Analysis: The Russian card

assad putin 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
assad putin 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Although Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora managed to beat Bashar Assad to the Kremlin by five days, it was the Syrian president who stole the show in Moscow. The meeting between Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin attracted much media attention, unlike the Lebanese leader's hasty visit. Assad's second visit to the Russian capital since becoming president in 2000 took place under very different circumstances than his first. Back in 2004, his objectives were purely economic-strategic: Putin forgave 73 percent of Syria's debt, accumulated during Soviet times, and they signed an important missile deal. This time, according to Assad, "the talks concentrated on stability in the [Middle East] region. The discussion was about which mechanisms we can use to achieve this goal." The Syrians see Russia as an important, and perhaps the only, channel they have left to convince the international community of the sincerity of their diplomatic feelers toward Lebanon and Israel. Whether Russia will be able to reduce the extreme skepticism regarding Assad's recent peace offerings in Washington, London, Paris and Jerusalem is an open question, but it seems that Assad managed to sell his goods to Russian policy makers. A source in the Russian Foreign Ministry told The Jerusalem Post that "Moscow believes Bashar Assad's initiative [to begin negotiations with Israel] to be a genuine proposal and therefore treats it with all possible attention." Russia might want to act as mediator if negotiations take place, the source added. Moscow has also offered to help mediate the standoff in Lebanon. According to Russian press reports, Putin will likely ask Assad to support the latest Russian initiative - an international peace conference in Moscow on the situation in the Palestinian Authority, Lebanon and, perhaps, Iran. The Baker-Hamilton recommendations were received with satisfaction in the Russian capital, and local policy makers feel now is a good time to acquiring much desired diplomatic leverage in the Middle East and to try to create a new political reality in the region. In an interview with the Italian daily La Repubblica, Assad implied he would support the Russian initiative, saying, "The region needs a project that will unite us all." Putin hopes that such an event - which the US and EU oppose - would provide an opportunity to enhance Russia's role in the region and to be seen handling "the tough cases" where the Americans and the Europeans have failed. The Russians do not see any problem with combining the role of middleman with that of arms dealer to Syria and other Middle Eastern states. The usual argument is that the US has been selling weapons to Israel forever and it has never stopped Washington from mediating between Israelis and Palestinians. The only problem with this plan is, how will Moscow convince US President George W. Bush and French President Jacques Chirac, who recently called Syria "the state of murders," to give Damascus another shot at peacemaking. If Assad is really prepared to make several concessions on both the Lebanese and the Israeli tracks, perhaps Russian's star will once again rise in Middle Eastern skies.