Syria, Iran warm to Russia as US tensions grow

Syria’s President Bashar Assad has publicly stepped up his outreach to old ally Russia in recent days, seeking aid to build up Syrian military forces and offering Moscow help in return — in an apparent effort to exploit a new Russian-American rift.

U.S. officials have noticed: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned Mideast leaders this week that they should worry about Syria’s efforts to gain more sophisticated weapons.

Syria’s long-term aim, however, remains unclear, in part because Assad also continues to pursue peace efforts with Israel — a key U.S. and European goal — even as he makes overtures to Russia that are sure to antagonize the West. Syria has a long history of apparently contradictory diplomatic moves as it maneuvers to find options and balance its interests.

Yet the latest Syrian moves feed directly into larger Western fears that the Russian-American standoff — prompted by Russia’s invasion of Georgia — could lead Russia to provide more military and diplomatic aid to a host of countries and militant groups the United States sees as troublesome.

“The Russian move into Georgia has begun a tectonic shift in the (Mideast) region,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert in the United States. “It has emboldened Syria, Hezbollah and Iran to push harder against Israel and the U.S.”

Some military officials in Iran have, like the Syrians, openly supported Russian actions in Georgia, although Iran’s Foreign Ministry called the clashes merely a result of miscalculations by “powers” and called for dialogue.

Some Iranian media have gone further, asserting Russia is now less likely to back U.S.-led efforts to pressure Iran to curb its nuclear program.

The Russian ambassador to Iran, Alexander Sadovnikov, told the official IRNA news agency this weekend that Moscow won’t support a new round of U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran. But that position did not appear to be a direct result of the new Russia-U.S. tensions, because Russia often calls publicly for dialogue.

“Russia is never after a new (sanctions) resolution. We hope constant contacts between Iran and the IAEA (the U.N. nuclear agency) will lead to a realistic solution, guaranteeing that Iran is not after nuclear weapons technology,” IRNA quoted the ambassador as saying.

Lebanon’s Hezbollah is another worry for the West and for Israel.

The Iranian- and Syrian-backed militants have long hoped for weapons systems and greater diplomatic backing from Russia, Landis said, although there is no evidence Russia has shown more warmth toward Hezbollah lately.

Hezbollah does not disclose its weapons sources, except to say they are bought on the international market. But it receives money and much hardware from Iran through Syria. Israel complained to Russia that Hezbollah used Russian anti-tank missiles in its war with Israel in 2006. Russia says its sales comply with international rules.

For now, Syria is the most public example of Mideast fallout from the Georgian fight.

“Syria’s bad negotiating position (with Israel) is leading it to look for more weapons and to try to grow more teeth before returning to the table with Israel,” Landis said.

Both Iran and Syria have long-standing ties with Russia, leading some to play down the recent moves as having little significance. Russia has sold Syria weapons systems in the past, including the advanced surface-to-air Strelets system, and its warships already had been calling on Syria’s northern port of Tartous. Many of Iran’s weapons systems also have long come from Russian suppliers.

Yet Assad clearly aimed for deeper ties during last week’s Moscow visit.

He asked Russia for weapons, and Moscow’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said his government was prepared to sell Syria arms with “defensive character” that would not upset the Mideast’s strategic balance — a reference to Israel, which holds military superiority over its Arab neighbors.

Syria reportedly is interested in air defense missile systems and aircraft. Notably, Assad also told the Russian business daily Kommersant that Syria was “ready to cooperate with Russia in any way that can strengthen its security,” including discussing deploying Iskander missile defense systems on Syrian territory to strengthen Russia’s security.

Assad also said Syria was ready “in principle” to help Moscow respond to the planned U.S. missile defense shield in Europe, although the Russians have not asked for such help, the newspaper said.

As that news grabbed headlines in the Mideast, Syria’s government swiftly denied that Assad had made such an offer to host Russian missiles on Syrian land, or even discussed it with Russia.

The swift denial apparently came because Syria does not want to overly antagonize the United States. Assad has long wanted to regain the strategic Golan Heights from Israel, and his only chance of that is through a peace deal with Israel. He has long sought more robust U.S. involvement in the negotiations with Israel, maintaining progress is unlikely without it.

Syria is holding indirect low-level peace negotiations with Israel through Turkey, a U.S. ally.
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