Geopolitical Diary: The Implications of a Russo-Syrian Partnership
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day.
Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider
what might happen tomorrow.
Syrian President Bashar al Assad arrived in Moscow on Wednesday for a two-day visit during which he will meet with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. Al Assad's invitation to Moscow was announced shortly after Russia began its military offensive against Georgia. The timing was no coincidence, and Damascus fully intends to ride Russia's wave of resurgence into regional prominence. Russia and Syria had a close defense relationship during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union maintained a naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea off the Syrian coast and facilities at Syrian ports. In those days, Syria used its relationship with Russia to protect itself from the threat of Israel. But that patronage dried up even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Syrian defense structures — its air defense network, for example — began falling into disrepair. Syria's relationship to Russia under former President Vladimir Putin was not nearly as accommodating as it was during the Cold War, and the Syrians have spent a great deal of energy chasing armament deals with Russia, with no luck. For years — but especially after the September 2007 Israeli air raid that essentially sidestepped the entire Syrian air defense network — Damascus has grown more desperate for a comprehensive upgrade to its air defense network. But talks with Russia have failed to gain traction, and the Syrians have grown weary of being strung along. With Russia's assertion of power in the Caucasus, however, Syria sees a chance to break out of its diplomatic isolation. Given U.S. sensitivity to developments in the Middle East, Syria is well positioned to give Russia ways to meddle in Washington's affairs. The threat of increased Russian weapons sales to Iran and Syria, coupled with Wednesday's hints of a Russian carrier returning to the Mediterranean, are all useful tactics in sending Washington a very clear message: Russia is a great power capable of influencing matters well beyond its own borders. For Damascus, Russia's resurgence is a great opportunity to strengthen its security relationship with Moscow. Primarily, by reviving its ties with Russia, Syria could compel Israel, the United States and Turkey to accelerate efforts to pull Damascus out of the diplomatic cold. This would give Syria the political recognition and influence that it has long craved; more importantly, Syria would gain physical security. Thus far, there have been no concrete reports of any major deals struck during al Assad's trip to Moscow. However, Newsru.com, a subsidiary of Russia's NTV news group, reported that al Assad has said he is ready to host a Russian base off the Syrian coast again. Though the establishment of such a base of operations so far beyond Russia's periphery would certainly be dramatic, there are limits to how far Russia can go in the Middle East. Tactically speaking, a Russian fleet based in the Mediterranean would essentially be surrounded by NATO allies, and hemmed in by Turkish territory. The sheer superiority of U.S., Turkish, NATO and Israeli naval assets in the region puts any small deployment at a severe disadvantage. Furthermore, any extension of Russian influence in the Middle East must balance the needs of several actors — all of whom are in delicate negotiations with one another. For instance, the Russians and the Israelis have their own ongoing negotiations in which Israel has reportedly appealed to Moscow to continue restricting weapons sales to Syria and Iran in exchange for Israel's restraint in providing military assistance to Georgia. This is a significant barrier to a real Damascus-Moscow security deal, as Russia is heavily invested in maintaining control in Georgia. But Syria's hopes for a real alignment with Russia are only part of the cascade of reactions as nations internalize Russia's renewed assertiveness. First and foremost, of course, are the ongoing negotiations between the United States and Iran over the future of Iraq. Iran is currently calculating its options; obviously, it must carefully balance its relations with Russia and its talks with the United States. And Iran would like to expand its arms deals with Russia dramatically, but fears Russia's resurgence in the Caucasus. Turkey is also in play. As a NATO member and neighbor of Georgia, Turkey finds itself right in the middle of the U.S.-Russian rivalry and must seek a balance. More than anything else, Syria's ability to exploit the Russian comeback in the Caucasus will depend on just how drastically Russia plans to upset U.S. foreign policy at this stage in the game. Syria certainly has assets to offer Moscow, but Russia will be considering much more than just Syria as it moves forward from this point.