Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Fears of a New Middle East 'Cold War'

Syrian president Bashar al-Asad (left) and Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin.

Fear of New Mid East 'Cold War' as Syria Strengthens
Military Alliance with Russia

By Kevin O'Flynn & James Hider
The Times, London [August 20, 2008]

Syria sought to revive its security alliance with Russia today, when President Bashar al-Assad arrived in Moscow to clinch a series of military agreements, raising fears that the new Cold War that has erupted in the Caucasus will spill over into the Middle East.

“Our position is that we are ready to co-operate with Russia in any project that can strengthen its security,” the Syrian leader told Russian newspapers at the start of his two-day trip. “I think Russia really has to think of the response it will make when it finds itself closed in a circle.”

Mr al-Assad said that he would be discussing the deployment of Russian missiles on Syrian territory, possibly the Iskander system. Syrians is also interested in buying Russian anti-aircraft and tanks missiles.

In return, Moscow is expected to propose a revival of its Cold War era naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus on the Mediterranean. Some Russian reports even suggest that Moscow is deepening the port it to accommodate a fleet of warships. Russia may have similar ambitions for Latakia. Either port would give the Russian Navy its foothold in the Mediterranean for two decades.

“In order to have a base you need a decent navy. Ours is weak,” said Alexei Malashenko, an expert at the Carnegie Centre in Moscow. “A base is expensive to keep. Is it just to have a flag there . . . a show of strength to scare.”

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. Today's rapprochement, in the middle of the crisis in Georgia, raised the possibility that Moscow intends to recreate a global anti-Western alliance with former Soviet bloc allies from Latin America, to Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and the Middle East.

“Georgia began the crisis and the West accuses Russia. Syria suffered the same thing; attempts to destabilise the country, distortion of the facts and double standards,” said Mr al-Assad, only the third world leader to visit Moscow since the crisis began.

Israel, like its main sponsor America, has developed close military ties with Georgia in recent years, with defence contractors supplying training and equipment to the small, US-backed state

As Syria renews its Soviet-era close ties with Moscow, many in Israel fear that the region could once again become a theatre for the two great powers to exert their spheres of influence, militarily and politically.

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 powerful backer to advance its controversial nuclear programme.

Russia has wooed Syria, internationally isolated and weakened after its withdrawal from Lebanon, in recent years as it has tried to increase its influence in the Middle East and increase arms sales.

Syria and Israel recently confirmed that 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 that it has suffered for its strategic alliance with Tehran, and which has wrought serious damage on its economy.

A closer alliance with a resurgent Russia, flush with petro-dollars, could afford Mr al-Assad a way out of any binding commitment. Some Israeli analysts even fear it could encourage Syria to try to take back the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967, by force.

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

“The entire front line of the army’s brass stepped down because of the war. Gal Hirsch, who was defeated in Lebanon, went to Georgia and they too lost because of him,” taunted the Shia leader. “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.”

That Cold War rhetoric was echoed by Mr al-Assad, who also used the Georgian crisis as a stick to beat Israel. “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,” he told the Russian newspaper Kommersant. “And if before in Russia there were people who thought these forces can be friendly then now I think no one thinks that way.”

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