Thursday, August 21, 2008

Syria's Assad may allow Russian missiles in response to US shield in Europe

As a large Russian naval contingent heads to its new base on the Syrian port of Tartous, Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has touted the possibility of allowing the deployment of Russian missiles on his territory.

Assad is on a visit to Russia at a crucial time considering Moscow's resumed status as an assertive power. It appears Assad may lay the missile proposal on the table to the Kremlin, in light of the US-Poland accord signed yesterday that would see the US install interceptor missiles on Polish territory.

The Russians have long been hostile to US plans for missile bases in former Soviet satellite idle and permit itself to be encircled.

At a time when tensions between Russia and the US are at their highest level since the Cold War, Assad is hoping Moscow will tighten its alliance with Syria by rewarding Damascus with missile bases akin to the US' planned bases in Poland.

Assad's keenness to expand his country's military involvement with Russia highlights the deep insecurity felt in Damascus in the event of a possible war with Israel, or between Israel and Iran.

Syria's military capabilities would be rapidly crushed in a conventional war with Israel. Syria's insecurity mimics Poland's precarious and unfortunate situation as the weak meat in a juggernaut sandwich between Germany and Russia. Indeed, Poland's history gives Warsaw reason to be weary of Russia and distrust Western Europe. It sees its alliance with the US as a life saving anchor. The US sees Poland as another base to encircle Moscow.

That is how Syria wants to translate its relationship with Russia. One of mutual needs and benefits. Syria has waited 18 years for a resurgent Russia, and will propose to be Moscow's premier client in the Middle East.

The following articles discuss the impact Russia's Georgian standoff with the West is having on the Middle East. Russia's resurgence has sparked fear in Israel and joy in Syria, as both see a Cold War-like stage being played out in the Middle East.

Fear of new Mid East 'Cold War' as Syria strengthens military alliance with Russia

Kevin O'Flynn and James Hider, The Times UK

Syria raised the prospect yesterday of having Russian missiles on its soil, sparking fears of a new Cold War in the Middle East. President Assad said as he arrived in Moscow to clinch a series of military agreements: “We are ready to co-operate with Russia in any project that can strengthen its security.”

The Syrian leader told Russian newspapers: “I think Russia really has to think of the response it will make when it finds itself closed in a circle.”

Mr Assad said that he would be discussing the deployment of Russian missiles on his territory. The Syrians are also interested in buying Russian weapons.

In return Moscow is expected to propose a revival of its Cold War era naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus, which would give the Russian Navy its first foothold in the Mediterranean for two decades. Damascus and Moscow were close allies during the Cold War but the Kremlin’s influence in the region waned after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yesterday’s rapprochement raised the possibility that Moscow intends to re-create a global anti-Western alliance with former Soviet bloc allies.

Many in Israel fear that the Middle East could once again become a theatre for the two great powers to exert their spheres of influence, militarily and politically. And with Israel and the US providing military backing to Georgia, Russia appears set to respond in kind by supporting Syria.

Already, Israeli observers worry that the chaos in the Caucasus may disrupt gas supplies to Europe and Turkey from the Caspian Sea region, creating a greater energy reliance on Iran and its vast reserves. The crisis could in turn allow Tehran to exploit splits in the international community and use Russia as a backer to advance its nuclear programme. Russia has wooed Syria in recent years, as it has tried to increase its influence in the Middle East and increase arms sales.

Syria and Israel recently confirmed they had been holding indirect talks to reach a peace deal after decades of hostility. Part of Syria’s motivation was to break the international isolation it has suffered for its strategic alliance with Tehran. A closer alliance with a resurgent Russia could afford Mr Assad a way out of any binding commitment. Some Israeli analysts even fear that it could encourage Syria to try to take back the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967, by force.

The Georgia conflict sparked a mocking speech with Cold War rhetoric by Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, over the performance of Israeli-trained Georgian troops. One of the Israeli military advisers there was reserve Brigadier-General Gal Hirsch, who commanded a division in Israel’s inconclusive war with Hezbollah in 2006, and who resigned his commission afterwards.

