating unanimous stances to solve international issues through the pivotal role the UN assumes.

On Israel's reported nuclear stockpile and Western countries' emphasis against weapons of mass destruction (WMD), Syria and Russia agreed to cooperate in the field of boosting international stability and preventing the proliferation of WMD, pointing to the importance of commitment to UN Security Council Resolution No 1540 and freeing the Middle East from all kinds of WMD.

The joint statement criticized US President George W Bush's daily lectures on spreading liberty, elections and democracy. "Democracy and reforms in the Middle East should be in line with the historical, spiritual and civilizational features of states and are strongly linked to the achievement of a just and comprehensive peace in the region," the statement said. Defense cooperation was muted in the phrase "it underlined that the two sides would develop traditional cooperation in the military technical field in a way that meets the mutual concerns of both countries and their international commitments".

Shivers down the Israeli spine
Commenting on the visit, a jittery Jerusalem Post, while describing the Russian role in the region, wrote, "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.

"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."

But then where would Israel be without massive annual US aid? Would not Israel be a basket case too? Or for that matter take the massive US aid given to Pakistan in return for its support in the "war on terror", despite Pakistan allowing its territory to be used for training and recruitment of jihadis to attack Indian territory, among other places.

Syrian strategic analyst Gamal Barout said recently, "Back in 2001, the Russian side showed a desire for a strategic alliance with Damascus, but traditional government wrangling poured cold water on the bid. Now, Syria needs Moscow to stave off European-American pressures." Last September, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution put forward by the US and France that demanded the withdrawal of foreign forces (Syrian) from Lebanon and non-interference in the Lebanese presidential elections. Russia, which has the power of the veto, abstained in that vote.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (shortly before her confirmation to that position) warned that Damascus faced new sanctions because of "its suspected interference in Iraq and ties to terrorism". As a riposte, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko described Syria as one of its "most important partners" in the Middle East. He added, "It's well known that slapping labels on countries and unilaterally describing certain states as part of the 'axis of evil' has not improved anyone's security."

While an impoverished Syria needs to maintain and modernize its army, Russia also needs a foothold in the Middle East in view of the security and strategic significance of the region and Euro-American competition. The revival of the old strategic alliance of the Cold War is mutually beneficial. Another expert said, "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.

Syrian journalist Hayan Niouf said that Syria could also play a positive role in pushing for Moscow's active role, if not membership, in the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), in exchange for Russian political support in the UN and the Security Council. Russia, with a population of tens of millions of Muslims, was invited as a guest at the most recent OIC summit in Malaysia last year. With many Muslim nations distrusting the US government and its policies, and hatred against the US in much of the Muslim ummah (community), the OIC would be happy to grant a bigger role to Russia.

Assad's visit to China
Assad has been trying hard to escape the suffocating straitjacket that Israeli and US policies have tied him in. US sanctions, signed into law at the end of 2003, include a near-blanket ban on US exports to Syria and the power to freeze Syrian assets in the US. Except for food and medicines and items intended for certain exempt entities, such as the US Embassy, foreign diplomatic missions and UN agencies in Damascus, all US exports to Syria, estimated at some $100 million a year, were banned under the sanctions. The US resolution also banned the exportation of "dual use" technology and restricted over-flight rights for Syrian aircraft inside US airspace.

Last June, Assad visited China, the first ever visit by a Syrian head of state. A more liberal politician in the economic field than his late father, Hafez Assad, the visit was made with the aim of learning from China's economic boom. The editor-in-chief of Syria's state-run al-Thawra newspaper remarked that the landmark visit demonstrated Damascus's keenness on following in the footsteps of Beijing's open-door economic policy, growth rates and political reforms. Syria was also interested in acquiring technology from China.

Chinese Foreign Minister Zhaoxing Li, while welcoming the visit, endorsed Syria's right to the occupied Golan Heights, and described the US sanctions on Syria a "double-standards policy". A Chinese diplomat in Damascus also highlighted the military cooperation between both countries, pointing to the mutual visits of military delegations. Syria of course has energy resources, and many European and even Asian oil giants have shown great interest in bidding for oil and gas contracts after the withdrawal of US oil companies.

