Russian Offensive Hailed in Mideast

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 30, 2008

CAIRO -- For some in the Middle East, the images of Russian tanks rolling into Georgia in defiance of U.S. opposition have revived warm memories of the Cold War.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad flew last week to Moscow, where he endorsed Russia's offensive in Georgia and, according to Russian officials, sought additional Russian weapon systems.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi's influential son, echoed the delight expressed in much of the Arab news media. "What happened in Georgia is a good sign, one that means America is no longer the sole world power setting the rules of the game," the younger Gaddafi was quoted as telling the Russian daily Kommersant. "There is a balance in the world now. Russia is resurging, which is good for us, for the entire Middle East."

In Turkey, an American and European ally that obtains more than two-thirds of its natural gas from Russia, the reaction was more complex. Turks watched as the United States, NATO and a divided European Union hesitated in the face of Russian military assertiveness, leaving them more doubtful than they already were about depending on the West to secure U.S.-backed alternative oil and gas supply lines.

"This Russian invasion of Georgia is a turning point in the relations of the Atlantic community with Russia, including, of course, Turkey," Ozden Sanberk, a former Turkish ambassador to Britain, said by telephone from Turkey. "There is a change in the paradigm, a change in assessment."

Since Aug. 8, when Russia sent troops and tanks across its southern border in a confrontation with Georgia's pro-Western government, many Turkish newspapers have urged the Turkish government to improve relations with Russia, in pragmatic acceptance of the possibility that Russia could directly or indirectly control most oil and gas supplies from Central Asia to Europe.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the past two weeks has sought to persuade leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Russia to put their political differences aside in the interest of keeping oil and gas flowing.

Russian leaders, angry at Turkish military aid to Georgia, repeatedly refused to take Erdogan's calls, Turkish news media reported.

Russia has been paying closer attention to the needs of the United States' least favorite Middle East countries, Syria and Iran.

Russia's ambassador in Tehran, Alexander Sadovnikov, told Iranian news media this week that Russia was committed to helping Iran finish work on its Bushehr nuclear plant as soon as possible. At the same time, Iran's oil minister declared his country's eagerness to do more business with Russia's main energy company, Gazprom.

The United States has tried to discourage European countries and Turkey from turning to Iran for oil and gas. With Russia demonstrating its ability to control supplies through Georgia and the rest of the Caucasus, Iran's supplies are going to look more attractive to U.S. allies in Europe, analysts noted.

And with the United States and Russia at odds, Iran also can expect more help from Russia in blocking U.S. efforts at the U.N. Security Council and other international bodies to sanction Iran over its nuclear program, said Flynt Leverett, a former Bush administration Middle East policy director and now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington.

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