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Can Syria benefit from US-Russia schism?

In recent months, Damascus and Moscow, each for its own reasons, have been trying to develop their mutual relations to the pre-1990 level.

Image Credit:Illustration by Luis Vazquez/Gulf News
Gulf News

Last Monday several newspapers reported a major arms deal between Russia and Syria that might include the sophisticated SS-26 surface-to-surface missiles, also known as Iskander-E. More important, perhaps, the two countries signed an agreement that allows the Russian Mediterranean fleet to use naval bases on the Syrian coast.

Many have interpreted the bold Russian move as a challenge to US hegemony in the Middle East at a time when relations between the two great powers are experiencing difficult time.

The Syrian-Russian deal has also been seen as a resumption of the Cold War divide between the regional and international powers in the region.

In many ways, the Moscow-Damascus rapprochement is a reaction to the newly announced US military aid to Israel and the moderate Arab states.

Last week, the US State Department announced an increase in its annual military support to Israel by 25 per cent. It has also signed a $20 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, which provides Riyadh, for the first time, with offensive weapons.

In fact, the Syrian-Russian rapprochement should have taken place years ago. Despite their many common interests (including opposition to American hegemony in general and to the US-led invasion of Iraq in particular), Russian-Syrian relations have not been particularly close during most of the Putin era.

Russian-Israeli relations, by contrast, became very close under both Putin and former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. Since Syrian President Bashar Al Assad met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in January 2005, however, Russian-Syrian relations have improved dramatically.

Russia agreed to sell an advanced air defence missile system to Syria over both American and Israeli objections. It has also agreed to write off 73 per cent - $9.8 billion - of Syria's net debts to the former Soviet Union.

Russian-Syrian cooperation deepened since then despite Damascus's increasing isolation over its alleged role in the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

Clearly, Syria and Russia, each for its own reasons, have, in recent months, been trying to develop their mutual relations to the pre-1990 level. Syria's main objective of seeking close ties with Russia is strategic.

Damascus wants Moscow to provide a shield against the US pressure, which has been pilling up over the past few years. Under the bipolar mantle of the Cold War, both the Soviet Union and the US sought regional clients to enhance their position vis-Ã -vis the other in a global struggle for world-wide supremacy.

In such a climate, the fall of a client state was considered as a set-back for the patron. Small powers benefited a lot from this system, wherein most had found a shelter under the wings of one of the superpowers. By leaning eastward, Syria believes that it can replay the alignment game of the Cold War and hence ensure survival.

Russia, on the other hand, is seeking to re-establish its influence in the Middle East, which has completely eroded in the post-Cold War era. It may have also been trying to irritate the Americans who have been ignoring Russian interests worldwide for the past two decades.

Over the past few months, Putin have repeatedly warned the US against ignoring Russian security interests in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East.

Verbal attack

His latest verbal attack against the policies of the Bush administration happened right after his summit with President George W. Bush last June in Washington.

He signalled out that he will take "retaliatory action" if Washington proceeds with plans to build a missile defence system for Europe, including aiming nuclear weapons at targets on the continent.

His minister of foreign affairs went even further when he threatened to eliminate the radar system and interceptor missiles that Washington intends to build in the Czech Republic and in neighbouring Poland. Rapprochement with Damascus can also be seen as part of Russia's reaction to US aggressiveness worldwide.

Russia's rising power is making itself felt on the most of the world's problems today and Syria might well be trying to benefit from the widening schism between Moscow and Washington in order to protect itself - a legitimate move in a turbulent world politics.

Dr Marwan Kabalan is a lecturer in media and international relations, Faculty of Political Science and Media, Damascus University, Syria.