Syria’s Assad Pays a Call to the Kremlin

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The New York Sun

UNITED NATIONS — With Russia issuing new threats against America over its planned missile shield, one of the Bush administration’s least favorite Middle Eastern leaders, President al-Assad of Syria, is on a two-day visit to the Russian resort city of Sochi, where he is expressing support for the Kremlin’s war on Georgia and making deals to buy fighter jets.

Russia’s confrontation with the West is escalating, with Moscow vowing to respond — and not only through diplomacy — to America’s agreement yesterday to deploy 10 interceptor missiles in Poland. Russia also is countering Western calls for Georgia’s territorial integrity to be recognized with a bill in the Russian parliament that would officially recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two separatist regions of Georgia at the center of the Russia-Georgia conflict.

“The war, which was triggered in Georgia, is the culmination of attempts to encircle and isolate Russia,” Mr. Assad told the Russian daily Kommersant on the eve of a two-day visit to Sochi at President Medvedev’s invitation. “Georgia started this crisis, but the West is blaming Russia.”

Asked about the purpose of his visit, Mr. Assad said, “Of course military and technical cooperation is the main issue. Weapons purchases are very important.”

Syria reportedly is seeking to buy Russian MiG-31 fighter jets, as well as help in revamping its air defense systems. Moscow has been rebuilding the Syrian port of Tartus, which served as Russia’s main Middle Eastern naval base during the Cold War. On his arrival in Sochi yesterday, Mr. Assad agreed to let Russia reopen its base in Tartus; with the pact signed, a fleet led by Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, a missile cruiser, the Moskva, and several submarines is headed to the Mediterranean Sea from bases in the northern Russian port city of Murmansk, the Russian Web site newsru.com reported.

Mr. Assad’s visit is part of “our ongoing efforts to help put back on track the settlement in the Middle East,” the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, told The New York Sun, rejecting any linkage between Mr. Medvedev’s invitation and Russia’s confrontation with the West over Georgia. The trip is “the usual bilateral thing,” Syria’s U.N. ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, added.

But the hastily arranged visit raised some eyebrows in Israel. “It is very important for Russia to gain a military foothold in the Mediterranean,” the Israeli author Gideon Remez, whose recent book, “Foxbats Over Dimona,” focuses on the Soviet military intervention in the Middle East in the 1960s, said. “Syria is part of what Moscow considers the ‘near abroad.’ So if you ask me whether this is part of renewed alliances along Cold War lines, the answer is yes, and for Israel this is a very dangerous game.”

The Kremlin has put increasing pressure on Israeli officials in recent months, arguing that if Israel wants Russia not to arm its enemies Iran and Syria, it should end its military support for Russia’s foes — and specifically for Georgia, where Israeli arms dealers and military trainers have been active since President Saakashvili gained power in early 2004. Yielding to Russian pressure, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni reportedly leaned successfully on the defense contractors, who then largely ended Israel’s military activities in Georgia.

“Whether it’s the right thing to do or not, we shouldn’t end our support for Georgia just because the Russians don’t like it, because I simply don’t believe their promises,” Mr. Remez said.

Hezbollah and Hamas routinely used Russian-made Katyusha and Grad missiles against Israel after Russia sells them to Syria and Iran, he added, noting that Iranian and Russian interests are now converging. In the dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, he said, Iran supports Russia’s ally Armenia, which has a largely Christian population, against mostly Shiite Azerbaijan.

Secretary of State Rice was in Warsaw yesterday, where she officially signed the deal to deploy part of America’s missile shield on Polish land. “Missile defense, of course, is aimed at no one,” she said. But Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that if the system is deployed, the Kremlin “will be forced to react, and not only through diplomatic demarches.”

Russia’s response “bordered on the bizarre,” Ms. Rice said.

In Moscow, the Duma was called for an emergency session, scheduled for Monday, to consider new legislation that would officially recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the Daily Telegraph reported. A French proposal for a U.N. Security Council resolution that called on Russia to withdraw its troops from Georgia immediately and recognize its “independence and territorial integrity” was rejected by Moscow on Tuesday. Instead, Mr. Churkin yesterday proposed a counter-resolution that omits any mention of Georgia’s territorial integrity.


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