Syrian-Russian relations have been developing at a steady pace in recent years. Since 2005, President Bashar Assad paid three visits to Moscow; the latest took place last week. It was intended to express Damascus’s firm support to Moscow in its military confrontation with Georgia and to explore means to revive the Cold-War era ties with Russia.
In the opinion of many analysts, the Russian-Georgian conflict provided Syria with a golden opportunity to convince Moscow of the importance of re-establishing their old partnership. The Russians were absolutely pleased by Bashar’s strong statement in support of the Russian position regarding the dispute over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. “We understand the Russian stance and the Russian military response as a result of the provocations which took place,” he told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev during a summit in Sochi, the Russian Black Sea resort. He also rejected “the double-standard criteria and attempts to distort the facts to portray Russia as an aggressor country”.
In fact, 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 warm during most of the Vladimir Putin era. Russian-Israeli relations, by contrast, were very close under both Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Since Bashar’s Moscow visit in January 2005, however, Russian-Syrian relations have improved dramatically. Yet, while increasing cooperation with Syria, Putin sought to maintain close ties with Israel.
The recently disclosed Israeli role in arming and supporting Georgia during the conflict over South Ossetia triggered a shift in Moscow’s policy. Russia seems to have ended its hesitation regarding co-operation with Syria and decided to take it to a new level. It has, reportedly, agreed to sell an advanced air defence missile system to Syria over both American and Israeli objections. Russian-Syrian cooperation is expected to further deepen in the coming months and years as relations between Moscow and the West continues to deteriorate.
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Russian commentators and senior officials have highlighted the merits of reviving the close Soviet-era relationship with Syria. They argue that friendship with Damascus would help Moscow restore Russia’s “superpower status” in international politics. Former defence minister, Sergey Ivanov, stressed that the Middle East is “crucially important” for Russian “geopolitical and economic interests” and cooperation with Syria brings “tangible economic and political dividends”.
Syria’s main objective of seeking close ties with Russia is also 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 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’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.