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    Middle East
     May 14, 2010
Syria asks Russia to lean on Israel
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has been in the headlines, first for describing his predecessor Joseph Stalin as a "totalitarian dictator" and then for making the first state visit to Syria by a Kremlin chief since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

Medvedev met with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal during his Syria visit and in an unprecedented move wrote a front-page editorial for Syria's daily al-Watan on how important bilateral relations are between Damascus and Moscow.

During the two-day visit, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian counterpart agreed a 14-point declaration which included periodic presidential visits as well as cooperation on

 

tourism, education, military affairs, investment and trade and prevention of the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

A strongly worded statement was also issued calling for peace in the Middle East based on United Nations resolutions and the restoration of the June 4, 1967 borders of Israel, which would return all occupied land to the Arabs. It also called for a solution to the Palestinian refugee question and the creation of a viable Palestinian state.

At the summit there were calls for Russia to use its influence to convince the Israelis - who the Syrians insist are not interested in peace - back to the negotiating table. This has long been an objective of the Kremlin.

Damascus also called on Medvedev to get the US, "which is not doing enough", to jump-start serious peace talks on restoring the Golan Heights to Syria. Assad called on Medvedev to use Russia's influence - given that it was one of the co-chairs of the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991 - to "convince Israel of the necessity of peace".

For his part, although promising to do his best, Medvedev did not sound optimistic that any breakthroughs were on the horizon. He mention an "increase in tension" that might, he prophesized, "lead to a catastrophe". If that happens, he said, "Moscow will not stand with arms folded".

Russian pressure on Israel - depending on who one talks to in the Middle East - might or might not lead to any breakthrough. The Israelis have never trusted the Russians - not during the Cold War nor since - claiming the Russians always take the side of the Palestinians in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Since his landmark visit to Paris in the summer of 2008 the Syrian president has been urging world capitals to play a serious role in bolstering regional peace talks. The US administration of George W Bush was not interested and today the Barack Obama administration is seemingly unable to apply any real pressure on the Israelis, thanks to a troublesome congress at home and a hardline government in Israel.

The Israelis apparently never forgave Obama for his speech in Cairo in June 2009, in which he promised to bring the Palestinians justice and end Israeli settlements in their lands. Earlier this year, they threw dust in the eyes of Vice President Joseph Biden by announcing that they were about to construct 1,600 new settlements in Jerusalem during his high-profile visit to Israel to begin "proximity talks".

United States Middle East envoy George Mitchell has met with both nation's leaders in an attempt to rekindle peace talks but few are optimistic they will lead anywhere. Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas at best only represents 50% of the Palestinian street in the West Bank as the other half, controlled by Hamas in Gaza, is categorically opposed to any talks as long as the Israeli siege of the strip continues.

The fact that Abbas cannot abandon certain rights related to Jerusalem and refugees - and the likelihood of new war erupting between Israel and Hezbollah this summer - makes it highly doubtful that any breakthrough can be made in the Middle East, no matter how hard the Russians try.

Real progress, however, can be made in economic matters between Syria and Russia. The Syrians are focused on becoming a regional hub in terms of gas, oil and transportation, building on their excellent relations with countries like Russia and Turkey.

When addressing one of the numerous Syrian-Turkish business forums, Assad once spoke of an "economic space" that "one day will be complete, [where] we will then be linking the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea and the Arab Gulf". He added, "When we link these four seas, we will become the obligatory connector for this entire world, in terms of investment and transport."

Syria could serve as a hub for joint investments in energy, industry, agriculture, telecommunications, banking and technology as well as a route for Arab and Asian oil and gas to European markets via the Mediterranean. Turkey could then become a connecting point for electricity networks between Europe and the Arab and Asian regions.

Transportation of goods by rail is already underway from the Iraqi port city of Um Qasr in the Arabian Gulf to the Syrian port city of Latakia, which lies on the Mediterranean. There is also a project to bring the Kirkuk-Banias pipeline into operation with a capacity of 200,000 barrels per day (bpd). Another pipeline is in the works, with a capacity of 1.4 million bpd that will link the Iraqi gas plant in Akkas to a Syrian plant linked to the Jordanian and Egyptian plants which would branching out to Lebanon and Europe.

During a 2009 visit by Greek President Karolos Papoulias to Damascus, he raised the same topic with Syrian officials. His country, he said, could serve as a connecting point between the Black Sea, the Adriatic Ocean and the Balkan Peninsula, where 4,000 Greek and Russian companies are already in operation. A Russian company is currently working on two gas factories in the Syrian midland, with a production capacity of 10 billion cubic meters of gas per day, while a Russian oil company is undergoing excavation works in the Abu Kamal region, near the Syrian border with Iraq.

The Syrians believe they are capable of becoming the arrival and distribution point for goods coming from the Mediterranean, the Gulf and neighboring countries, something raised before the Turks at a summit in Istanbul on May 8, and with Medvedev during his recent visit to Damascus on May 11. To do that, the Syrians need peace in the Middle East, something that is becoming increasingly far-fetched given the inability of the Obama administration to apply any pressure on Israel. This is where Russian diplomacy can come into play.

The two sides have a long history of sound relations dating to the 1940s. Veteran Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov famously visited Damascus in the summer of 1944, refusing to recognize the French Mandate over Syria or meet any French official during his stay, insisting that his only interlocutors were elected Syrian officials.

Two years later, the Soviets used their veto power at the UN Security Council to drown a European initiative to extend the French Mandate over Syria and in 1956, during the height of the Suez Crisis, then-Syrian president Shukri al-Quwatli landed in Moscow to start a formal relationship that has been uninterrupted for the past 54 years, followed by his defense minister Khaled al-Azm in the summer of 1957, where he signed economic and military treaties with the Soviets.

Back then, Quwatli pleaded for support of the "great Russian army that defeated Hitler" in saving Egypt from a British-French-Israeli war over the Suez Canal. The relationship was further cemented with strong Russian backing for Syria during the war of 1967, taking a new turn when president Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1970.

Although Assad refused to sign a friendship agreement with the Soviet Union throughout the first 10 years of his presidency, he nevertheless relied on Soviet experts to train and arm the Syrian army, build roads, bridges and the famous Euphrates Dam. Since he came to power in 2000, Bashar al-Assad visited Russia in 2005, 2006 and in 2008, less than two weeks after the US-backed Georgian army rumbled into South Ossetia, which infuriated the Kremlin.

Sending a strong message to the Russians ahead of his 2008 trip, Assad spoke to the Russian Kommerstant newspaper: "The Caucasus and Europe are impossible without Russia ... I think that after the crisis with Georgia, Russia has become only stronger ... It is important that Russia takes the position of a superpower, and then all the attempts to isolate it will fail."

His words were music to the ears of officials at the Kremlin, who saw a good ally in Assad, a man who realizes that the Russians are back and intends on using this strong reality to advance his own country's interests, vis-a-vis stability of the Middle East and restoration of the occupied Golan Heights to its rightful owners.

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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