Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Russian Question

A few days ago, Lebanese Prime Minister Seniora returned from Moscow saying "I am deeply convinced of support from Russia." A close Seniora aide told Deutsche Presse-Agentur that "Seniora stressed during his talks with the Russain officials that Lebanon's aim was to have 'good and friendly relations based on mutual balanced respect [with Syria] and that any effort in this direction would be useful.'"

Today, Bashar el Assad is in Moscow.... . In explaining the visit, a Kremlin official told Interfax News Agency that the main item on the agenda is "a just and lasting settlement of the crisis situation in the Middle East." He added, "Particular attention will be given to the situation in the Palestinian territories, around Lebanon and in Iraq ."

Furthermore, Agence France Presse quotes Russian newspaper, Kommersant, saying "Moscow wanted to restore something of its Soviet-era influence in the Middle East" and "Putin would seek [Bashar's] support for a long-standing bid to hold a Middle East conference in Moscow." The conference, writes Kommersant, could bring together "opposing sides - Lebanon, Syria and possibly Iran and the Palestinian authority and Israel." (pretty ambitious, I must say)

The AFP adds, "Kommersant noted that al-Assad's visit comes immediately after a visit to Moscow by Lebanon's pro-Western Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, whose government faces a revolt by a Syrian-backed opposition." Moscow, the newspaper writes, aims to enable "an exchange between Beirut and Damascus" by which "Syria would refrain from trying to bring down the Siniora government and Lebanon would stop accusing Syria of involvement in the murder last year of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri, Kommersant said."

With regards to what the Syrians will give the Russians , AFP writes that "in an interview Monday with the official Rossiiskaya Gazeta newspaper, Syrian Vice President Faruq al-Shara talked of an important role for Russia and hinted that Syria would like to buy more Russian weapons systems." More specifically, "Kommersant said Damascus is considering buying MiG-29SMT fighter jets from Russia as well as possibly Amur-1650 submarines, Yak-130 planes and additional Pantsir-C1 air defence systems."

My Take On This Story is that the Russians are very ambitious all of a sudden. I'm left asking myself: exactly what has boosted their sense of relevance (confidence?) all of a sudden? They're talking of throwing the tribunal into the dust bin of history, hosting a peace conference that would, of all things, bring Iran and Israel to the table, and spewing all sorts of audacious initiatives into the wind. Essentially, they're telling the Americans: leave the Middle East to us, and we'll take care of things!

This tangent is, to say the very least, an interesting one to watch. Let's see where it goes.


Anonymous said...

This is indeed an interesting angle. But it's not really new. Russia has long been trying to play both sides (ever since the demise of the USSR). They claim to be good allies to the US, but they continue working towards expanding (or re-expanding, in this case) their old sphere of influence, by undermining the US wherever they can.
- Iraq (Russia is known to have supplied Saddam with all sorts of goodies in defiance of the old embargo rules).
- Iran (Russia is supplying much of what is turning out to be Iran's nuclear works).
- Syria/Palestinians (Russia's always had Assad's ear, even when he's seemed to be jumping in bed with Tehran).
- North Korea (again, Russia's tried for several years, along with China, to ensure the US did not get its full way with N Korea).

It could very well be that Putin is calling Assad to Moscow to give him instructions for the next phase of this game plan, vis a via Lebanon, Palestine and Iran.

Anonymous said...


I agree with bad vilbel on the russians' intentions. You have to keep in mind that they are trying to carve up a niche for themselves in world politics - claim their soviet inheritence so to speak. To do that they naturally have to try and block the US wherever possible, which leads them to assisting regimes like the ones in Syria, Iran, North Korea...
However, motives aside, we cannot dismiss the russian heightened interest in the middle east off-handedly. I think that their explicit meddling is a very disturbing sign. Previously, the movers and shakers vis-a-vis the Hariri investigation and the situation in Lebanon have tended to be the west on one side and Syria/Iran on the other. The fact that the russians feel the need to interfere personally does not bode well for March 14 in my opinion... At best they are not going to be unequivocal in their support and at worst they will be blatently on the side of the Syrian regime. Not good.

Anonymous said...

Russia is a question mark when it comes to ME peace. On one hand, Russia wants to dominate world energy markets and strategic alliance with Iran for example is a very important part in this. On the other hand, unlike the Iranian-Syrian axis, Russia has nothing to gain from instability in the Middle-East, especially if it wishes to position itself as mediator in the peace process.

Bravo 2-1 said...

This is a fascinating play by Russia, and you've highlighted it well.

debate said...

The russians are interested in protecting someone like Assad because they fear international precedents. They are themselves involved in international political crimes against Ukrain's president and recently against the ex-spy in London. The russians feel that the Syrian intelligence are much like them since they were raised in the same Stalinist school of crime.

Happy Arab said...

If Putin were to have an honest, decent, balanced policy in the Middle East, he would score big time.

He can push the Palestinian cause. He can gain some points with the Sunni Arabs by restraining Iran.

But if he's going to play ugly politics, he's wasting his time. He will burn his fingers like everyone else.

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