CRITICAL HEADS UP - Russia has reached an agreement with Syria to build a port in Syria for the Russian Black Sea fleet!! This item - buried in the Western Press is a hugely important event. Think about it. Both geo-politically (warm waters) and as an additional interest for Russia to "protect" against the West in political conflict/disagreement over Iran and other regional interests of the West.
In early June, the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported Moscow's decision to establish naval bases in the Syrian ports of Tartus and Latakia. The Russian Defense Ministry officially denied the report, even though more than one source confirmed it. As part of the plan, the port of Tartus would be transformed into a naval base for Russia's Black Sea Fleet when it is away from the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol.
The Russian plan involves the installation of an air defense system with S-300PMU-2 Favorit ballistic missiles. The missiles have a range of 200 kilometers (124 miles), allow a larger warhead and are equipped with a better guidance system than the previous version. The air defense system would be operated by Russia for the defense of the Tartus base and would provide potential protection for a large part of Syria.
Through these initiatives, it is clear that Russia wants to strengthen its position in the Middle East. Russia is searching for a new role in the diplomatic balance in the Middle East and a decision to move into Syria is a step on the path toward increasing its influence in the region. Syria seems to be the best target for this approach because of Damascus' heightened weakness as a result of its international isolation that was reinforced after the U.S. intervention in Iraq and Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is searching for allies to move the country out of isolation. This increases its incentive to turn to Moscow, even if this relationship will not be as strong as it was during the Cold War era. For Russia, its increasing ties with Syria provide Moscow with added leverage in the region. [See: "Russia's Future Foreign Policy: Pragmatism in Motion"]
During the first five years of Putin's presidency, Moscow and Damascus did not share close relations; since the beginning of 2005, however, that situation changed. In the last two years, Russia has built a closer relationship with Syria. The country is an important cash-buyer of Russian arms and an interesting partner for Russia's energy industries.
Moreover, Putin is searching for a stronger role in the Israeli-Arab peace process; Russia's February 2006 meeting with Hamas is a clear example of this policy. Through that meeting, Russia tried to seize the initiative from the United States and the European Union, with the latter two's decision-making about the future of the peace process paralyzed by Hamas' election victory. [See: "Intelligence Brief: Recognizing Hamas, Iran Welcomes Shi'a Control in Iraq"]
The increase of Syrian strategic dependence on Russia will strengthen Moscow's political role in the region, even if Russian arms sales to Syria risk damaging the good relations built with Israel in recent years.
Of course, stronger Russian influence in Syria could be used by Putin in a dual way. For example, if Russia needs to improve relations with Israel and the United States, it could possibly compel Syria to take a softer approach toward these countries. On the flip side, if Russia needs to increase pressure on these countries, it can use Syria as its arm for this purpose. When connecting these latest initiatives in Syria to Russia's good ties with Iran, it is clear that Moscow is planning on playing a stronger role in the political and diplomatic dynamics of the Middle East.
Another reason why Moscow wishes to preserve the Bashar government's stability is to guarantee Russian economic contracts in the country.
For example, in December 2005 Russia and Syria signed an important agreement worth US$370 million in the gas sector. This agreement presupposes the construction of a section of pipeline that ends in the Syrian city of Ar Rayyan, and of a gas processing plan next to Palmyra, built by Stroitransgaz -- Russia's most important engineering company in the oil and gas industry.
The gas industry is one of the economic sectors in which the relationship between the two countries is growing. Commercial ties are also increasingly strong in the military and oil sectors.
Moreover, from Russia's point of view, Bashar's good relationship with pro-Russian Chechen groups is an important guarantee for Russian homeland security. A Sunni fundamentalist regime in Damascus is seen as a threat for Moscow because it will probably give financial and logistical support to terrorist groups operating in the Chechen conflict.
The need for a stable, Bashar-led regime is also shared by Israel and the United States because the Syrian regime could be replaced by one that is more radical and more of a threat to U.S. and Israeli interests. Moscow is in search of a new role in the Middle East.
Russia is trying to moderate U.S. dominance of the international system, and the Middle East is a focal point of this strategy.
Putin knows that modern-day Russia does not have the same assets as the former Soviet Union to influence the diplomatic dynamics of the Middle East, but he wishes to use every window of opportunity to increase Russian power.
Decisions such as helping Syria, having a more decisive role in the Israeli-Arab peace process and playing a primary role in the Iranian nuclear affair are steps on the path to strengthen Russia's position in the Middle East and to increase Moscow's power to better serve its national interests.