Missile talk
Two weeks ago, when the media reported a possible missile deal between Russia and Syria, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, then on a visit to Washington, denied it, but Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom was the first official to admit that Israel did ask Russia to halt the deal. "We turned to the Russians and asked that they not complete this deal," said Shalom. "Syria is a country that supports terror and is supplying Hezbollah with weapons non-stop." He added that the sale "will disrupt regional stability and won't improve the chances for peace".

Israeli analyst Gerald Steinberg said the reported sales came as a surprise because the Syrians did not have money to buy Russian weapons. "If this report is true, it is very problematic and will pose a challenge to Israeli military planners," said Steinberg. The Jerusalem Post cited top Israeli diplomatic officials as saying that Israel asked the US to pressure Russia to scrap the deal, claiming that the missiles could be smuggled into Iraq and endanger the US forces there.

For Israel and the US it would be an adverse development in the wake of the deteriorating situation around Iraq, but Moscow has made its point and more. Russia does not like being pushed around by US-led Western efforts, as it was in Ukraine and Georgia, or being lectured on the sale of Russian oil giant Yukos, and it resents support for the insurgency in Chechnya.

Syria has Soviet-era Scud ground-to-ground missiles, but media reports suggest that Moscow is ready to sell a vastly updated version of the Scud, the Iskandar, or even SS-26 missiles. These are capable of pinpoint strikes against targets within a 300-kilometer range, which could reach most Israeli targets, including its atomic reactor at Dimona.

US North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayib Erdogan recently completed a visit to Moscow, soon after Putin's postponed visit to Ankara last month. While relations between Turkey and the US have cooled down, primarily because of differences over the US-led invasion of Iraq, Turkey is coming closer to its historical enemy, Russia.

In 1999, Turkey threatened to invade Syria if it did not expel Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan (which it did, and he was captured and imprisoned in Turkey), but since then relations have warmed up, with the exchange of visits by Assad and Erdogan. And after a visit by Iranian President Mohammed Khatami to Ankara, relations with Tehran, historically soured by the Shi'ite-Sunni rivalry, are also improving.

At the same time, relations between Turkey and Israel, which were quite close during the Cold War and almost hot after the fall of the Berlin Wall, have deteriorated recently, with Erdogan accusing Israel of state terrorism in the occupied territories. Turkey also asked Israel to leave Kurdish north Iraq alone, following reports that Mossad had been training Kurdish peshmergas (paramilitaries) to operate in the neighborhood, especially in Iran and Syria. Turmoil in northern Iraq has always adversely affected Turkey's own Kurdish southeast.

Why Putin is angry
Speaking to the media in Moscow last month, Putin expressed his anger at the West, whether it was about the latter's encouragement to the insurgency in Chechnya or a string of US-led Western "franchised" successes in getting anti-Russian leaders elected in its strategic neighborhood, that is, the "Rose Revolution" in Georgia in November 2003 and the "Orange Revolution" in the even more vitally important Ukraine, in which finally anti-Russian Victor Yushchenko won. His utterances and the appointment of anti-Russian Yulia Tymoshenko as prime minister are provocative.

Putin said last month, "Every country has the right to choose the development path it considers best, including in organizing its political system." Referring to US criticism of the November 21 elections in Ukraine (then US secretary of state Colin Powell said Washington would not accept them), Putin retorted that he was not ecstatic about what happened in the US. "Do you think that the electoral system in the United States is entirely flawless? Do I have to recall the last elections in the United States or the one before?" he added. He pointed out that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had criticized the US for barring observers from some polling stations in last month's Ukrainian elections. "There was even intimidation of voters."

He also ridiculed a Texas judge's ruling on the sale of Russian oil giant Yukos. "I am not sure whether they know where Russia is. The level of professional training [of the judge] perplexes me," he said. He also lambasted the scheduled January 30 election in Iraq, saying that "it could not be fair while the country remained occupied by US-led forces".

Russia, despite US pressure, is going ahead with cooperation in setting up nuclear power stations in Iran. China recently signed a major long-term agreement with Iran for energy purchases and development of the Iranian oil and gas sector. Energy-hungry China and India are aggressively bidding for investment and development of Yukos energy assets.

