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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

BBC Exposes Purpose of Neo-Soviet Involvement in the Middle East

Writing in the Lebanon Daily Star Konstantin Eggert, Moscow bureau editor for the BBC Russian Service (this commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter) provides readers with vital insights into the Neo-Soviet ambitions of Russia in the Middle East:

The year 2006 has become "the" year of the Middle East for the Russian leadership. First was the controversial visit by a Hamas delegation to Moscow, then President Vladimir Putin's trip to Algeria. In the early summer, reports surfaced that Russia was engaged in modernizing facilities in the Syrian ports of Tartus and Latakia (followed by a lukewarm denial by the Russian defense minister). Then came the crisis in Lebanon.

Over the last few weeks, Moscow has taken a very assertive position in the United Nations Security Council. Together with China (yet more vigorously), it opposed the initial joint US-French draft resolution that suited Israel. The Russians have taken it upon themselves to be the international advocates for the Lebanese and Syrian governments. In the first days of the crisis, while hosting the G8 summit in Saint Petersburg, Putin freely admitted that he successfully lobbied his Western partners to exclude any mention of Syria from the G8 statement on the Middle East situation. In his words, "the guilt" of Damascus "is not proven."

Official ties between Moscow and Damascus are increasing rapidly.

It all started with a January 2005 visit to Moscow by Syrian President Bashar Assad. The Russians announced that they were writing off nearly three-quarters of Syria's $12-13 billion debt. It was then that Russia confirmed its willingness to continue supplying Syria with SA-18 light air-defense rockets and allegedly suggested selling much more sophisticated "Iskander" missiles. After vigorous pressure from the United States and Israel, Putin had to personally cancel the deal.

However, since then high-level contacts between the Russian and Syrian militaries have increased. In September last year, the chief of the Syrian General Staff, General Ali Habib, visited Russia. His Russian counterpart, General Yuri Baluyevsky, reciprocated and was given a grand tour of Syrian military facilities this year. And although officially all talk is of small arms and ammunition shipments, exchanges between military academies and the like, there is a feeling that something bigger is afoot.

It is now beyond reasonable doubt that the Kremlin has decided to take Syria under its wing and use it to stage a "comeback" to Middle East politics. The Syrian-Iranian-Hizbullah connection does not bother the Kremlin. Russia's Federal Security Service refused to put Hizbullah on the list of terrorist organizations because it "does not operate on Russian soil." According to rumors circulating in Moscow, the Russian military mission in Syria might be aware that the Syrians have supplied Russian-made rockets to Hizbullah.

The rationale for Russia's new course in the Middle East lies in the same motivation that drives Moscow's foreign policy as a whole: primarily, deep dislike of the United States combined with a desire to at least partly avenge Russia's defeat in the Cold War. Moreover, the Russian political class sees the American policy of promoting democracy as a direct threat to its own interests in the former Soviet Union and even in Russia proper. The idea that US influence has to be curbed as much as possible and wherever possible is very popular among influential people in Putin's administration. And in this game every ally counts. To quote Dmitry Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center, "Russia is busy constructing an international universe of its own."

Giant oil revenues make the Kremlin feel more confident domestically and provide for much more assertive behavior abroad. The West, particularly the US and Britain, is increasingly seen as an enemy rather than a partner.

In these circumstances, Syria becomes Russia's natural ally in the Arab Middle East. Syria is the only Arab country that is genuinely isolated by and from the West. It has regional ambitions but few resources to back them up. Its young president, although increasingly skilled in politics, does not feel strong enough and looks for backers on the outside that are not international pariahs like Iran. Russia fits this bill well.

However, the future of this relationship is unclear at best. The Russians like to tickle the Americans by standing up to them in the Security Council and making mischief. American problems in the region, stemming from the invasion of Iraq and Washington's support for Israel, make Moscow's task of wooing the Arabs easier. But Moscow lacks the military muscle it had in the Soviet days. It will not be able to project military power the way the Americans can. Putin even excluded sending peacekeepers to Lebanon - in full knowledge that they would be completely insignificant.

It is difficult to imagine Putin or his successor deciding on full-scale support for Damascus if the latter finds itself on a collision course with the US or Israel. In the end, the Russian political class has no stomach for a full-blown standoff. Those in the Middle East who count on Moscow should study the lives of Russia's former friends, Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic.

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