“Gal Hirsch, who was defeated in Lebanon, went to Georgia and they too lost because of him,” the Shia leader taunted. “Relying on Israeli experts and weapons, Georgia learnt why the Israeli generals failed.

“What happened in Georgia is a message to all those the Americans are seeking to entangle in dangerous adventures.”

Cold War fears in the Middle East

Aaron Klein, World Net Daily


JERUSALEM – Israeli security officials have confirmed fears in Jerusalem that Russia may spark a Cold War-like military buildup in the Middle East by sending warships and advanced weaponry to foe Syria.

Syrian President Bashar Assad arrived today on a two-day visit to Moscow, where he reportedly will discuss with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ways to expand military ties with Moscow, whose arms sales to Mideast countries, including Syria and Iran, have angered Israel and the United States.

In a widely circulated article, the London Times reported today Russia is expected to propose a revival of its Cold War-era naval bases at the Syrian ports of Tartus and Latakia on the Mediterranean. Moscow maintained bases in Damascus during the Cold War but Russia's influence in the region weakened after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The London Times information is not new, though. Indeed, the deal was already sealed five months ago.

WND reported on March 9 Syria quietly struck a deal with Russia that allows Moscow to station submarines and war boats off Tartus and Latakia. In exchange, Russia is supplying Syria with weaponry at lower costs, with some of the missiles and rockets being financed by Iran.

"Russia's involvement and strategic positioning is almost like a return to its Cold War stance," a Jordanian security official said at the time.

According to informed security sources there are already Russian naval troops and missile crews operating in Syria. The officials told WND that Russia began installing in Syria its S-300 surface-to-air missile defense shield, which is similar to the U.S.-funded, Israeli-engineered Arrow anti-missile system currently deployed in Israel. The S-300 system is being run not by Syria but by Russian naval technicians who work from Syria's ports, security officials said.

Israeli security officials believe Assad's trip to Moscow was not to ink any deals but to make public already existing arrangements for military cooperation between the two countries in an effort by Russia to publicly enhance its militant posture.

Still, the security officials said that in Moscow Assad likely will grant Russia permission to deepen its military buildup on its territory with additional naval fleets and more troops at Russian naval bases already in existence in exchange for the sale to Syria of aircraft, anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. The officials said they did not expect more Russian submarines off the coast of Syria.

Syria is particularly interested in Russia's BUK-M1 surface-to-air medium-range missile system, military aircraft and other advanced weaponry.

Already Russia provided Syria with new ballistic missiles and rockets including Alexander rockets and a massive quantity of various Scud surface-to-surface missiles, including Scud B and Scud D missiles.

Israeli security officials noted Syria test-fired two Scud D surface-to-surface missiles, which have a range of about 250 miles, covering most Israeli territory. The officials said the Syrian missile test was coordinated with Iran and Russia and is believed to have been successful. It is not known what type of warhead the missiles had.

Israeli security officials are concerned that as in the Cold War days, the Middle East could serve as a theater of conflict, or at least military buildup, between Russia and the U.S.

Assad today told Russia's Kommersant newspaper that Russia's conflict with Georgia, in which Moscow says Georgia was trained by Israelis and utilized Israeli weapons and technology, underscored the importance for Russia and Syria to tighten their defense cooperation.

"I think that in Russia and in the world everyone is now aware of Israel’s role and its military consultants in the Georgian crisis. And if before in Russia there were people who thought these forces can be friendly then now I think no one thinks that way,” he said.

"Of course military and technical cooperation is the main issue. Weapons purchases are very important," said Assad. "I think we should speed it up. Moreover, the West and Israel continue to put pressure on Russia."

A spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office said Israel does not supply arms to other countries but that private Israeli firms conduct equipment sales and training with the Israeli Defense Ministry's approval.

Assad went on to compare his isolated country to Russia, stating, "Georgia began the crisis and the West accuses Russia. Syria suffered the same thing; attempts to destabilize the country, distortion of the facts and double standards."

Israel and Syria last May announced they were holding indirect talks aimed in part at an Israeli evacuation of most of the Golan Heights, which looks down on Israeli population centers and was twice used by Damascus to mount ground invasions into the Jewish state. But those talks have been progressing at a very slow pace.