The US reaction
Before the Russian denial, while describing Russian arms sales to Syria as speculative, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher made it clear that the US was opposed in principle to all arms sales to Syria. He said, "We have seen reports of the sale. The US policy on this is very clear. We're against the sale of weaponry to Syria, the sale of lethal military equipment to Syria, which is a state sponsor of terrorism. We think those kinds of sales are not appropriate. The Russians know about this policy. They know about our views." He added that the Russian entities involved in such a sale would be subject to US sanctions under a law aimed at curbing the flow of arms to countries on US terrorism lists. Russian Defense Minister Ivanov was in Washington for high-level talks, including with Powell.

The proposed sale has injected tension not only into Russian-Israel relations, but with the US as well. Israel said that the missiles might end up in the hands of Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas and would be aimed at Israeli targets. Hezbollah, which is close to Syria, fought an 18-year guerrilla war against Israeli forces in south Lebanon, firing rockets at northern Israel until 2000, and threatens to do so again, say the Israelis.

This development might bring some restraint over the policies pursued by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The missiles deal would beef up Syria's air defenses and discourage Israel from making regular threats to Syria. The Moscow Daily Kommersant said that Damascus had asked for 18 Iskandar missiles in August, but was told they had not been fully tested. The Syrians have now been told that the missiles are ready.

Paul Beaver, a London-based defense analyst, commented that while Russia has upgraded Syrian military equipment, it has not sold it new arms since 1990. Beaver added that the SA-18 evolved from the Russian shoulder-held SAM-7, which was widely used during the Vietnam War. The SA-18 is much more flexible and can even target the non-heat-emitting section of an aircraft. It can also overcome many Western defensive maneuvers, such as flares, used to deflect anti-aircraft missiles. It weighs just over 10 kilograms, has a maximum range of six kilometers and can be used to shoot down planes and helicopters. The sophisticated missiles cost about US$250,000 each. Analysts said the US might be concerned that Iraqi insurgents would get their hands on these, threatening US warplanes in Iraq. This palpably is an Israeli line.

Israel asked for US intervention in stalling the missile deal. David Siegel, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, said, "The reports in this regard are very disturbing and, as in other cases with strategic implications, we conduct an ongoing dialogue with the administration."

"We have enough problems on the ground with Syria and we don't need more problems from the sky," Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres said. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said, "We have close contacts with the Russians. We had consultations over the past few days, and we hope to reach the necessary agreement." Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Saltanov is in the region to discuss the missile issue.

Israelis are keen not to jeopardize improving relations with Russia, in place since the unraveling of the USSR. Israeli Foreign Ministry official Gideon Meir denied a Russian media report that Israel had recalled its ambassador. The ambassador was in Israel, but would return to Moscow soon, added Meir. Many millions of Russian Jews have immigrated to Israel, changing the demographic makeup of Israel and making its policies more right-wing and aggressive. Sharon, who is of Russian descent, has visited Moscow three times since becoming prime minister in 2001. He asked Putin to stop Iran in its covert nuclear-arms program and to restrain Syria, along with its Lebanese and Palestinian proxies: a case of the wolf blaming the lamb.

Assad's visit to Russia marks the first stirrings of the Russian bear, which was sent into hibernation after the USSR's power was partly dismantled by Mikhail Gorbachev, without leveraging anything in return. A drunk or drugged Boris Yeltsin then set Russia on the road to economic ruin, robbing it of public property, which saw the emergence of a handful of dollar multibillionaires.

Putin, a karate expert, has come of age. He no longer appears to trust Bush. Russia is still a world nuclear power and can defend itself and its interests. A majority of nations, almost all of the Muslim countries, oppose the United States' unilateralist policies and targeting of Muslims. Russia has accumulated more than 500 billion rubles ($16.7 billion) in its energy-stabilization fund because of unprecedented high global oil prices: its economic situation is getting better. Putin will follow his own path.

K Gajendra Singh served as Indian ambassador to Turkey and Azerbaijan from 1992-96. Prior to that, he served as ambassador to Jordan (during the 1990-91 Gulf War), Romania and Senegal. He is currently chairman of the Foundation for Indo-Turkic Studies and editorial adviser with global geopolitics website Eurasia Research Center, USA. E-mail Gajendrak@hotmail.com.

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