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
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
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.