Israel repeatedly has warned Russia against supplying Syria and Iran with military equipment. Israeli officials accuse Damascus of passing on missiles and rockets to the Lebanese Hezbollah terrorist organization.

The seemingly closer ties between Syria and Russia comes as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Polish counterpart today inked a deal to build a U.S. missile defense base in Poland, prompting Russia to warn of a possible attack against the former Soviet ally.

Russia's Foreign Ministry issued a statement on its website that Moscow would react to the U.S.-Polish anti-missile deal "not only through diplomatic protests."

A Russian general even warned in an interview Moscow could target Poland.

Rice said the Russian response to the deal with Poland "borders on the bizarre" but she denied Washington wanted a confrontation with Moscow.

"I hope that there are not people in Russia who are hankering for the days of U.S.-Soviet confrontation because they are over," Rice told journalists in Warsaw.

Still, in an interview with CNN she did issue an unusually harsh warning against Soviet designs for Poland:

"They (Russia) must know that the United States would never permit an attack on the territory of an ally under Article 5. When you threaten Poland, you perhaps forget that it is not 1988. It's 2008 and the United States has a ... firm treaty guarantee to defend Poland's territory as if it was the territory of the United States. So it's probably not wise to throw these threats around."

Assad visit shows Russia resurgent in Middle East

Phil Sands, The National

DAMASCUS // In a visit laden with echoes of the Cold War, Bashar al Assad, the Syrian president, arrived in Russia yesterday for a state visit that offered a further signal of the Kremlin’s efforts to revive its ties in the Middle East and defy the United States.

The talks between Russia and Syria, old Cold War allies, come as Moscow continues to shrug off growing international pressure over the presence of its troops in Georgia. The conflict there has developed into a standoff between the Kremlin and the White House.

Although scheduled before the war in the Caucasus, the two-day visit by Mr Assad to Russia is unlikely to help defuse tensions between Washington and Moscow. Exacerbating the situation is the fact that the United States and Poland signed a deal yesterday on missile defence. News of the impending agreement had prompted ominous Russian warnings that Warsaw was exposing itself to a military strike.

The talks between Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, and Mr Assad in Sochi on the Black Sea coast, are one more sign of deteriorating US-Russian relations.

With the war in Georgia, these geopolitical fault lines have become cemented. The United States backed Georgia, politically and with materiel. Israel is also accused by Russia of arming Georgian troops, which the Jewish state denies. Angry at their interference in what it sees as its own backyard, Russia is using this summit to reaffirm its embrace of Syria, a country that remains officially at war with Israel.

In an interview with the Russian press yesterday, Mr Assad said he “fully supported” Moscow in the Caucasus war. “Georgia started this crisis, but the West is blaming Russia,” he said.

The day before, Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, insisted Russia was “the outlaw in this conflict” after refusing to pull out its troops.

As for Syria, Washington considers it a state sponsor of terrorism. And while the Bush administration has long sought to weaken Damascus, Russia has been doing the opposite, increasing its support.

Mr Assad made it clear that weapons sales would top the agenda when he met his Russian counterpart. “Of course military and technical co-operation is the main issue,” he said. “Weapons purchases are very important. I think we should speed it up. Moreover, the West and Israel continue to put pressure on Russia.”

Syria is dependent on Russia for military equipment, and in recent years transfers of modern weapons to bolster Syria’s ageing hardware have been renewed.

Israel has consistently lobbied the Russians not to sell weapons to Syria.

Claims – always denied by Damascus and never properly sourced – are frequently made by Syria’s enemies that it channels advanced Russian hardware to Iran and Hizbollah, for use in any conflict against the United States or Israel.

Syria remains highly secretive about all matters relating to its military capabilities and national security. What is clear, however, is that billions of dollars in Cold War debts owed by Syria to Russia were cancelled in June, an economic reprieve much needed by cash-strapped Damascus. Pravda, a Russian daily newspaper, reported this month of plans by the Russian navy to upgrade facilities in Tartuz, a Syrian port on the Mediterranean Sea used to support the Russian fleet.

