(By a leading political analyst.) The visit of President Bashar al-Assad to Moscow is a startling consequence of the Russian military victory in Georgia. He stated on his arrival: ‘We are ready to co-operate with Russia in any project that can strengthen its security’. He added that Russia needs to think of a response to the fact that it is being encircled by hostile nations. He made clear that he would be discussing the stationing of Russian missiles on his territory. The Syrians are also shopping for weapons.
Syria is also expected to welcome back the Russian navy to Tartus, a base Russia lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. We are back again to the times when Syria was very close politically and militarily to Moscow.
Syria is at present negotiating with Lebanon to exchange ambassadors and gradually to reduce the tension between the two states which has been at fever pitch since the assassination of the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. Then there are discussions with Israel about a normalisation of relations, brokered by Turkey. But everything has been turned on its head by the sudden rapprochement between Russia and Syria. We are looking now at the prospect of Russia fashioning a new anti-American alliance of former client states.
Moscow obviously senses that Washington has never been weaker in the Middle East (at least sine 1956) and that the window of opportunity is opening for bold new initiatives. The impunity with which Russia has exercised its power in Georgia and the pusillanimous response of the United States, NATO and the European Union, may have convinced Damascus that the balance of power in the Middle East is changing. Russia is back as an important player after an absence of 20 years.
President Bashar al-Assad heads a military dictatorship which nominally relies on the Baath Party. He is a member of the Islamic Alawite minority. He succeeded his father Hafez al-Assad who died in June 2000. His father was a military graduate and received training as a pilot in the Soviet Union. When the United Arab Republic (Egypt and Syria) dissolved in chaos a group of left wing officers seized power. Al-Assad became head of the Air Force in 1964. He launched the Baathist Corrective Revolution in 1970 and assumed the presidency. He was never as dictatorial as Saddam Hussein in Iraq. His son, Bashar, an ophthalmologist, was thrust into politics in 2000 after the death of his father.
Syria was forced to withdraw its military from Lebanon under US pressure in April 2005. Since then it has been a major player in domestic Lebanese politics and has a support base within the country. If a Russo-Syrian military alliance emerges how will this change the geopolitics of the Middle East?
It will obviously have an immediate impact on Lebanon. It may also affect the evolution of Iraq as Russia would side with anti-American groups there. It is even possible to conceive of Iranian-Russian co-operation to push the United States out of the region. Israel has good relations with Russia and Moscow would have to balance these with improving its relations with Israel’s enemies. That would not be an easy task to perform.
If one follows the old adage that the enemy of one’s enemy is one’s friend, Moscow has many opportunities to make life difficult for the United States in the region. It has contact with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Hezbollah exults at Russian military success in Georgia seeing it as proof that one of Israel’s surrogates has been defeated. Will this embolden Hezbollah to renew hostilities with Israel?
Russia has declared that it is ending co-operation with NATO. It now feels stronger that at any time since 1991. A military alliance with Syria provides it with a golden opportunity to become a major player in the Middle East. Where next will Moscow seek to establish its presence?