Written by Zvi Magen
Dmitry Medvedev's visit to Syria on May 10-11 was the first by a Russian president; President Asad has already visited Russia three times (January 2005, December 2006, and August 2008). During the visit, agreements on aviation, scientific and information technology cooperation, tourism, and the environment were signed, as was a memorandum regarding cooperation between the two countries' chambers of commerce.
The leaders discussed infrastructure projects in energy, and Middle East political affairs, such as the peace process, Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran, were also on the agenda. In addition, the parties agreed to establish a committee to promote expanded strategic cooperation. During his visit, Medvedev met with Hamas leader Khaled Mashal (whom he met in Moscow three months earlier) and even raised the issue of releasing Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Syria, which in the 1970s and 1980 was the USSR's main ally in the Middle East, cooled its relations with Russia after the dismantlement of the Soviet Union because of "its betrayal of the Arab cause." Relations were restored a few years later in an effort to form an anti-Western front in the Middle East with Russia's active participation, and subsequently the political, economic, and security ties between the countries have grown closer. Especially in light of its current international isolation and the pressure from various rivals and enemies, Syria sees Russia as an important partner. For its part, Russia has expressed sweeping support of Syria and rejected any criticism regarding its nuclear program, activities in Lebanon, arming of Hizbollah, support for terrorist organizations, including Hamas, and cooperation with Iran.
Regarding security, the two nations began a new era with Asad's first visit to Moscow, when then-President Vladimir Putin canceled 73 percent ($9.8 billion) of Syria's debt to Russia for armaments supplied before the breakup of the USSR, in return for new weapons deals. Russia supplies Syria with Mig-29 fighter planes and aerial defense systems of an older generation. Although understandings regarding the supply of more advanced models, such as the Mig-E-31 jet, the S-300 surface-to-air missile, and the Askandar-2 surface-to-surface missile were reached, these weapons have not been supplied yet because of regional military balance considerations; this Russian policy is not likely to change soon. In addition, the Russian navy uses the Tartous port facilities, and Russia is even financing the port's renovation. On the nuclear question, Medvedev declared his support for a nuclear-free Middle East. Syria, however, has requested a civilian nuclear reactor for itself.
Russia's interest in enhancing cooperation with Syria is a function of its interest to promote its own status on the international arena. Medvedev's visit and Russia's demonstrative support for Syria stem from Russia's drive to become an influential actor such that only Russia would have the power to promote effective moves in the Middle East, as it would be the sole element maintaining a positive dialogue with all sides. Accordingly, Russia views itself as having a more concrete role in Middle Eastern matters than the Quartet's other members, and intends to conduct independent moves. The Syrian track presents a viable opportunity, and President Medvedev stated he intends to press the "reset" button on the peace process. Syria has a similar interest, which prompts it to strengthen Russia's status as an independent operator in the Middle East that in turn will upgrade Syria's own status in the region.
At any rate, this is the Russian motivation to call for a peace conference in Moscow. Russia intends to hold this conference in the near future (on condition the Palestinians reach some sort of internal concord; this was the purpose of the meeting with Mashal) and to seat, together with the Israelis and Palestinians, the Syrians, Lebanese, and possibly even the Iranians. The last meeting of the Quartet in Moscow was preceded by a string of visits by regional heads of state and Palestinian organization leaders (except for Asad himself who was honored by having Medvedev come to him instead). It seems that Syria would react favorably, and Asad has expressed support for a leading Russian role to mediate between Syria on one side and Israel and the United States on the other. Syria is apparently willing to replace Turkey with Russia as managing the Syrian track of the peace process. The Russians, apparently ready to assume a significant position as an independent player on the international arena, seem to be seriously considering accepting this new mediating role.
Syria's potential exit from the "axis of evil" could change the current political balance in the region; hence the pressure from the United States and other channels. From the Russian perspective, this dynamic state makes Syria a key player and helps explain Medvedev's visit to Damascus at this sensitive time. Indeed, the visit was used in part to demonstrate the range of supportive steps taken on behalf of Syria in the face of international pressure. As such, Russia is promoting three goals: demonstrating its own position of influence on the international arena in general and the Middle East in particular, promoting the peace process, which is an interest of its own; and further entrenching its influence over Syria. The Syrians are interested in balancing their international status and demonstrating to the United States their Russian support.
None of this activity has occurred in a vacuum; there is a Russian-American understanding allowing active Russian involvement in the Middle East to promote its goals in return for cooperation with the West on containing the Iranian nuclear program, fighting the war on international terrorism, and promoting the peace process. In this sense, it seems that Russia is promoting a goal similar to the American one. More simply, the Russian-American difference of opinion, if it in fact exists, apparently lies not so much in a difference over the nature of the peace process or the approach towards the axis of evil, rather in the competition between the two powers. This touches on the question of who will succeed in bringing whom to the negotiating table and earn bonus points as the leader of the peace process. Therefore, one may read Medvedev's visit to Damascus as a new stage in Russia's activity designed to upgrade its status in the Middle East in particular and in the international arena in general.
The joint statement issued at the end of the visit, while including criticism of Israeli settlement activity, spoke of the intention to renew the peace process on the basis of the UN resolutions, the Madrid principles, and the Arab initiative. Russia is indeed working hard to promote the process under its leadership (presented as an interim stage of the process) using its relative advantages, among them its status in Syria. This raises the probability of a conference on the Middle East taking place in Moscow, with Russia having a good chance of involving Syria in the process. This game on Russia's part has the potential of upgrading Russia's overall political status in the Middle East and earning it points on the global scale. However, whether the Russian ambition will be fulfilled in practice remains an open question.
The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is an independent academic institute that studies key issues relating to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs. Through its mixture of researchers with backgrounds in academia, the military, government, and public policy, INSS is able to contribute to the public debate and governmental deliberation of leading strategic issues and offer policy analysis and recommendations to decision makers and public leaders, policy analysts, and theoreticians, both in Israel and abroad. As part of its mission, it is committed to encourage new ways of thinking and expand the traditional contours of establishment analysis.