Russia in the Middle East

Medvedev became the first Russian President to visit Syria this week. Is a new storm between Moscow and Washington brewing?

Earlier this week, a confidential Russian governmental document was leaked to the press.  The document was written by Foreign Minister Sergei Levrov to President Dmitry Medvedev and contained a proposal to move politically closer to the west and, in particular, the US.  Good news, it would seem, for the US.  Though the program has yet to be implemented, ties between the US and Russia have improved dramatically: the US and Russia have reached an agreement on dismantling their nuclear arsenals and Russia seems to be more open to the US proposed sanction on Iran – though it does urge further diplomatic efforts.  Despite the efforts to improve ties to the west, Russia seems to be following a Middle Eastern policy that directly challenges Washington.

Although Russia might sign off on sanction on Iran, the country has been very active in the Middle East, creating strong economic and diplomatic ties with numerous countries.  Not long after the US renewed sanctions on Syria, Russia agreed to sell the Syrians war planes and air defense systems as well as anti-tank defense weapons – an important action considering the US sanctions as well as the recent war of words between Damascus and Tel Aviv.  The military agreement came during the first visit by the head of the Kremlin to Damascus since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.  Russia may also assist Syria in building a nuclear power plant (remember that US sanctions are partially in response to the alleged Syrian nuclear program that was destroyed by Israel in 2007) and initiate further cooperation in oil and gas.  More importantly, Russia may also be planning to build more nuclear power plants in Iran – in addition to the one it plans to start this year.

Additionally, Turkey and Russia have agreed on oil and gas pipelines to bring Russian energy to Europe.  The two countries have also agreed to triple the current trade levels within the next 5 years, lift visa restrictions and, you guessed it, to build a nuclear power plant.

[tweetmeme] As if the Russian economic wooing of the Middle East weren’t enough, Russia President Medvedev met with exiled Hamas leader Khalid Meshaal during his trip to Damascus.  During the meeting, the President urged Hamas to release captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, to reconcile with Fatah and to re-engage in the peace process.  Predictably, Israel was furious that its ally met with the group that Israel, the EU and the US all consider to be a terrorist organization.  Russia defended the meeting by noting that all members of the international Quartet have some type of relations with Hamas and that the group is integral to a lasting peace agreement.

With most of Russia’s Middle Eastern activity opposing US policy, one must wonder where and how Russia is trying to improve its ties with the west.  Predictably, the mixed Russian signals have not gone undetected.  The improved ties between Russia and Syria make sense for both partners – though in comes in during a time of decreased relations between Syria and the US.  After the US Congress failed to confirm the Obama nominee for ambassador to Syria – Robert Ford – a Syrian Russian alliance gives Syria an important ally on the UN Security Council while helping Russia insert itself back into the Middle East:

Both countries have much to gain from improved ties. Syria could strengthen its hand by drawing closer to its one-time ally, whose veto on the UN Security Council could prove key in any conflict with Israel. Russia, for its part, wants to bolster its presence in the Middle East, and could also further cool Syria’s recent but waning interest in restoring diplomatic relations with the United States.

Indeed, Russia’s plans to return to prominence in the Middle East involves becoming more active in the Israeli-Arab peace process.  During his trip to Syria, Medvedev stressed that the current proximity talks, while productive, were not enough and that the world needed to do more to create peace.  Importantly, Moscow seems to be taking a harder approach to Israel than the US:

At yesterday’s meeting in Damascus, Mr Medvedev said Russia, which together with the US, EU and UN forms the Quartet for Middle East peace, intended to help stimulate a desire for a proper solution. Any final deal, he said, would have to include the liberation of occupied Arab lands and the formation of an independent Palestinian state that would coexist peacefully with its Israeli neighbour.

Presumably, the ‘occupied Arab land’ to which Medvedev refers includes the Golan Heights – an area that both Israel and Syria claim as their own.

With greatly different opinions on how to deal with Syria, Hamas, Iran and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Russia and the United States are at two very different philosophical places with regards to the Middle East.  Meanwhile, as the US continues to spurn Syria and Iran as regional powers, Russia will continue to have an important role to fill in the region.  Thus, despite the reported Russian program to improve ties with the US, a new ‘Cold War’ could be brewing in the Middle East:

So long as the Arab-Israeli conflict remains unresolved, however, that role will exist. Iran and Syria are trying to fill it today. They claim to defend Arab and Muslim rights in the face of Israeli expansion and U.S. imperialism. If they are to have any success, they will need a larger power to champion their efforts. And Russia is the obvious candidate — that is, until China is prepared to throw its weight behind Middle East peacemaking.

So the obvious question for Russia is whether it supports the US efforts or not.  Continued Russian engagement with Iran and Syria could easily undermine the US-Russian relationship while perhaps giving more power to the Arab cause.

Photo from The Telegraph

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