x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Russia seeks to become regional player in Middle East

Russian president criticises US for not doing enough to foster peace in the Middle East.

DAMASCUS // The Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, yesterday criticised the United States for not doing enough to foster peace in the Middle East, warning that the regional situation was "dangerous" and could slip out of control. After two days of talks in Damascus with the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, Mr Medvedev said Moscow was prepared to step in and take a more prominent role in bringing about a deal between warring factions.

He also met Khaled Meshaal, the exiled leader of the Palestinian Islamic movement Hamas. Russia and Syria maintain close links to the group, which is considered a terrorist organisation by the US, despite winning elections in Gaza in 2006. According to his spokeswoman, Mr Medvedev urged Hamas to free Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured in 2006. "In essence the Middle East peace process has deteriorated," the Russian leader said at a joint news conference with Mr Assad. "The situation is very, very bad. It's time to do something."

In response to a comment by his Syrian counterpart about Washington's failure to take greater positive action, the Russian leader said the US could take a "more active position". "A further heating up of the situation in the Middle East is fraught with explosion and catastrophe," he warned. The peace process has been in limbo for years. Although the administration of president Barack Obama has taken some steps to restart it, the moves have faltered in the face of an Israeli refusal to stop construction of illegal settlements, and Palestinian disunity. Syria and other Arab countries have urged Washington to take a harder line on its ally Israel to break the impasse.

At yesterday's meeting in Damascus, Mr Medvedev said Russia, which together with the US, EU and UN forms the Quartet for Middle East peace, intended to help stimulate a desire for a proper solution. Any final deal, he said, would have to include the liberation of occupied Arab lands and the formation of an independent Palestinian state that would coexist peacefully with its Israeli neighbour. Mr Medvedev, the first Russian leader to visit Syria since the Bolshevik Revolution despite the two countries' close Cold War relationship, also opened the door to Moscow assisting Damascus in a civilian nuclear power programme.

Russia has built a nuclear power plant in Iran, to the chagrin of the United States, which accuses Tehran of trying to manufacture atomic weapons. Syria is under investigation by the United Nation's nuclear watchdog over allegations it had a secret atomic programme at a site bombed by Israel in 2007. The Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, on Tuesday repeated the claims against Syria, accusing it of joining with North Korea in an effort to obtain weapons of mass destruction.

Syria denies such allegations and insists it wants a Middle East free from nuclear arms - Israel is the only country in the region to posses an atomic arsenal. Damascus has, however, expressed interest in nuclear power to help it overcome an electricity shortfall. "Co-operation on atomic energy could get a second wind," Mr Medvedev said after a morning of discussions with Mr Assad. The pair discussed various energy-related issues, including oil and gas projects and the possible construction of "conventional or nuclear-powered electricity stations" according to the Syrian president.

The Russian energy minister, Sergei Shmatko, who accompanied Mr Medvedev to Damascus, together with a large business delegation, also said Moscow wanted to help Tehran expand its civilian nuclear capabilities. "We are in favour of continuing co-operation with Iran in the energy sphere to the full extent, including in building light-water reactors," he told reporters. While supporting Tehran's right to peaceful nuclear technology, Russia has indicated it may back UN sanctions against Iran over its non-compliance with Security Council demands it suspend uranium enrichment.

Both Mr Medvedev and Mr Assad stressed the need to resolve the disagreements over Iran's nuclear ambitions through peaceful negotiations. Israel and the United States have both said "all options", including a possible military strike, remain on the table in order to stop Iran obtaining nuclear weapons. Mr Medvedev's visit comes at a time of heightened regional tensions, with Syria and Israel - technically still at war over Israel's occupation of the Golan territories - exchanging increasingly barbed rhetoric. Israel last month accused Damascus of giving ballistic missiles to Hizbollah, the Lebanese resistance movement that fought Israel's vaunted armed forces to a standstill in 2006, in part through the use of advanced weapons that Israel says were supplied by Syria and Iran.

However, with the Russian leader due in Turkey for talks today en route to Moscow, it appears as if efforts are under way to try to diffuse tensions, if not solve the more intractable underlying reasons for conflict. psands@thenational.ae