“The Russians are back heavily in the region, and they are looking to Syria because the other Arab states are following the American line,” said Attallah Rumheen, a professor in Damascus University’s media faculty. Like tens of thousands of Syrians, he graduated from a Russian university. Books on Marxism and Leninism, mainly in Russian, line his library wall.

“For the last decade, the Russians were squeezed in the Middle East; they saw their influence falling and being replaced by the Americans. That is now coming to an end.

“The Russians have money, their economy is strong, and they are united domestically. That is the opposite of the situation in the US.”

Mr Rumheen said he expected to see a new Cold War spreading across the Middle East as the two powers vie for supremacy.

“The situation is heading towards a new Cold War, with a new polarisation of areas under Russian and US influence,” he said. “The Americans and the Russians must start talking properly again, otherwise a return to the Cold War is inevitable. I think the Cold War will return. It will be slightly different from before, but the essence will be the same.”

The contrast between US and Russian influence on Syria could not be more stark. While the US Embassy in Damascus is without an ambassador, the Russians have a sprawling, heavily fortified complex. While the United States has unilaterally imposed economic and trade sanctions on Syria in an attempt to undermine the regime, state-owned Russian firms do business, particularly in the energy sector, building new oil refineries and pipelines and updating power stations.

Even during the spring of 2005, when Syria was ostracised over the death of Rafiq Hariri in Beirut and forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, the Russians maintained their close relationship with Damascus and signed a major weapons deal. The next year, with Syria still under intense international pressure over the assassination – in which it insists it played no part – Mr Assad flew to Moscow for a meeting with Vladimir Putin, who was president at the time.

Since then Syria’s international presence has been on the rise, and US attempts to isolate Syria were undermined last month when France invited Mr Assad to Paris for an EU Mediterranean summit. The days of Damascus’s isolation over the Hariri killing appear over.

Syria is adamant it is not just a Russian client state but is involved in a relationship of equality, based on converging mutual interests.

“Like all countries, Syria is trying to advance and develop and for that it needs to be open to the world,” said Umran Zaubie, a political analyst and member of Syria’s ruling Baath Party.

“Syria wants to co-operate with the EU and has good relations with America, but the Americans have had sanctions against Syria and have tried to block our development. The Russians have not. For that reason, it is obvious which direction Syria must look.”

Russian official reveals Israeli military assistance to Georgia

Ynet News, 19/08/08

General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of staff of the Russian Military revealed Tuesday the extent of the military assistance Moscow claimed Jerusalem had given Georgia.

"Israel armed the Georgian army," he told reported at a press conference held in the Russian capital.

According to Nogovitsyn, Israel provided Georgia with "eight types of military vehicles, explosives, landmines and special explosives for the clearing minefields."

Since 2007, he continued, Israeli experts have been training Georgian commando troops; and Israel had planned to supply Georgia with heavy firearms, electronic weapons and tanks, but that plan was eventually scrapped.


Anonymous said...

I think we're going to be entering a period of inter-imperialist rivalry again, but I don't think the Cold War provides the right frame of reference for what's unfolding on the world stage. For one thing, it's a more multi-polar world now; for another, the US is a hegemon in decline. And both Russia and China are now seeking to export capital, which is much more likely to be the real source of global conflict over the coming decades.

Antoun said...

I think your multi-polar assessment is accurate, but it also depends on how the various polars position themselves.

We saw a similar setup pre-World War II where we had the various colonial powers, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and Japan. I contend that the United States wasn't exactly a partner of Britain or France at that stage, but was in fact a separate polar on its own. It could easily have been swayed on either Germany's or the Allies' side.

It was a battle for global supremacy as well as ideologies. These multiple polars ended up re-aligning into three, the Axis, the Allies and the Soviet Union.

At present, I fear that Western policy hasn't caught up to the modern realities. It still treats Russia as the arch enemy, it still patronises the Third World, as well as the future powers of China and India.

The fight for resources is indeed going to be the source of future conflict, but who battles who remains the question. The West currently is forging its battle lines as "us versus the world", which may have catastrophic results for the West.

The war in Georgia must be a wake up call for the West to change course and engage the world on 21st century terms. Georgia was not a result of 19th century Russian imperialism, but post-World War II Western policies.