Kremlin sets sights on Middle East
Last week Moscow claimed territorial sovereignty over the Arctic -- now its navy is planning to operate out of Syria
MARK MACKINNON Globe and Mail
August 7, 2007
JERUSALEM -- Days after Russia sent the diplomatic world reeling with its audacious flag-planting beneath the ice of the North Pole, the Kremlin is moving to reassert itself in warmer climes as well, plotting the return of the Russian fleet to a Syrian port on the Mediterranean Sea.
With much of the world still agape, and the Canadian government fuming, over the bold voyage under the Arctic ice by two Mir submarines last week, the head of the Russian navy announced that he wanted next to plant the white-blue-and-red Russian banner in the Middle East. The new Russian strategy envisions returning warships to a Soviet-era naval base at the port of Tartus.
"The Mediterranean Sea is very important strategically for the Black Sea fleet," Admiral Vladimir Masorin said as he toured a Russian base in the Ukrainian port city of Sevastopol. "I propose that, with the involvement of the Northern and Baltic fleets, the Russian navy should restore its permanent presence there."
It would mark the first time Russia has established a military presence outside the borders of the former Soviet Union since the USSR fell apart in 1991.
"It's a symbol, the planting of a flag. Just like the one Russia put under the North Pole," said Alexei Malashenko, an expert on the Muslim world at the Carnegie Moscow Centre. The intent, he said, is to declare that Russia has returned to the Middle East, where Moscow held wide influence during the Cold War, backing the socialist regimes of Syria, Iraq and Egypt against U.S.-supported Israel.
It's a move that many in Israel and the United States will have trouble separating from a broader pattern of renewed Russian support for countries and groups Washington and Tel Aviv see as enemies.
"The Russians are coming" read a front-page headline in yesterday's edition of Israel's mass-circulation Yediot Aharonot newspaper. "A Russian flag on Syrian soil has significant strategic implications. Firstly, it challenges the United States and the dominance of the Sixth Fleet stationed in the Mediterranean. Secondly, with its actual presence in Syria, Russia is announcing that it is actively participating in any process and conflict in the Middle East, that it has a stance of its own and that it must be reckoned with," the article read.
It went on to speculate that a Russian presence in Syria could handcuff the Israeli military in the event of another war over the Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied since 1967.
The planned return to Tartus is just the latest thorn the Kremlin has thrust in the side of the United States and its plans to remake the Middle East. Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush have both gone to great lengths to insist the two countries are not on the verge of another Cold War. But the Kremlin and the White House, already butting heads in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, are increasingly at odds across this volatile region.
Mr. Putin, who has repeatedly lamented U.S. dominance in what he derisively calls a "unipolar world," has allowed Russian technology to be used in Iran's controversial nuclear program despite the overt suggestion by the Bush administration that Tehran's pursuit of nuclear power, which Iran says is for civilian purposes only, could trigger a war.
Russia's relations with Syria have warmed even as Washington has sought to isolate Damascus over its ties with Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as its alleged support for insurgents in Iraq. Two years ago, Moscow wrote off a nearly $10-billion Soviet-era debt owed to it by Syria. Now it's reportedly in the midst of selling medium-range missiles and MiG-31 fighter planes to Damascus over Israel's objections.
The Kremlin has also happily bucked the White House line when it comes to dealing with Hamas, the Islamist movement that recently seized control of the Gaza Strip from the Israeli and U.S.-backed Fatah movement.
While Moscow maintains good relations with Fatah via Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas (who speaks Russian and did his PhD in Moscow), it has been one of the few non-Muslim countries to maintain contacts with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal.
Though Mr. Putin voiced support for Mr. Abbas while he was in Moscow last week, Hamas officials announced the next day that Mr. Meshaal had been invited to Moscow as well. "The level of relations with Russia is excellent," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.
While much of the motivation for backing Syria and Iran can be attributed to crass commercialism - there are few markets these days for Russian military hardware - the underlying policy increasingly appears to be that Russia supports whatever the United States is against, and will throw its lot in with anyone willing to stand up to U.S. hegemony.
But as dramatic as the Russian fleet's return to Syria might be, Mr. Malashenko said his country's navy remains in such a dilapidated state that it's unlikely to affect the balance of power in the region, given the overwhelming presence of the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean.
The Russian fleet's return to Tartus would, for now, be just a statement of future intent, he said