THE RUSSO-GEORGIAN WAR: THE NEAR EASTERN ANGLE
"The Russian move into Georgia has begun a tectonic shift in the region. It has emboldened Syria, Hizbullah and Iran to push harder against Israel and the US in an attempt to capitalize on recent set backs in the Balkans, Lebanon, and Afghanistan.
Hizbullah's and the Lebanese opposition's success in rolling back the influence of the March 14 coalition in Lebanon has emboldened Syria to push its advantage.
The peace talks with Israel, which Syria is counting on, have stalled due to US opposition and Israel's conviction that Syria is asking too high a price for the Golan. The notion that Syria is weak and unable to deliver a shift in the regional security balance has led to its isolation over the last 6 years and to the failure of peace talks under president Clinton. An Obama advisor, Daniel Kurtzer, has recently asked Syria to make deeper concessions to Israel in order to move the talks to another level. The implicit threat in such advice is that the Obama team of policy makers will follow the Bush administration in shunning the Syria-Israel negotiation track, unless Syria is forthcoming. In short, the democrats agree with Israel that Syria is too weak and demanding too high a price from Israel. Israel recently acquired new promises from Washington for technology transfers and missile improvements that improve Israel's defense posture. This has emboldened it to demand deep Syrian concessions in the peace negotiations. (see Ahram article below)
Syria's bad negotiating position is leading it to look for more weapons and to try to grow more teeth before returning to the table with Israel. Both Assad and Hizbullah are hoping to get new weapons systems from Russia and greater diplomatic backing. Israel cannot afford to sit idly by as Syria and Hizbullah flex their muscles. They are raising the military bar themselves, suggesting that they are not frightened to use force and next time they strike, it will be much more devastating and effective than it was in 2006. If Syria can up the ante, so can Israel. Yesterday, Israel threatened that if it bombs again, Lebanon will be smashed in its entirety - the North and Beirut will not be spared. It is in this context that Hizbullah threatens today that "Israel will no longer exist on the map," when it strikes back.
This is a new war of words. For the time being the diplomatic jockeying is tactical and not a game changer. All eyes remain on the peace process. Nevertheless, the increasingly bellicose rhetoric is not propicious for peace. We will have to see if all sides can climb down from their new and hardened stands to make compromises that will lead to a peace deal. There is little chance of the peace process advancing during the next year of elections and reorganization in the US. In the mean time, both Israel and Syria will be elbowing each other".
Joshua Landis, "New Cold War or Merely Jocking For Position? What Does Syria Want?", 22 August 2008, in http://www.syriacomment.com
As readers of this journal know quite well, I have always been appreciative of the insights offered by the ever-knowledgeable Professor Joshua Landis. One of the USA's leading scholars on contemporary Syria. In a nutshell how true does Professor Landis' analysis seem? In some ways it rings quite true, and, in other ways less so. It is quite clear for example that the regime in Damasus would love to be able to go back to the close relationship that it had with Moskva, say circa 1985 or so. Where for reasons more relating to ideology, than to realpolitik, Rossya would fund Syria's purchases of weapon systems and suchlike in a futile pursuit of military equality with Tel Aviv. Of course the reason why no such alliance will be resurrected is the simple fact that there is no 'pay-off', for Moskva is such an arrangement. Syria and its allies in the Levant (Persia will be dealt with further on): Hezbollah, and Hamas, are (in no particular order), poor, or at the very least not wealthy, have nothing to offer Moskva (no oil or gas resources or markets) either to buy or to sell. One presumes that if Moskva were to fund Syrian hunger for military equipment, that Damascus would want to purchase the same using loans which Moskva would have to give Syria to jump-start the transaction in the first place. The Kremlin of Putin, Medvedev and Lavrov, unlike say the Kremlin of Brezhnev, Ustinov and Gromyko, is not interested in any arrangements which do not 'pay' immediately in hard currency, aka Dollars, Euros, Swiss francs, et cetera. It is not for nothing that the current regime in Russia is labeled by some of its critics as "Russia, Inc". And, while there are no doubt some in Moskva who would like to see Russia resume a strong and independent role in the Near East (such as the out of power, Yevgenii Primakov for example), it is doubtful that such individuals hold much sway in Moskva at the moment. Indeed, even Primakov, in a recent trip to the region, failed to bring up the idea that Russia wanted to get back into the arms trade with its former partners in Damascus (see: "Former Prime Minister heads to Syria and Iran and says Russia has a lot to offer the Arab (sic!) world", 2 May 2008, in http://www.en.rian.ru). This unwillingness on the part of Moskva to re-enter its former role in the region, was readily signaled to the outside world by no less than Lavrov in Moskva last week in conjunction with the visit to Russia by Syria's Assad. In response to reports that Syria was asking Russia for advanced anti-missile systems, for use against Israel, Lavrov told reporters for the Russian news agency Novosti that:
"We will supply Syria primarily with weapons of a defensive nature that will not disturb the strategic balance in the region".
See: "Russia says ready to supply Syria with defensive weapons," 21 August 2008, in http://www.hri.org.
Of course when Lavrov refers (archly no doubt) to weapons which "will not disturb the strategic balance in the region," he means that Syria (much less it allies) will not get any weapons, to upset current Israeli military superiority. Pur et simple (for a similar reading of Lavrov's comments see the article in the Financial Times covering Assad's trip to Moskva: "Kremlin Baulks at Missiles For Syria", http://www.ft.com).
The only possible exception to the status quo ante bellum aspect to Russia's Near Eastern diplomacy is its relations with Persia. If and only if, Washington were to be unrealistic enough to retaliate via a series of tit for tat, sanctions and suchlike, against Moskva, it is quite conceivable that Putin and Lavrov will call a complete halt to any further co-operation with its fellow members of the Contact Group of countries who are attempting to halt Persia's nuclear ambitions. As the Russian Ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, stated last week:
"Russia may deny its help to the United States in resolving some major problems, for instance, the one with Iran [Persia]."
No doubt that particular path is not one that Moskva wants necessarily to take. For the most part, the Kremlin has a justified skepticism of the regime of Mullahs, and, that skepticism is returned by the Persians. Indeed, it would appear that the Persians are more than willing to try to play off, the tensions between the USA and Russia to its own advantages, than necessarily attempt to make-up to Moskva `a la Assad Fils, did last week. The regime in Teheran no doubt remembering that in point of fact, that there is little love lost between itself and Moskva and that beyond a (current) shared dislike of the Bush Regime and its policies, not much that ties them together(see on this the intelligent article by Kamal Nazer Yasin, "US-Russian Tensions Creates Diplomatic Options for Teheran", in http://www.eurasianet.org) . Does one have to add, that it would be the very mid-summer of madness for the USA, to actually play into the hands of the Mullahs of Teheran and unnecessarily alienate Moskva? And, for what? For crazy Saakashvili, who still thinks that he can regain South Ossetia and Abkhazia? Militarily no less (see interviews with the Georgian leader in both today's Financial Times and the New York Times). It is time to stop this nonsense before it is too late. Much too much depends upon sanity returning American, nay indeed Western foreign policy. To paraphrase the great Lord Salisbury over one hundred years ago, we cannot talk to Putin, et. al., as is we "have a half a million men at our backs," when diplomatically speaking we do not. And, Moskva knows this quite well indeed. Perhaps it is time that we acted accordingly.