Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Russian bear missiling its way?

February 2 2005
Russian bear on a comeback trail

RUSSIA is staging a political and military comeback to the Middle East. President Vladimir Putin is keen on it and so are several Arab players, including the Syrians and Palestinians, as well as Iran, which would like to use Moscow as an ally in its running feud with the US.

Predictably, Israel is worried and the US has mounted a campaign to ensure that Russia does not pose a direct or indirect threat to the combined American-Israeli interests to contain any regional challenge to the Jewish state's military supremacy and quest for regional domination.

Putin does not have to work too hard to regain the foothold that the former Soviet Union had in the Middle East. The channels and tracks are there for him to return. Moscow has always championed the Palestinian cause, maintained a strong and steady relationship with Syria and refused to back down from its nuclear deals with Iran despite intense American pressure.

However, it kept a low profile in the region's political affairs in the last decade, and now, it seems, Putin has realised the time is opportune to strengthen the profile. No doubt, he is aware that American-Arab relations are under a strain following the Sept.11, 2001 attacks in the US, the American invasion and occupation of Iraq and Washington's firming up of its alliance with Israel; and hence a Russian alignment with the Arab position would be welcomed with enthusiasm.

He is also aware that the US involvement in Iraq has turned problematic for Washington and things could turn worse for the Bush administration there. The Russian president would like his country to be on the spot to take advantage of the situation. It suits him well to use the Syrian, Palestinian and Iranian cards to stake a fresh claim for a prominent Russian role in the Middle East. And that is what he is trying to accomplish.

At the same time, it is subject to debate how influential a political role Putin could play in the Middle East amid the US efforts to reshape the region to suit American-Israeli interests, starting with Iraq and continuing with Syria, Iran, Lebanon and other countries.

That Russia is returning to the scene was made clear with the visit to Moscow last month of two key Mideastern players -- the Syrian and Palestinian presidents.

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad's visit resulted in Putin deciding to write off nearly $10 billion of Syria's military debts and advancing a deal under which Russia will supply anti-aircraft missiles to Syria.

Israel's worry

Israel has been pressuring Russia against the missile deal and Putin was reported to have assured Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that the sale was not imminent, but that does not seem to have soothed Israeli fears.

Reports in the Israeli press indicate that Syria and Russia are close to finalising the $70 million deal for the sale of 20 SA-18 Igla-S batteries mounted on armoured personnel carriers.

The SA-18 Igla-S is one of the most effective missiles against low-flying aircraft on the market. The Syrians were supposed to have received the shoulder-held version of the missiles, but American pressure forced Russia to amend the deal. Now they would be mounted on APCs and Russia says they would not be operative if detached from the APC moorings.

Syria has also acquired Kornet AT-14 anti-tank missiles from Eastern Europe.

Washington's warning

In both cases, Washington has warned that if those weapons turn up in Iraq or Lebanon, America will be free to take military action against Syria.

Assad has defended his country's right to acquire surface-to-air missiles from Russia saying "these are weapons for air defence, meant to prevent aircraft from intruding in our airspace."

Israeli analyst Gerald Steinberg has said that Syrian possession of the Russian missiles "is very problematic and will pose a challenge to Israeli military planners."

In talks with Putin, Bashar gave an explicit invitation to Russia to come back to the political scene in the Middle East by reviving its Soviet-era influence in the region.

"Russia has an enormous role, and has a lot of respect from Third World countries ... which really hope that Russia will try to revive the positions it used to hold," Assad said in Moscow. He also used the opportunity to slam American policy, saying the US approach to Iraq was "disastrous."

Moscow has several times condemned the American threat to Syria of sanctions if Damascus did not withdraw its alleged support for guerrillas fighting the US-led coalition forces in Iraq and "terrorists" -- meaning Palestinian groups based in Syrian territory.

Russia abstained on a vote in the UN Security Council in September on a joint US-French resolution demanding the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon and non-interference in the Lebanese presidential elections.

