Seeking to expand its Middle East role, Moscow views Damascus - with its ties to Iran, Hizbollah and Palestinian militants - as central to that aim.
Russia's Medvedev in Syria to revive old partnership
DAMASCUS // Russia's president, Dmitry Medvedev, arrived in Damascus yesterday, accompanied by military officials, weapons manufacturers and businessmen, in the first ever trip to Syria by a Russian head of state.
The two-day visit comes at a time of heightened Middle East tensions, with Syria under pressure from the US and Israel over alleged missile transfers to the Lebanese militant group Hizbollah. The Israeli president, Shimon Peres, has asked the Russian leader to convey a message to Bashar Assad, his Syrian counterpart, according to a statement released by Mr Peres's office, although no further details were given.
Syria and Israel remain in a state of war over the occupied Golan Heights, illegally annexed by Israel in the 1980s, and do not maintain direct contacts, relying instead on intermediaries. Both sides have been increasingly bellicose in their rhetoric of late, adding to fears the region may be heading towards yet another summer of conflict. With the groundbreaking visit, Moscow and Damascus, old Cold War allies, are looking to reinforce ties that frayed following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russia is also seeking to expand its Middle East role and views Syria, with its close ties to Iran, Hizbollah and militant Palestinian factions, as central to that aim.
Speaking before his arrival, Mr Medvedev said he hoped to "speed up multidimensional political dialogue" with Syria. That dialogue will include possible military co-operation and weapons sales, Kremlin officials said. Mr Medvedev was accompanied by Oleg Demchenko, the president of Irkut, the warplane maker; Anatoly Isaikin, the head of the Russian arms exporter Rosoboronexport; and Mikhail Dmitriyev, the head of the Federal Agency for Military Co- operation.
Syria relies heavily on Russia for advanced weapons technology, including anti-aircraft, anti-ship and anti-tank defences. Damascus is thought to possess cutting-edge Russian missiles capable of shooting down Israel's US-supplied fighter aircraft, and is keen to further boost its air-defence capabilities. In addition to potentially lucrative weapons sales, Russia is looking to expand an old naval supply base in Tartus, on Syria's Mediterranean coast, an idea Damascus is keen to promote, as it would bring Syria under Moscow's military umbrella.
The contrast between improved-yet-faltering relations between Syria and the United States and Russia's approach could scarcely be starker. While Washington recently extended economic sanctions against Damascus over support for what it calls terrorist groups - including Hamas - Moscow wants to widen economic channels and may sign a formal economic agreement today. Mr Medvedev travelled with a large business delegation, among them representatives from the pipeline builder Stroytransgaz. Major Russian firms, including the energy giant Gazprom, already operate in Syria and are considering extending their presence.
Unlike the US, the Kremlin also keeps close links with Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic movement that won elections in Gaza in 2006. Mr Assad's talks with Russia come a day after he attended a summit in Turkey. Mr Medvedev is due in Ankara later today. Syrian analysts said Damascus was sending a message of strength through this flurry of high-profile diplomacy. "Syria does not want war, and that was the message Assad conveyed to the Turkish, that we are ready for peace," said one analyst on condition of anonymity. "But in meeting the Russians, Syria is saying, 'we have strong allies, do not think we cannot defend ourselves.'"
Taha Abdul Wahed, a Syrian expert in Russian affairs, said he believed Mr Medvedev's visit would help defuse a tense regional situation. "This will certainly ease the pressure on Syria and a return of Russia will be good for the Middle East, it will restore some sense of a balance of power," he said. Mr Wahed warned against exaggerating the effects of Syrian-Russian military co-operation, saying Moscow was primarily interested in business and regional stability, not promoting an arms race or a new war. Israel has repeatedly lobbied Russia not to supply Syria with modern weaponry.
"It will not be seen as aggressive against Israel - Russia has good ties with the Israelis. If anything Moscow is in a much better position to be an impartial mediator between Israel and the Arab countries than America is," he said. Mr Medvedev and Mr Assad first met in August 2008 in the Russian president's Black Sea summer residence in Sochi shortly after Russia's war with Georgia. Syria was one of the few countries to support Moscow in the conflict.