From Russia with love

Published on Al-Ahram weekly online, by Ahmed Eleiba, 22 – 28 March 2012.

From cooperation to strategic alliance, Russian-Syrian relations have progressed in a straight line since 1946, when the Soviet veto acknowledged the independence of Damascus against British-French claims. Russian support for Syria in the Israeli conflict later proved unproductive, however. It bore fruit only in the last few months when the veto was used against Western and Arab attempts to end the crisis in October and again in January.  

Military cooperation has been even more significant, however: in 1963 Tartus became a Soviet naval base; Russian arms were sold to Syria in large amounts (with the Syrian debt to Russia reaching $13 billion in 1992); through an agreement undertaken between 2005 and 2008, 73 per cent of the value of that debt was dropped, with the remainder dedicated to Russian investments … //

… Yet international observers have confirmed that there really are military manoeuvres along the Syrian coast distinct from the usual movement in the vicinity of the Tartus base. According to Al-Homsi it was the Russian officers themselves who leaked this information to the Free Syrian Army; likewise the Russian news agency Interfax reported that the tanker Iman had already docked in Tartus, having sailed from Sevastopol 10 days ago; Russian defence officials dismissed the news, indicating that the tanker was a civilian vessel with provisions to Tartus. Yet further leaks suggest that this is not true, especially after the appearance in the Mediterranean of the reconnaissance ship Akvator. Still, many observers and analysts agree that Russia is securing the Tartus base against possible attack by the Free Army. The implication for Safwat El-Zayyat, a military expert speaking to the Weekly is that, while Russia has no intention of engaging in combat, it does plan on establishing its presence as a negotiation party with particular influence deriving from the fact that it has deployments on the ground.

The head of the Egyptian intelligence Murad Muwafi’s visit to Russia has been described as successful but very little information about it is forthcoming. That Muwafi moved straight onto Saudi Arabia suggests that Cairo is now playing a role in mediating between the Gulf and Russia; just what that role might be is as yet unclear, however. According to El-Zayyat, it is Turkey that will play the major role in supporting the Free Army — with the result that Aleppo and Idlib will be liberated first — while Russia plays a role in securing the coast to block provisions to the Free Army and impose an air embargo on it. For this reason and because of the time factor, Al-Homsi is not as optimistic as he might be. Turkey is currently anticipating the second conference of the Friends of Syria, after the first was held in Tunisia, leaving the Gulf states unconvinced of a diplomatic solution to the crisis. After that second meeting, many feel, the trajectory will be much clearer … see pp. 8-9. (full text).


Making sense of Egypt, on openDemocracy, by Ahmed Badawi, March 22, 2012:

China’s Real Choices for Growth, on naked capitalism, by , MARCH 24, 2012.

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