Russia has described Syria as one of its "most important partners" in the Middle East.

During Assad's visit, Russia and Syria signed a number of oil, gas and transport-related deals aimed at reviving business ties.

Putin and Assad also used the visit to declare that Russia and Syria were fully supportive of efforts by the new Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, to resume peace talks with Israel.

Abbas himself was in Moscow late last month. At the end of the visit, he and Putin signed a joint statement pledging commitment to the Quartet-backed road map plan and calling for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as a step towards peace.

It was Abbas's first official visit abroad after being elected successor to Yasser Arafat and he described it as a show of "the respect the Palestinian people feel towards the Russian people and it shows the important role that Russia plays on the world arena, above all in the Middle East, namely in the Quartet, in which Russia is a most notable representative."

The joint statement said that within the framework of the road-map plan, Russia and Palestine believe Israel must withdraw troops from Gaza and the West Bank, a move that would serve as the "first step in ending the Israeli occupation of Palestine."

"There is no doubt Russia's presence on our side, our co-operation on a bilateral basis, its role in the mediating Quartet will be decisive in establishing peace in the Middle East," said Abbas.

Role in Iran

On the Iranian front, the Russians are said to be building a strong air defence system around Iran's key nuclear installations to ward off possible American or Israeli attacks against them after Moscow undertook to secure Iran's nuclear industry. A secret Moscow-Tehran agreement includes the supply and installation of sophisticated air defence equipment to military planning and operational co-operation, according to reports.

The first phase of the work was over in mid-January when Russian experts from the Raduga OKB engineering group in Dubna near Moscow completed the installation of two advanced radar systems around the Bushehr nuclear reactor on the Gulf. Work is under way on the second phase, with the Russians installing the same system at Iran's uranium enrichment plants -- which the US says could be used for military purposes -- in Isfahan in central Iran.

These improved mobile 36D6 systems, code named Tin Shield, upgraded the air defence radar protecting Iran's key nuclear facilities from missile attack, according to military experts and intelligence reports.

The Tin Shield 36D6 is a mobile radar system designed to detect air targets and perform friend-or-foe identification. It is highly effective in detecting low, medium and high altitude targets moving at almost any speed, including winged missiles and American or Israeli cruise missiles. It is capable of providing the target and bearing of active jamming, as well as integrated computer-aided systems of control and guidance of anti-aircraft missile complexes.

Tin Shield can operate independently as an observation and air detection post, as part of computer-aided control systems or as an element in an anti-air guided missile complex, where it carries out reconnaissance and targeting.

By providing the system to the Iranians, Moscow has placed a serious hurdle in the way of any American and Israel military action to curb Iran's nuclear armament.

Couple that with the missile deal with Syria, and no wonder Israel and the US are upset.

However, it remains to be seen how Putin opts to play his cards.

American-Russian relations, with Putin at the helm in Moscow, have at best been ambiguous. While Putin needs American-supported Western assistance, he has often rebelled against Washington on issues that are of deep concern to Russia. It could not be judged whether he is a friend or foe of the US because of his mercurial behaviour.

Indeed, Washington strategists have their general assessment of what to expect from Putin, but it is unlikely that they could predict with any accuracy how he would turn at any given point. Their best understanding of the man seems to be based on intelligent guesswork at times of crises.

Some might argue Moscow never left the Middle Eastern scene, but a close observation would clearly indicate that it was too preoccupied with internal issues since the collapse of the Soviet Union to adopt an effective stand on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

It is not that Putin has now settled his domestic problems to rest and is turning to the Middle East. Regardless of the issues at home, he needs to re-establish a Russian role as the US pursues its effort to reshape the Middle East.

Russia could not afford to miss the opportunity to place itself as a counterforce -- regardless of its actual impact on the ground -- to the US if only to build its political and economic relations with the Arab World and that is the driving force behind Putin.

The unknown in the equation is how far he would push it and whether he would step back when the going gets tough with the US.